12 Years a Detainee

by Joe Scarry

For the next three months, people will be talking about the film 12 Years a Slave and its Oscar prospects. And well they should.

The film is about the experiences of the free man, Solomon Northrup, who was seized and enslaved for twelve years, and it may be the best thing ever to come along for enabling us to confront the true meaning of our history of oppression and racism in America.

But it’s not just about history. How many viewers of the film will gasp and realize that the kind of kidnapping and living entombment depicted in the film isn’t just limited to the America of our forebears?

Extraordinary Rendition

One minute he is with his family, and the next minute he is in chains.

Of course, this is the reality of everyvictim of American slavery. The peculiar hell of the protagonist of 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northrup, is that he thinks he lives in a time and place where it can’t happen to him.

The portrayal of the kidnapping of Solomon Northrup matches the practice of “extraordinary rendition” by which the U.S. government has snatched people in countries all over the world and carried them outside the reach of help, or of the law. Many of those people still languish in Guantanamo.


12 Years a Slave is as much about the captors as the captured.

Everyone is dehumanized.

The most over-the-top character is the crazed slaveholder Epps. Perhaps the most calculatingly evil is the slave dealer Theophilus Freeman; slaveholder William Ford the most pathetic, carpenter John Tibeats the most despicable.  But the character that I found most compelling was the overseer who saves Northrup from lynching one minute, and yet the next has walked away leaving him dangling on the edge of suffocation. What is going on?

Everyone is embedded in the cruelty; everyone is complicit. (“Just doing my job.”)

How many Americans — at all levels — have been dehumanized by their complicity — directly and indirectly — in the renditions, detentions, torture, killings, and other acts carried out by the U.S. government in our name in the “global war on terror” since 9/11?

Can We Act?

Brad Pitt plays a humane, indepdendent, and — ultimately — courageous white (Canadian) laborer, Samuel Bass. He has the two best lines in the film.

The first is when Bass tells the menacing Epps, “The law can’t make a person a slave. The lawcould change tomorrow and make you a slave. That wouldn’t mean that it was true.”

The second is Bass’ response to Northrup’s request for help. “I’m afraid.”

It is that second line that I can’t get out of my mind. Is it possible that even heroes come to the rescue only after facing down their own fear?

Who is willing to stand up in America today and say,  “The law can’t make a person an indefinite detainee. The lawcould change tomorrow and say youshould be an indefinite detainee. That wouldn’t mean that it was true” ?

The 2014 Oscar season, during which so many people will be talking about 12 Years a Slave, coincides with the 12th anniversary of the establishment of Guantanamo Bay Detention Center: the place America uses to demonstrate that even today it can seize anybody it chooses and pack them away indefinitely, dangling between life and death.

I can’t help believing that the producers of 12 Years a Slave are sending us a message: “This is about today. Act.”

Related posts

My most prominent memory of my first viewing of the Guantanamo film, The Response, is of one of the stars of the film — Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek fame — participating in a panel after the screening. I was blown away when she said, “I did this because our civil liberties in our country have been gravely damaged and we all need to contribute to repairing them.”

(See Understanding What Guantanamo Means)

We all wish to be judged by our good intentions. But the way people know us is through our actions. So … what do people in the Muslim world know about us here in the United States?

(See They’ll Know Us By Our Actions)

Make no mistake: the powers that be have know that they have cowed most of the public into being afraid to talk about Guantanamo, and that suits them just fine. Our power to act starts with talking widely — beyond just our usual circles — about the way in which we’re being scared … and why a government would possibly want to scare its own people.

(See Pentecost, Guantanamo, and the Moment When Talk Becomes Priceless)

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