Some Ramblings - 12 Years a Slave (2013) by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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Oscar Bait
Fall...trees start turning their colored coats inside out and eventually shed their old wear and gear clearing out their warehouses in what becomes their final blowout season... Coincidentally, it is also time when movie studios bring their artsy features out of the closet, ones that they have held out until the hoarse-y summer's din died down. So snuggle up in the fall jackets and settle down for the Oscar fare where the sensitive battle it out with the subtle, where strong stories stake their ground out in the fertile land of varied imaginations....

If law, on some abstract level, is merely codifying common sense, and common sense is the application of rules of justice, from where does the concept of justice emanate at an individual level - is it innate or inculcated? How did the first group of cavemen who came together to form a social order stumble upon the first rule of justice, that all men are created equal, the foundation principle that the rest of justice and legal system are based upon? How did it occur to the first philosopher or the thinking head of the group that deprivation and exploitation of the weaker section among them at the hands of the able and the strong violated some unwritten rule of humanity? Probably, moral compass, that always aligns to the sense of justice, is as much part of the make up of a human being, as biological clock or genetics are. That could be the only reason why some souls, born and raised in a system that institutionalized degradation of fellow human beings, took it upon themselves and tried to reform it from within. A Ram Mohan Roy who could no more take the sight of wives joining, sometimes forcibly, their dead husbands on fully lit pyres, an Oskar Schinldler, a war profiteer, who could not bring himself to profit anymore on the plight of jews, and so spent his entire fortune amassed during the Second World War in the Nazi era, to liberate however many his money could buy, an Abraham Lincoln whose conscience could not allow him to preside over a nation that treated half of its population as sub humans in the name of some divine privilege and so staked his career and life on bringing every one an even keel. While these stray individual cases of exemplary acts of equity and justice are indeed noble, they cannot entirely mask the raw hide of that subjugated section of humanity that has been whipped in submission by a society that deemed itself civilized. Nobility is never a panacea to the loss of dignity.

'12 years a slave' is a searing unvarnished look at the biggest blot that still haunts the American civil society, slavery, casting a long shadow on the fractious race relations in the country. What makes it even more poignant is the movie, based on an autobiography, takes the point of view of a once free black man sold back into slavery through unscrupulous means (not that doing it through scrupulous practices would have made it alright) and his undying efforts towards getting back to his family and his free life once again surviving the savagery of his masters one day at a time for 12 long years. Along with the daily chores that broke his back toiling in fields picking cotton, there were other things that broke his back on a daily basis, like being beaten with a wooden paddle to break him into slavery, like breaking into a new shoe, lashing the back with whips for falling below the average weight of cotton pick for the day, being gagged and hung for almost a day for speaking his mind against unwarranted punishment and many such... And that was just one day. The life of the slave was even below that of the livestock, which bore punishment only when they went against their normal nature. But a slave is a 'whipping boy' in the most literal sense of the word. A mood swing of the master, a little marital tiff/discord with the master's wife, or simply the master having nothing to do on a lazy afternoon - any of these can result in great physical abuse for the slave, and if the slave happens to be a woman...To live in a constant state of mortal fear, constantly looking over the shoulder watching (and carefully weighing) the words and actions, adjust accordingly and instantly to the prevailing mental state of the master (and his family), surrender to master, but only just enough to be beaten black and blue but not get killed off entirely, even for the slightest of transgressions...lives as these lasted for life times and generations together. Slaves who were born on the same cotton plantations as their parents worked in, were raised witnessing the horror meted out to their parents, endured the same when they took their parents place and passed down the same legacy to their progeny. Oh! there was always that off chance the slave getting badly injured, or worse killed, not on purpose but by accident at the hands of his master, whereupon his place would be quickly taken by another one got on a better deal at the near by slave fair! That all this was institutional and constitutional at that time, with the Scriptures in the Good Book endorsing such practices, closed down any little ray of kindness and compassion reaching these wretched lives from any quarters.

'12 years a slave' doesn't go for shock value; it is not an exploitative movie, nor an incendiary kind aimed at throwing fire on an already simmering social situation. It serves as an eye opener to the uninitiated who are unaware of the level of inhumanity perpetrated on the people of color, serving a constant reminder to be vigilant and watchful against the rise of similar trends in contemporary society - be it in the sub Saharan African countries (Rwanda, North Sudan, Somalia et al) where genocides are the order of the day or the raging civil wars in the Middle East where civil liberties and human rights have long lost a meaning. History only records these dark periods in broad strokes and sweeping periods, like a certain world war lasting for ONLY 6 years, but for a jew trapped in the Nazi corridor, that is 6 years of 365 days of 24 hours of 60 minutes of 60 seconds of never ending hell...

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