*I finally saw “12 Years A Slave.”
I purposely put off watching director Steve McQueen’s epic based on the 1853 autobiography by Solomon Northup, which tells his story of being born a free black man who is kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery, working on Louisiana plantations for twelve years before being released.
I got upset during parts of the Lee Daniels film, “The Butler,” about a black servant who worked as a butler in the White House from the 1950s until the ‘80s. I wasn’t eager to feel that way again. However, with the Oscars coming up, and “12 Years A Slave” having emerged as a serious contender, I figured I should at least check it out.
Not ten minutes into the story, I was absolutely seething. I’ve seen my share of slavery films, but “Slave” is an especially emotional and brutal piece of story-telling about human beings treating other humans worse than animals. At some point, I became angrier than I’ve been in a long time. At another point, I cried. I told myself it’s just a movie, but then I remembered that it isn’t–slavery actually happened.
It didn’t help my fragile sense of reality that I’d never seen Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Northup”), newcomer Lupita Nyong’o (“Patsey”) or Michael Fassbender in anything before this. For my taste Fassbender seemed entirely too comfortable as Edwin Epps, a slave master who was pure evil. Admittedly, somehow I feel better after learning he’s been in other films of McQueen, who is black. It was also reassuring, a couple days after seeing “Slave,” to find Nyong’o on the cover of a recent New York magazine and modeling fashions inside. So she was just acting, after all! Whew.
As unsettling as it is, by the film’s end, I was grateful that I’d taken the time to watch it.
However, afterward, I couldn’t help but think that “12 Years A Slave” could have been titled “How We Became Who We Are,” for the film offers a stark blueprint to the fear, ignorance and racial hate that is America’s DNA.
For example, today, in the 21st Century, there still exists the venomous, self-righteous racism represented by Fassbender’s character—it’s called the Tea Party. And there are the those citizens who realize things aren’t what they should be in this country but are too complacent to do anything about it. In the film, William Ford (played by Benedict Cumberpatch), Northup’s first owner, was such a man: kind to Northup and respectful of his skills as a carpenter and a classical violinist, he still saw human beings as property.
On the other hand, Brad Pitt’s character, Samuel Bass, the gentle, clear-thinking abolitionist who aided Solomon in ultimately attaining his freedom, reflects that segment of white America that took the leap and voted for Barack Obama for President. Twice.
Ejiofor and Nyong’o, as slaves, portrayed the kind of strength and dignity running through the veins of every human in any society of any era who was/is determined and courageous enough to persevere for their survival and equality.
However, it is the malodorous residue of the film’s biggest-star—the institution of slavery itself–that continues to hold a stranglehold on the black American.
Indeed, centuries later, too many of us are still slaves. No longer do we have slave masters; we’ve cut out the middle man. Today, black men and women are shameless drudges to a mighty and sinister dysfunction passed down from generation to generation. We’re seriously caught up.
They used to threaten us with physical pain or fire pistols at our feet to make us jump for their amusement. Today, some of our most popular young entertainers have taken buffoonery to new underwater depths on their own, their actions devoured and emulated by minions who don’t know the difference. Men and women revel like peacocks in their sexualized selves, believing the exhibition represents power and freedom, when it reveals weakness and spiritual privation.
We no longer need racists to call us niggers. In an act of deviation that can only be deemed surreal, we’ve claimed that hateful word as our own with a vengeance, too psychologically impaired to know or believe that every time we use that word, even–especially– in so-called “affection,” it diminishes the spirit.
The fact is, things have changed. I am fortunate enough to live in a time when American descendants of slavery have it better than any black American in any era. However, just as America has its first black President, it also harbors the Ted Nugents of the world, who publicly refers to the President as a “subhuman mongrel” with little or no repudiation from too many who snicker and privately encourage this behavior.
The film “12 Years A Slave” reminded me of just how far we’ve come. Who we are today reminds me of how far we have to go. All of us. Still.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]