The film, 12 Years A Slave is based on a true story of Solomon Northup’s ordeal as a victim of wrongful kidnapping and enslavement in the United States. It is set at the conclusion of a pivotal moment in America’s religious history as the country underwent the Second Great Awakening. This movement rekindled citizens’ connection to their Christian faith and pushed slave owners to view the religious welfare of their slaves as their responsibility. The nation’s increased emphasis on Christian ideals coupled with its undeniable involvement in slavery is prominent throughout 12 Years A Slave. In this film, Christianity is ‘a double-edged sword’. In the possession of slave owners, Christianity is weaponized to justify the atrocities of slavery meanwhile, enslaved African Americans wielded it as resistance against a system which capitalized on their oppression. (51seconds)
We see the slave owner’s dubious use of Christianity when Solomon is first sold to William Ford. On his plantation, Ford delivers a sermon to his slaves where he recites Luke chapter 17 verse 2, a verse in which Jesus warns his disciples to refrain from inciting sin or sorrow in the hearts of their brethren. Although Ford requires such Christian behavior from his slaves, he practices the exact opposite. In the preceding scene, we see Ford purchase Eliza, and separate her from her children thereby inducing her incessant mourning.
The slave owner’s abuse of Christianity continues when Solomon is sold to Edwin Epps. On his plantation, Epps preaches to his slaves, reminding them of the punishment for a disobedient slave as outlined in the bible. He recites “that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.” (54:34 to 55:07) after which he shuts The Bible and states “That’s scripture” (55:35 to 55:40). In the following scene, Epps pulls aside slaves for a whipping because they failed to meet the picking quota (57:39 to 58:24) thereby fulfilling his earlier promise to use violence and lashes accordingly (55:16 to 55:40). (2 minutes). This scene emphasizes the use of Christianity as psychological oppression to rationalize the maltreatment of the enslaved. In both situations, Ford and Epps blatantly use Christian values to support their roles in the enslavement of black people. Additionally, the whipping scene placed in the backdrop of Epps’ plantation as well as the eeriness of Eliza’s mourning during Ford’s sermon further highlight numerous instances where slave owners manipulated The Bible and Christianity to defend slavery’s institution. (02:57min)
While slave owners weaponized Christianity to defend slavery, enslaved African Americans held their faith close and turned to Christianity as a source of agency and resistance against the injustices they suffered. Slaves often sang spirituals filled with lyrics about salvation and references to biblical figures like Moses, who led his people to freedom. On occasion, these songs functioned as explicit expressions of resistance, encoding messages about secret gatherings or carrying directions for escape. In 12 Years A Slave, after a member of the community dies, Solomon joins other enslaved men and women to sing the chorus of “Roll Jordan Roll” at the burial site. It is in this scene that we see despondence spread across Solomon’s face from seeing a man literally worked to death and realizing that this will soon be his own fate. We quickly see a transformation of his demeanor from that of sheer defeat to one of strength and hopefulness. As he joins the group to sing it is almost as if Solomon is saying, “God if you’re out there I’m still here. Please do not turn your back on me” This appearance of slave religion in the film guides viewers through the journey of religion as a source of comfort, an act of defiance, and finally, a testament to the hope of the enslaved. In contrast to their oppressors, enslaved men and women appropriated Christianity to mentally and spiritually escape the dehumanization of their bondage. 5 mins
One thing that makes this film so successful is its portrayal of the varied experiences in slavery. And intertwined in this compelling story is an pervasive religious narrative that underscores role of beliefs in creating societal hierarchies. In the antebellum south, there were as many interpretations of the Christian religion as there were slave owners and slave communities. 12 Years A Slave accomplishes the difficult task of encompassing slavery’s diverse experience while also upholding religion as one of the most valuable and dangerous tools in the slave South.
If you would like to see this trope play out in other films please refer to Birth of a Nation, Glory and Amistad.