By Robert Mann
The depiction of slavery’s beastly inhumanity in the new movie “12 Years a Slave” is so realistic and stunning that I did not think I could survive the first 30 minutes. I made it, but am still haunted by this tragic story more than a week after I staggered, teary eyed, from the theater.
For those unfamiliar with the film, it’s based on the 1853 book of the same name, written by Solomon Northup, a freeman from New York State who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Bought by an Avoyelles Parish planter, Northup endured the horrors of slave life on several plantations in the Bayou Boeuf area until 1853, when he regained his freedom and returned to his family.
Among the many maddening aspects of Northup’s heartrending tale is one that shouldn’t surprise: the blithe acceptance of slavery and its brutality by almost every white person depicted. First among them was the planter who bought Northup – William Ford, a kindly Baptist minister, who preached to his slaves each Sunday.
The incongruity of delivering the “good news” to slaves troubled me almost as much as the film’s violence repulsed me. Perhaps that’s because the film’s slaveholding preacher bears some resemblance to my own great-great-grandfather.
As far as we know, John C. Mann was the first member of my family to graduate college. Based on a biographical essay he wrote late in life, he appears to have been an erudite and deeply religious man. He was also a slave-owning planter.
“God has overwhelmingly blessed me,” John wrote in 1884, from his home in Dodge, Texas. “I have no complaints to make, but am full of gratitude and love to God for his mercy to me.”
Sadly, God’s mercy did not prompt John to respond, in kind, to his slaves.
Follow me on Twitter at: twitter.com/RTMannJr
- “Twelve Years a Slave” … Solomon Northup’s autobiography! (kstreet607.com)
- 1853 slave narrative comes to the big screen in 2013 (rutorch.com)
- Culturally lit reading: The Surprisingly Central Role of Slave Women in ’12 Years a Slave’ (theartsyfilmblog.com)