We saw the movie, “Twelve Years a Slave,” last night. As a film, as a work of art, it is magnificent, powerful, and intense.
As an experience, it reminded me nothing more than our visit to Dachau this summer. It’s hard to speak afterwards. One is numb after witnessing so much cruelty.
When I was a graduate student at Vanderbilt, I heard the poet Carolyn Forche read poems she had written about the torture and brutality taking place in some Central American regimes at the time. She said, “There is nothing that one human being will not do to another.” If we need to be reminded of how inhumanely people can behave, this movie can serve as that reminder.
“Twelve Years a Slave” also portrays the way slaves cared for one another when they weren’t being watched by their owners. The ability to show compassion must have helped them maintain their sense of dignity and humanity. The same was true in the concentration camps. Our tour guide at Dachau told us of how the prisoners would conspire to procure a slightly larger piece of bread for one of their fellow prisoners who was especially weak.
There will always be individual acts of cruelty and evil. What is horrifying about both slavery and the Nazi regime is the way in which evil became systematic. It starts with a philosophy, a belief system that says that some people are better than others. Once that belief system takes hold, it begins to justify any manner of evil. It’s especially horrific to see the ways in which the Bible was used to justify the beating of slaves.
“Twelve Years a Slave” (based on a true story) is a movie with a happy ending, thankfully not an over-the-top sappy Hollywood happy ending. The positive outcome begins when one man speaks truth to power, telling the slave owner that all people are created equal. And the man who endured the twelve years of slavery? He spent the rest of his life helping others, telling his story, working on the Underground Railroad.
And so we have hope. There are truth-tellers among us, keeping us all alert to the dangers that come when we believe that one group of people is better than another.