Those who considered that handing out the main Oscar award to “12 Years a Slave” was rather a moral duty on the part of a nation with a still burdened historical conscience were not absent. Steve McQueen’s film will not revolutionize cinema art like D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” a romantic apology of the racist Ku Klux Klan. But, through persuasive “meat” placed on the skeleton of a remarkable script (inspired from a contemporary autobiography and likewise awarded), “12 Years a Slave” manages to attain its target: a concentric mediation on slavery. The American case is only the last example in a history full of societies based on slavery. And it’s not even the last example if we are to consider the Soviet Gulag (and then those of Moscow’s satellites), where millions of people were used for hard labor, like slaves in the civilized and democratic 20th Century. Or, at a lower scale (in time and space), the Nazi camps where the Jews were not only exterminated but also exploited in an experimental slave economy motivated not just by the war but primarily by racial considerations, just like in the case of African Americans. Because justifications are the first issue when it comes to slavery. How can you be at peace with your conscience while using people like cattle? Depriving them of freedom, subjecting them to degrading treatment, exhausting them for a lifetime through compulsory labor, arbitrarily separating families, inflicting repeated violence upon them and even having the right to kill them as you please? The film discretely suggests (through the Sunday mass led alongside the slaves by the master that has the authority to interpret the Bible) a decisive element: religion. Christianity, taken as a whole, had an ambivalent attitude towards slavery. On one hand, it condemned it in the name of universalism and the imperative of love. On the other hand however, it justified or at least rendered its condemnation relative in the name of political realism, trying not to disturb some (false) social balance. A type of “slave theology” was thus born, based on the wide possibilities of interpreting the Bible. After all, even Apostle Paul did not denounce the slavery of his times, instead asking a slave to dutifully fulfill his duty and to cherish his master, and the master to exercise his authority more “humanely.” Nietzsche was right: Christianity has far too often developed a morality of slaves, which potentiated various forms of social injustice and offered to the “masters” an extra argument that carried weight. The depreciation of man in relation to God had this perverse consequence – it gave birth to a theology that considers that man deserves punishments and humiliations which are providentially meant to lower his sinful ego. And thus not few “Christians” took on this role of “whips of God.” When a master whipped his slave he could think, in order to calm his conscience, that he is applying a harsh but salutary correction to a man inclined more than others towards sinful actions. Let us not forget that in the US, before the political secession that led to the civil war, a religious split occurred within the same Christian denominations. Because most pastors from the slave states were giving a religious justification to such a social order. Let us not neglect a “practical” aspect too. The main aspiration of a clergyman was to “Christianize” as many people as possible. And the slaves were much easier to convert, being deprived of a cultural identity and in a constant and extreme state of existential vulnerability. The premise was a classical one: a weak man will more easily accept an all-powerful God. On the other hand, Christianity has for long developed a kind of “superiority complex,” as if the civilization it generates is undeniably superior to any other because the Christian religion is clearly superior to any other religion. A moral issue, apparently trivial, is at stake, but with colossal (and often fatal) implications: how can you not consider inferior (even though you are extremely condescending to them) those that do not have access to the “superior” truth to which you have acceded?
But myth also intervenes alongside religious interpretations. The myth of an idyllic society where masters and slaves live peacefully, for the good of all, cooperating for a common good. A form of utopia like so many others in history, lying at the opposite end of a phalanstery but just as idealized. The temptation of such a myth is widespread. Let us remember the more conservative writers of the last century, such as Ernst Junger or, closer to us geographically, the Transylvanian count Miklos Banffy, the author of a nostalgic fresco of the social role that the aristocracy had before the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire. While Robert Musil talked about the empire by satirically calling it Kakania, Banffy stakes on the typology of the “good master” that knows to lead with skill and humanism “traditionally” ordered social microcosms. In fact, these traditions are historical constructs, not universal and atemporal essences. And its contradictions (which often hide forms of social violence) cannot be left in the hand of an enlightened and well-intended aristocrat. Least of all in the hand of a “good” slave owner.
The film persuasively shows the limits of this goodwill: the slave remains a slave even though he helped his master win more through an innovative suggestion. Historians have asked themselves whether technical progress is linked or not to a regime of freedom. For instance, did the USSR prosper through the slave work of political prisoners and in general through coercion, through wide economic espionage, or did it prosper through the powerful ideological motivation animating its scientists and engineers? One of the classical explanations of the American civil war and implicitly of the abolitionist North’s victory consists of the superiority of its economic system that relied on a wide range of industry, unlike the southern one which greatly relied on the monoculture of cotton (which in fact prospered because of a technical invention, the so-called “cotton gin” devised by Eli Whitney, which entailed the expansion of slavery). The backdrop of this dispute is still politically alive. Ensuring favorable conditions for competition for prosperity or caring for a satisfying social justice, what should take precedence? In other words, should we award the winners or should we not neglect the losers?
But the film manages to do another thing too. It suggestively paints a tragic reality: an abusive situation is a magnet for more abuses. The statute of slave does not entail solely a form of forced labor. It’s an outlet for other forms of violence too. Marriage tensions for examples. Not only is the master allowed to rape his favorite save, but the jealousy of his wife and even his own jealousy become sources for an even more irrepressible violence. Similarly in what concerns social prestige: not just the master but also his employees take advantage of the slave’s extreme vulnerability in order to institute an even more burdening hierarchical system. Let us not neglect the fact that “scapegoats” can be identified in any social microcosm. Consequently, an important political goal also consists of certain protection, through laws and social practices, for those vulnerable. In order to avoid backsliding towards more or less subtle forms of abuse.