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Of course, we would all rather be in debt than enslaved. But perhaps by seeing how going against conscience chips away at our humanity (rather than simply blasting it to smithereens), we begin to understand how some of the conflicts faced by the characters are primal and eternal, not just political or of the moment. Because 12 Years a Slave frames its moral conundrums in these terms, it feels the most contemporarily relevant of all the depictions of slavery we see at the movies.

It seems important here to understand how the film depicts religion and, specifically, Christianity. McQueen often lets the sound or dialogue from one scene continue after the visuals have transferred to the next, and this device is used pointedly when the words of sermons given by Master Ford are superimposed onto the reality of the lives his slaves live. And Master Epps's (Fassbinder) theology is openly repugnant to modern sensibilities—he uses the language of the Bible ("that's scripture") to insist that God has appointed the order of slave and master. After one brutal act of torture, he proclaims that "there is no sin," since a man may do as he pleases with his property.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a SlaveImage: Jaap Buitendijk / Fox Searchlight Pictures

Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

Yet the film is not simply and only anti-Christian. Certainly, Pitt's character speaks and acts in moral terms. But more than that, 12 Years doesn't shy away from showing the inexpressibly complicated relationship the slaves have with the God of their oppressors. Embittered by the hypocrisy and sanctimony of the slave-owners and angry at God's seeming abandonment of him and his fellow slaves, Solomon often rages silently, as all his doubts and anger must be repressed.

Others are able to find solace in furtive expression of faith. One prays, "God love him; God bless him; God keep him" over a buried comrade. Even that moment comes with some bitterly cynical overtones: God keep him better than he kept him in this life.

Yet the film's emotional zenith comes in a cathartic moment when Solomon participates in a spiritual. Ejiofor is able to convey so much in his vocal inflections: anger, despair, renewal, and, finally hope. Hope for what? Earlier he has said, "I don't want to survive; I want to live." The spiritual, I would argue, indicates that he can hope to survive until one day he will live again.

The other masterful scene in the film is Solomon's farewell to Patsy, a fellow slave whom the film painfully but rightly never mentions again. The resolution to Solomon's story is laced with pain, not triumph, as he comes to realize that with new life comes survivor's guilt—and grief for all those still waiting to live again.

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12 Years a Slave