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The Significance of ’12 Years a Slave’ in Today’s Cultural Climate

12 Years a Slave (2013) | Fox Searchlight Pictures.

As I peruse the awesome film lists that people have been compiling to educate allies on racial inequity, there are a couple films that seem to be missing (The Help and Green Book are decent and all, Hidden Figures as well) but where is Higher Learning or American History X? Where is Queen & Slim? Where is 12 Years a Slave?

… I have an opinion on that.

As a Black man, I’ve looked at many of the recent films on Civil Rights and thought to myself, “That’s not for me. That’s for the white audience.” These are films that focus more on portraying Black people as people of virtue and worthy to be treated fairly. News flash, folks: we deserve equal rights based on our humanity. Nothing more. Nothing less. These films offer no accountability, which is what is sorely needed now. The latter films are rarely mentioned because they hold a mirror to people’s faces and show them things they don’t want to see or acknowledge. I believe 12 Years a Slave is the perfect film to watch if you’re serious about understanding.

To clarify, I’m not saying you aren’t serious about being an ally if you don’t  watch it; I’m saying it’s the perfect film to watch. It’s an essential film based on the craft used to create it alone—impeccably shot. Solidly written. Powerfully acted. Emotionally scored. It has all the makings of a film that garnered multiple prestigious awards. It’s also without a doubt the most unflinching portrayal of slavery ever committed to film. This is what we need right now. Our streets are filled with gas. Our buildings are burning. Alliances are shifting. Friends are becoming enemies. Enemies are becoming allies. It’s a tumultuous time.

Almost all of this turmoil can be traced back to the slave trade, and what better way to educate yourself on a root cause than to watch the best film made on the very subject?

To those who haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave, or are descended from slavery, I’d like to reiterate that this isn’t your typical slavery film. This isn’t about glorifying a historical figure. It’s about narrowing the lens on the crime against humanity that is slavery. This is about one man’s fight for his freedom on a physical and existential level. You can take that harrowing journey and then realize that millions fought that same battle in their own way. Slaves were not a monolith then, just as marginalized people are not a monolith now. The oppressors would have you believe this because it’s how they reconciled their atrocities—by convincing themselves we are not individuals and we are lesser beings. There’s even hope among the chaos, because Solomon Northrup persevered through his ordeal. We, as descendants, can take his example as a microcosm for our own struggles. He survived with his character and dignity intact. He remained sure and proud. He never quit hoping or fighting. We have that same spirit within us. We’ve had no choice, because the alternative is more knees on our necks and guns in our faces.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and other cast members appear in a scene of 12 Years a Slave | Fox Searchlight Pictures.

I’d like to leave you with this in closing: changes in perspective and hard conversations need to happen in order for us to progress. Both of these won’t come by avoiding the elephant in the room—pretend it’s not there and you get trampled. Our streets are evidence of this in recent weeks. I truly, truly believe that 12 Years a Slave will stir something within you. It could be anger. It could manifest as sadness or disappointment. It might even (hopefully, prayers up) awaken you to the pain of a people. Whatever those emotions may be, I say let yourself feel them. You won’t be in a theater. You’ll be in the comfort of your own home or another familiar place. If it gets too tough (and it will) take a break. Don’t fast forward or skip. Gather yourself. Discuss it with your viewing partner. Analyze it. Work through it. Use the film as a tool toward better understanding and empathy.

My hope is that you leave your viewing experience a little beat up and worse for wear, but also energized and ready to take action—even if that’s simply getting another person to watch. The scars of slavery are evident in the Black community down to our inner psyche and the marrow of our bones. There are reminders everywhere—the monuments to leaders who believed they had the right to own us; the confederate banner they fought under; police brutality; malicious legislation; predatory loans and debt; defunded education; mass incarceration; the people afraid to sit next to you at the movies; even the disparity between elite athletes and ownership—all of it is born from the desire to maintain a 401-year-old status quo.

Let’s not make it 402 years.

About the Author
An aspiring screenwriter and all around good guy who has dedicated himself to the infinite pursuit of true objectivity - except when it comes to the cool stuff. A love of motorsports explains his positive Fast and Furious scores. He laments the fact that the strongest storytelling is currently told through streaming media and video games. He wants his cinema back! But being the flexible guy he is, has invited people back on his lawn.

2 comments on The Significance of ’12 Years a Slave’ in Today’s Cultural Climate

  1. Marya says:

    Beautifully written. My heart hurts, but is hopeful. ..

  2. Mike Meyers says:

    Thank you Chris and God bless you! You are a truly gifted writer and I agree with you 100 percent!

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