In high school, one of my favorite classes was U.S. History. My teacher Mrs. Putnam treated our class like story time, sitting perched on her stool discussing wars and elections as if she'd been close personal friends with America's historical figures.
But as a native South Carolinian and unabashed conservative, her accounts of the “War Between the States”, the intellectual debate between Booker T. and Dubois, Reagonomics and America’s ugly history of slavery were tinged with her personal bias. It wasn’t until I studied American history more closely on my own, particularly the history of Black Americans, that I realized how much of what I'd learned had gaping omissions and was often just plain wrong.
So last year when I first started seeing trailers for 12 Years a Slave, I was eager to check out the shockingly true story of Solomon Northup, a free man with a wife and children was kidnapped and enslaved for twelve years before finally getting his freedom back. I also couldn't believe I hadn't heard it before. At the very least, he deserved a commemorative stamp! After all, Solomon Northup made it easy for the world to know his story; a few months after making it back to freedom, he published a biography with an astonishing amount of detail and eloquence. In his day, people were gobbling up Uncle Tom’s Cabin – a moving but fictional work- and other slave narratives in much the same manner that contemporary society consumes The Hunger Games and Harry Potter. Yet before the film in 2013, his memoir was relatively obscure. (By the way, I read the book just after seeing the movie and was struck by how closely the film followed the book, a true rarity in Hollywood.)
Everyone, however, isn't pleased with 12 Years a Slave's content. A few of the common criticisms included:
- "Not another slave movie!"
- "First The Help, then The Butler, and now 12 Years a Slave… why are all our movies about struggle?”
- "All this film does is make me depressed. It doesn't resonate for me; I've never been a slave! Can't we get over it already!?"
Both the criticism and the brilliant film’s triumphant wins at The Oscars inspired me to write the post I’d been doling out in 140 character tweets and over brunch for the past several months.
Why is 12 Years a Slave a relevant, necessary and extremely important film, worthy of the highest honor, an Oscar (or three)? Here goes:
1. There actually haven’t been that many movies taking a serious look at American slavery. In fact, I haven’t seen a slave movie since Roots, a 1977 TV miniseries, originally aired before I was born. The closest thing to a recent feature film focused on slavery was Django Unchained, a fictional spaghetti western with little to no plausibility (mandingo fighting isn’t even a real thing!)
2. The movie is about more than slavery. It’s about resilience and the indomitable human spirit. Interestingly, Solomon spends much of the movie trying to convince his masters that he doesn’t deserve to be enslaved. Today, one could say that there are groups who understand his desperate attempts to right the wrong of societal injustices. Couples fighting for marriage equality can relate to Solomon’s desire to be recognized as an equal (although I quickly concede that slavery is a much more difficult plight than marriage rights).
3. The film doesn’t give Blacks a reason to be ashamed or depressed; it gives us a reason to be proud. When I consider the atrocities experienced by my ancestors who built families and "kept on keeping on", my heart swells with both pride and humility. How dare I be ashamed of the tenacity, strength and fortitude displayed in 12 Years a Slave? How dare I question my ability to be extraordinary when I have their blood running in my veins?
4. Solomon Northup's story deserves a modern and international audience. Even in 1853, when the evil of slavery was still up for debate, Northup published his memoir knowing that his story needed to be told. Sadly, his kidnappers were never brought to justice and it’s unclear of how or when Northup died. Yet the book –and now the film- are priceless works that do more than tell Solomon’s story; they tell America’s story. The least the world can do to honor his legacy is to pay tribute to his life.
We are constantly told to never forget 9/11, Pearl Harbor, and other atrocities. There are museums in the United States dedicated to the Holocaust, a horrible systematic massacre that occurred across an ocean – yet when it comes to an American institution that lasted for centuries, many want to brush it under the rug.
While I don’t believe slavery should be used as an excuse or crutch, it is important to consider the role it played –and continues to play– in the fabric of American life. In her acceptance speech, Lupita Nyong'o mused: "It doesn't escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else's; so I want to salute the spirit of Patsy (a friend of Solomon and fellow slave) for her guidance." That statement alone encapsulates why this story and film matter.
Kudos to The Academy for honoring 12 Years a Slave with the Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o), Best Adapted Screenplay (John Ridley) nods this year. The film deserves the accolades and more importantly, the world deserves to hear the story.
Did you see 12 Years a Slave? Do you believe it’s a story worth telling? What did you think of the film? What did you think of the wins at the Academy?
P.S. Click here for Lupita Nyongo's emotional acceptance speech: Lupita's Speech
P.P.S. Although slavery is illegal in the United States and many other places throughout the world, it still exists today. Learn more here: Slavery Still Exists and here: End It Movement