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"12 Years a Slave" — 150 Years Later

Lela Gilbert

Not long ago, some friends and I met at Jerusalem’s Smadar Cinema—an authentic old-fashioned movie house—to see the stunning American film 12 Years a Slave.

It has since been awarded three Oscars, including Best Picture. A screen adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s 1853 autobiography, it is artfully filmed and emotionally potent. 12 Years is memorable for its lush cinematography, carefully crafted script and raw brutality.

It sweeps away venerable, feel-good images of plantation life in America’s South, too often portrayed with pristine white-columned houses, mint-juleps, and slaves contentedly harmonizing in the cotton fields.

Instead—whether prepared for such scenes in advance or not—viewers witness gut-wrenching abuses suffered by powerless blacks: vicious kidnappings, horrendous passages on land and water, small children torn away from weeping mothers, fierce lashings and, of course, lynchings.

To make matters worse, a thread of old-time religion weaves through the narrative. Out-of-context Biblical passages seem to justify the sins of power-hungry slave-masters—sins of the flesh and of the spirit—including the utter dehumanization of slaves.

And the abuses never seem to stop. Close-ups of the vicious lash and its bleeding, swelling stripes, primitively nursed by horrified fellow slaves, are unforgettable.

Nor does the lynching of Solomon Northrup spare audiences the choking and gagging, the thirst and terror of its victim. His survival is all but miraculous.

By the end of the film, my friends and I were not only released from the film’s mind-searing violence, but perhaps also cathartically relieved by our awareness of American slavery’s ultimate demise.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, for decades following emancipation, civil rights leaders struggled for equality. And no better evidence of their success exists than the election of Barack Obama, the United States’ first black president. The terrible saga, it seems, has had a happy ending.

But, no it hasn’t. Not at all. On a broader stage outside the theater, viewed through a very wide-angle lens, global scenes of similar brutality and—yes— slavery continue unabated.

To begin with, the lash is far from stilled.

On Wednesday, March 5, a video from Raqqa, Syria, began to circulate on social media, thanks to Britian’s Guardian. Since Raqqa recently fell to the ISIS network (once identified with al-Qaida), witnesses testify of severe lashings and even executions of women who have rejected the Islamic veil.

Nowadays the justification comes from the Koran, not the Bible.

In January, 2014, Nigerians applauded as an Islamic court handed out a sentence of 20 lashes to a man for a long-ago homosexual offense. A year before, it was widely reported that a Saudi woman had been sentenced to 500 lashes. Her family claims she was arrested after a business dispute with a Saudi princess.

The skin-shredding lash is a standard sentence within Islamist Sharia-law societies, and is frequently imposed. And stoning – even more barbaric and brutal – is also enforced in several Muslim countries.

And lynchings are also still with us. They have long been understood by Americans as mobscenes ending in public hangings.

But today the word “lynch” has an expanded meaning in the Middle East, where it refers to targeted riots that result in violent killings, often followed by desecration or mutilation of the victim’s body.

This was the notorious fate of two IDF soldiers who found themselves lost in Ramallah in 2000.

Still, hangings serve as a means of capital punishment in many countries and regions. And Iran leads the world in the public display of such executions – dangling its victims from cranes like macabre trophies. These killings may end life more quickly and efficiently than the Deep South’s lynchings, but Iran’s multiple corpses remain exhibited for hours, striking terror in the population.

Despite the leadership of the allegedly kinder, gentler Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Amnesty International has reported a surge in hangings during his regime. Since 1979, dissidents, journalists, Christians, Baha’is, poets and others deemed enemies of the state by the ayatollahs have received death sentences. Most of them end up on the gallows.

In our supposedly enlightened world, kidnappings, and the heartbreaking separation of little children from their parents – so memorably illustrated in 12 Years – has hardly ceased. Nowhere was this more evident than in South Sudan, as described in 2012 by All-Africa: “A collective report from the Committee for Eradication of Abduction of Women and Children (CEWC) in South Sudan revealed that during the civil war North Sudan abducted 20,000 Southern women and children in the period 1986-2002 and these are in slavery in Sudan until now.”

Other estimates have put the number much higher.

In recent years, some Christian human rights organizations have raised money to ransom South Sudanese slaves and reunite children with their families. Despite the disapproval of some, the images of mothers seeing their children again after several years of separation were haunting.

Meanwhile slavery continues unabated worldwide. The New York Times reported in 2013 that human slavery can be compared to what it was in 1860, at around the time of 12 Years a Slave.

“While slavery is illegal across the globe, the SumAll Foundation noted, there are 27 million slaves worldwide, more than in 1860, when there were 25 million. Most are held in bonded servitude, particularly after taking loans they could not repay. Slaves cost slightly more now, with a median price of $140, compared with $134 per human then. Debt slaves cost on average $60; trafficked sex slaves cost $1,910…. On average today, a person is a slave for six years, after which the person usually escapes, repays the debts holding them, or dies.”

Much of the world’s slavery thrives in East Asia. There are also millions of slaves in Africa and the Middle East; slavery is not forbidden under many interpretations of Sharia law.

With disastrous consequences for its victims, human trafficking and sex-slavery are rampant today throughout the world – East and West – made all the more convenient by the Internet.

12 Years a Slave is a worthy recipient of the 86th Academy Awards’ coveted Best Picture Oscar. Offering homage to courage, and an elegy to America’s past, the film celebrates one man’s iconic quest for freedom and dignity. Director Steve McQueen’s masterpiece serves as a striking reminder that humanity continues to fashion magnificent beauty but also to devise the most brutish forms of cruelty.

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