Hammond minister finds religious paralells in “12 Years a Slave”

Director Steve McQueen’s Academy Award-nominated film, “12 Years a Slave” takes the viewer to an intimate place where slavery is lashed at and dehumanized just as the slaves were in pre-Civil War North America. Stanley N. Helton, Minister of the Word at First Christian Church of Hammond, was intrigued by the adapted screen play since he had read the book from which it was based, “12 Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup” by Solomon Northup. Helton came to the Student Union Theater to present the 14th annual Black History and Politics Lecture titled, “The Gods of Slavery: The Theology of Solomon Northup.”
The purpose of his presentation was to highlight the use of the Bible in Northup’s narrative throughout the film “12 Years a Slave,” and the impact of slavery and the Civil War on religious denominations. McQueen’s film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man in pre-Civil War America residing with his wife and children in Saratoga, N.Y. Northup was a violinist and well-known, respectable man about town. One day, he caught the attention of two white men claiming themselves to be “talent scouts.”  The two men invited him to dinner and offered him a job playing violin for a traveling circus. Northup trusted the men and took the deal, but the next day woke up to shackles and brick walls; he had been drugged and kidnapped to be sold into slavery.
Northup was enslaved for 12 years on various plantation homes in Louisiana from 1841 to 1852, legally being released on Jan. 4, 1853. After seeing the film and reading the book, Helton believes Northup was particularly targeted because he was educated. This fact gives the film an interesting angle because Northup is an outsider even among slaves.
“My best guess is that Northup was introduced to the kidnappers as someone with some skills, particularly violin playing,” said Helton. “Northup was slow to believe the two had set him up.”
For 12 years, Northup is owned by three masters in Louisiana until he meets a Canadian abolitionist who helps him begin his journey back home. The story he wrote down after his release was published after the popular “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. He feels the film and book can create a safe place for people to start a debate on the issue of slavery.
“The film has the potential of creating space where people can talk about the legacy of slavery in our country,” Helton said. “Northup’s story helps people to experience, in a limited way, how bad slavery was, and he shows in his book that slavery dehumanized both the slave and the slave owner.”
Northup, played by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, witnesses horrid, vile actions during his years as a slave. It was his desperation and willingness to survive which ultimately redelivers him into freedom. Questions Helton brought to the audience’s mind included, “If God is the god of both the slave and the free, then why are some slaves?” and “If God is in charge, how did the master become God?” These are areas Northup’s writing explores, “pitting God’s sovereignty against human responsibility,” according to Helton.
The film has already won eight awards and is up for Best Picture at the Oscars on March 2. Helton hopes the film will be a vehicle for the public to use in the debate of racism, religion and human trafficking.
“I think Northup’s relevance for today is that he addresses enduring challenges,” Helton said. “His story is a story about human trafficking, which has received recent attention. His story raises the issue of respect for other cultures and reminds us that there are no easy answers, but there are no answers if we do nothing.”