12 Years a Slave. I didn’t want to see it for entertainment – although it is a powerful piece of film-making. I wanted to see it because it is history, a history that has shaped my home and my experience of the world – for good and also for very ill – for every day of my now 39 years.
I read the objections about the movie – the legitimate complaints about how Hollywood and America in general only want to make and see movies about African American suffering. This is true. For the life of me, I cannot call to mind many movies that star African Americans (much less feature an all-black cast) that are not about pain and tribulation. Tyler Perry’s films are about all that come to mind. We do very much need balance . . .
But we also need movies like 12 Years a Slave because we still don’t get it. We don’t understand the way enslaved people were property – treated like and inventoried like cattle. We don’t understand what it is to be fearful that – only because of your skin color – you may be kidnapped, beaten, or hung. We don’t comprehend what it is to be less than 50 years out from a law that made it possible for a vast group of people in the U.S. to vote and how that legacy is a direct result of slavery and the way we expected an entire population of individuals to overcome – in a decade – the oppression that we had put them under for 2o0 years. And by we, I mean white people. And by we, I mean me.
As I sat in that dark movie theater and watched Solomon Northrup struggle, as I saw him sing “Roll, Jordan, Roll” I understood, just in a pebble-sized bit, what it was to live in a time when you sang for freedom as if you could call it down from the heavens themselves. I have not had to sing that way in my life – even if at times I thought I did. My life is not like the lives of antebellum slaves, not in any way. So I need to see stories – read recollections – watch interpretations that teach me. That show me. That make me sob. This movie taught me, and it broke me. I need to be broken.
But the film also reminded me of the strength of the people who survived slavery – Solomon Northrup, Frederick Douglass, Lucy and Dilcey from my home, and tens of thousands of other individuals who made it through. I would not, as Sharon Leslie Morgan said, have survived. So to see them cling tight to their humanity when they were treated like and called less than human. To see people stay kind and compassionate when they were showed no kindness of compassion. To bear witness to resolve and will and fight and wisdom, to watch as people balance pride and identity with submission and still come out wiser and more human than any who called them other . . . this is gift. Every bit of it.
When we left that theater, someone said, “I’m not sure I’m glad I saw that movie or not. I mean, it was good for me to see it, but those images . . . ” I knew what she meant – it is hard to bear witness to these things. It is hard to experience – even with only our eyes and our ears – the brutality and horribleness of chattel slavery and slave owners. Yet, it is necessary. It is good. It is nothing at all in comparison . . .
So 12 Years a Slave . . . yes, for all of the suffering, for all the strength, a reminder, a balm, a lesson from Solomon Northrup through Steve McQueen to me. A lesson I need.
Have you seen the film? What did you think of it?