You know you’re in for a powerful film when within the first few minutes you find yourself pleading with the screen for the very thing not to happen that you know will inevitably happen. You see Solomon sign up to perform for a traveling circus, and you instantly start yelling to yourself “DON’T TRUST THEM, YOU DON’T KNOW THEM! AND DON’T LEAVE THE FUCKING STATE, DON’T DO IT!” That’s what went through my head in the opening scenes of 12 Years a Slave. The inevitability of what happens is in the god damn title, and I still found myself begging with the screen that the outcome is otherwise. That’s when I knew I was in for something special. But, that’s not what I want to talk about today. Yes, the movie is gripping, yes the acting is impeccable from everyone (though Benedict Cumberbatch was horribly underused), yes, Chiwetel Ejiofor is a strong contendor for the best acting Oscar along with Matthew McConaughey and Joaquin Phoenix, but the real magic of the film was how it addressed the question of moral relativism.
There are characters in this movie who are undoubtedly good, and there are characters who are undoubtedly evil. But then we’re presented with a slew of characters and situations that find themselves in a moral gray area, and are presented with the question of whether or not these are good people. Do we forgive their actions because of the times they find themselves in or is an act that is purely evil inexcusable regardless of whether the society you live in condones it.
The first time this question is presented to us is through Solomon’s first own, Master Ford. Master Ford was Solomon’s first owner and is portrayed like an all around decent human being. He listens to Solomon when he suggested transporting the lumber through the river instead of by land, he gifts Solomon with a violin, and he tries to protect Solomon when a white man swears to kill him. But he is a slave owner. This is the exact argument that Solomon ends up having with another slave on Ford’s plantation. Solomon tells her that Ford is a good man and if they stay quiet they can survive without harm being done to them. He suggests to survive until there is an opportunity for freedom. She replies, “Ford is your freedom? You don’t think he knows that you are more than you suggest? But he does nothing for you, nothing. You are no better than prized livestock. Call for him, tell him of your previous circumstances and see what it earns you, Solomon.” It is a powerful moment, and rings true enough to hurt because we hope she is wrong, and know she is right. Her point is validated on the last night that Solomon is with Ford. Ford tells Solomon that he can no longer protect Solomon from his attackers and gave him to another plantation owner where he will be “safe.” Solomon makes a desperate attempt to tell Ford of his previous life, to which Ford replies that he cannot hear these things, that he has a $1000 debt. Ford seemed a decent man. He did not intentionally harm his slaves. He listened to the concerns of his slaves. But he owned slaves, and that’s the moral theme of the film. No matter how good a man may seem, he cannot truly be a good man when he is in the business of owning another human being. He may be a better man than Master Epps (Michael Fassbender, but being better is not equivalent to being good.
There is a second moment that stuck with me particularly, and that is when Master Epps forced Solomon to whip Patsey. At first Solomon he attempts to do it as lightly as possible. Maybe he thinks that if he fakes the whipping, she won’t receive a worse whipping from Epps. But then Epps approaches him and says that if Solomon does not whip her properly, he will kill Solomon and every other slave on the farm. At this point Solomon begins to whip her mercilessly, forcing the audience to watch as horrible lacerations form on Patsey’s back. So again there is a question here, of whether it is moral for a person to torture another person if it means he saves his own life or, even more so, it means he saves the lives of many. It is a complicated question, a question that has reverberates to current events, and a question that audience members must decide for themselves. I will only say that if the theme of the film is consistent, then there is no moral relativism. An individual’s bad acts are not justified by the otherwise good actions of that individual. We can say that Ford was a better person than Epps, but it is wholly different to say that Ford was a good person. We can say that Solomon had to make a difficult decision, but the difficulty of the decision does not decide whether the decision was good or bad, only that it was difficult.
One of the more interesting characters in the movie is Bass (Brad Pitt), a freelancer from Canada, who spends some time working on Epps’ farm to make some money. Epps and Bass end up conversing about the nature of slavery after Epps offers Bass some water and Bass comments about the condition of Epps’ other laborers. Epps tells Bass that it is a fact that they are not laborers, but his slaves, his property, with which he can do what he pleases. Bass responds the only way one can respond in such a situation, “This conversation concerns what is factual and what is not. Then it must be said that there is no justice or righteousness in this slavery… suppose they pass a law taking away your liberty. Suppose.” I won’t transcribe the entire conversation, but it is a powerful one that brings home the entire message of the film. Truth, justice, and righteousness are constants; they do not change based on the times, nor do they change simply because a law says they do.
I urge you all to see this film. There is no moral relativism.