“12 Years a Slave” is a great movie. You’re going to hear that a lot from a ton of different people, along with how it is going to win a slew of awards and how incredible Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance is.
While I would love to gush about this film and heap loads of praise on director Steve McQueen and tell you it is the best movie of the year, I’m actually more interested in how this adaptation of the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man of color who was kidnapped from his family and sold into slavery in the 1840s, impacted me less as a film critic and more as a white man living in America in the 21st Century.
I was born in 1977, less than a decade after the assassination of Dr. Marin Luther King Jr., and grew up believing that institutional racism was a thing of the past.
I knew I wasn’t racist and I was a proud citizen of a country that fought to end slavery and celebrated the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.
But as I got older, it became clear that many issues that I had wanted to believe were a thing of the past continued to linger in our country and that racism endured, mostly in insidiously passive ways.
I struggled to reconcile the national image of a harmonious cultural melting pot with a reality that was fraught with a general unease.
So many of these issues came into focus for me after seeing “12 Years a Slave” and I realized that we as a country have never truly, honestly felt the appropriate amount of shame for slavery.
The film is the first one I have ever seen that deals with the subject of slavery so frankly and so brutally, yet is devoid of any loaded political overtones. We are forced to watch, with scenes that linger impossibly beyond what lesser movies would have the bravery. But it is not an angry movie or a judgmental one, and this just-the-facts approach brings home the heartbreaking reality of slavery in America.
The movie I thought of first and foremost while watching “12 Years a Slave” was “Schindler’s List,” as both are direct and honest depictions of unspeakable atrocities.
Debating whether the Holocaust or slavery in the United States was worse is like a semantics exercise conducted in hell. And yet, while the similarities between these horrible events are undeniable, in this country the perpetrators and defenders of the Holocaust are treated with a degree of disgust and repulsion that is infinitely higher than how we view the perpetrators and defenders of slavery.
Can you imagine the reaction if Germany had a television show where two fun-loving cousins got into misadventures while driving around in a car named the Joseph Goebbels that sported a swastika painted on the roof? Or how about an Adolph Hitler Elementary School for every Jefferson Davis Elementary that dots the South?
The reason is that’s not how we want to see ourselves. We want to be the Great Emancipators, not the country where the Founding Fathers were slave owners who wrote the subjugation of other human beings into the Constitution.
This explains why a shining United States National Holocaust Museum sits on the National Mall in Washington D.C., while the closest we’ve gotten to a National Slavery Museum is an underfunded effort in Fredericksburg, Va.
No one wants to see themselves as the bad guy, which is why it wasn’t the Germans who made “Schindler’s List,” “The Pianist” or “Sophie’s Choice.” It only makes sense then that “12 Years a Slave” wasn’t made by Americans (with the exception of screenwriter John Ridley). McQueen and Ejiofor are British with most of the supporting cast being either Brits or Pan-African. The most prominent American to appear in the film is Brad Pitt, and he plays a Canadian. This is a movie that could only be made by people free of our preconceived notions and cultural hang-ups on the subject.
The reality that a powerful film like “12 Years a Slave” brings to bear is that we can no longer take pride and credit for ending slavery without fully owning all the shame and embarrassment that came before it.
It would be like spending a few centuries punching someone in the face then expecting praise and awards for stopping (all while glossing over the fact that you spent the next 100 years actively kicking dirt in their eyes).
If there is a lesson to all this, it is that it is high time we realized that White America and Black America will never truly become One America until we all fully recognize and acknowledge the horrors of the past.
And maybe, just maybe, an incredible movie like “12 Years a Slave” can help set us on that path.
“12 Years a Slave” is rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity, and brief sexuality.