The Importance & Significance of 12 Years A Slave

When it comes to the film “12 Years A Slave,” which hit theaters a few weeks ago, my recommendation is to see it while it’s still playing. This article isn’t so much a film review as it is a look at some of the themes at play in “12 Years A Slave” and its larger significance on society beyond the realm of cinema.

I went to see “12 Years A Slave” about a month ago with a lady friend, and at $14 a ticket (Manhattan prices) I was hoping that this film would live up to the all the praise it had been receiving up to its theatrical launch. It certainly did that for me and more as it left me intrigued and analyzing a number of topics upon leaving the theater.

“12 Years A Slave” tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery, and the harrowing 12 years of his existence in America’s ‘Peculiar Institution.’ Through his eyes we see the horrors of slavery up close: a mother having her children sold from her arms, brutal beatings, working on the plantation, and a sense of despair festering throughout the film like rotting meat on a summer afternoon. Though “12 Years A Slave” is the story of Solomon Northup, it really could be the story of any enslaved black person at that time. But because the story is specific to Solomon and based on true events, it simply can not be dismissed as an over-dramatization or the imagination of a director like last year’s “Django Unchained.” “12 Years A Slave” gives an unflinching and very hard look at American slavery and quite frankly, it’s a story that needed to be told.

In the last few months I’ve read articles and heard from more than a few people that they’re tired of black people being portrayed in ‘hardship roles’ in films, such as butlers, slaves or having to march and be beaten while fighting for their civil rights. While I understand the sentiment, I think it’s misplaced. While these certainly shouldn’t be the only roles in which we see blacks play major parts, they are nevertheless important to the education of our nation at large.

Slavery is one topic that I feel by and large the United States school system does a pretty terrible job of educating people about. I remember attending an event for the commemoration of the TV miniseries “Roots,” where one of the cast members remarked that when he was in school slavery was reduced to a paragraph in his history textbook. An institution that affected tens of millions of people and lasted for well over 200 years in this nation, reduced to a paragraph. That’s not history, so much as HIS STORY.

The one thing “12 Years A Slave” does exceptionally well is illuminate this dark period of our nation’s history, even if it is but a small glimpse into a past most would like to forget. At a time when national figures are comparing a health system to slavery and a senator from Nevada suggested he would not be opposed to bringing back slavery if his constituents wanted it (yes, a politician in 2013 really did say this) movies like “12 Years” are vitally important. It has become clear through comments such as the ones above, that there are a good amount of people in this country who truly don’t understand just how terrible slavery really was.

Slavery wasn’t simply not having your freedom. It was knowing that your family members could be sold off. It was knowing that you could be beaten to death and that your life had about as much value as cattle. We see this in “12 Years” when Solomon himself barely survives a lynching only because his owner deems him too valuable to be killed. What is interesting is that more of these stories have not been told on the big screen.

Most people have heard of Harriet Tubman. A good amount have probably heard of Fredrick Douglass as well. But what about Denmark Vesey? Nat Turner? Gabriel Prosser? Phyllis Wheatley? These were all prominent names who either spent their lives as slaves or fought tirelessly against it during their time. I was disappointed when Fredrick Douglass was nowhere to be found in “Lincoln,” but not necessarily surprised.

One aspect that “12 Years” did not leave out, was the treatment of slave women during the era. We see a woman who has her children sold, and the audience is introduced to Patsey who is on the same plantation as Solomon. Patsey is beaten, forced to spend backbreaking hours picking cotton and raped. The sad fact is rape of women during slavery was rather pervasive. I suggest people read Harriet Jacobs’s book, Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl, which details her struggles with slavery and the repeated sexual advances made by her master. These types of relations weren’t just limited to little known slave owners. While it is well known that Thomas Jefferson was guilty of such a crime himself with his lovechild between Salley Hemmings, less is known about George Washington. As it stands, there is presently a black family in the United States who claim to be direct descendants of America’s Founding Father. According to them, Washington impregnated a teenage slave girl by the name of Venus who was owned by a man who was housing Washington at the time. When questioned as to who was father of the child, the girl pointed out George Washington.

So against this backdrop of torture, oppression, and sadness, there is also a sense of great relief for Solomon as his 12 year nightmare does eventually come to an end. However, there is no such relief for Patsey as the audience is left to watch a heart wrenching scene where it becomes apparent that there will be no cavalry for her. Patsey is a person stuck in circumstances she did not create, and subjected to a fate she doesn’t deserve. I believe in the power of films to educate, entertain and enlighten, and while “12 Years A Slave” is not the type of film to see from an entertainment aspect, it certainly does educate and enlighten and give empathy to those who lived under such harsh conditions for such long periods of time.

 

Actors Discuss Legacy of Roots

With the film “12 Years A Slave” debuting this week, I figured it was a good time to revisit a panel discussion I shot earlier this year revolving around one of the most prominent depictions of slavery in media.

From left to right: Levar Burton, Louis Gosset Jr., Leslie Uggams, and Ben Vereeen

The panel featured actors who played pivotal roles in the TV mini-series “Roots” that premiered in 1977 and was shown on BET last winter. “Roots” was really the first program to explore the challenges, horrors, and triumphs within the realm of American slavery. It was an eye opening experience for millions of people and really helped shed a light on America’s ‘original sin.’ Actors Lou Gosset Jr., Ben Vereen, Leslie Uggams and Levar Burton, spoke on the significance of “Roots,” their roles in it, and how “Roots” continues to educate more than 30 years later.

The panel was a part of a larger series called ‘Changing the Picture’ at the Museum of the Moving Image this past February, which highlighted the works of people of color in the film and television industry.

Actress Tired of Hollywood’s Stereotypes Decides To Do Something About It

Iyin Landre is an actress. She’s determined. She also happens to be Asian.

Iyin points out how she believes her race may be a hindrance in Hollywood when it comes to getting cast in films. As she demonstrates through her video, it seems casting directors only view her through a stereotypical lens. Whether it’s been the woman who provides manicures at the nail salon, or the buttoned up scientist in a lab, Iyin believes she’s more than just an ancillary character in somebody’s picture. She aspires to be the leading lady one day.

Thanks to KickStarter, that day has come sooner then she probably realized. Iyin successfully raised more than $75K for her independent feature entitled “Me + You.” Instead of lamenting the fact that she wasn’t getting consistent work and sitting by the phone, Iyin took action and is now making the films and characters that she wants to see. Gotta respect the hustle. Here’s the Kickstarter link.

Thoughts on Fruitvale Station

After a month delay and several months of being intrigued by the premise of the film, I finally saw “Fruitvale Station” last week. It left me feeling a number of emotions upon exiting the theater.

“Fruitvale Station” is the story of Oscar Grant and the 24 hours leading up to his death at the Fruitvale subway stop in Oakland, California, on New Year’s Day 2009. But it’s really so much more than that. It’s a story that truly does explore the human condition through Oscar’s eyes and makes the viewer see a troubled man who was trying to turn his life around.

What makes “Fruitvale Station” different than most movies is that you have some idea going in how the story will end. Anyone who has heard about the film or done any research on the case, knows ultimately that Oscar Grant will be killed. Similar much in the same way as a movie like “Titanic,” where (spoiler alert) the ship sinks, with a film like “Fruitvale Station” character development becomes all the more crucial when the audience knows the final result.

Michael B. Jordan gives an excellent performance as Oscar Grant. Through him, we see more of a 360 degree portrayal of Grant. By that I mean director Ryan Coogler is careful not to paint Grant as some figure headed for sainthood before death. Too often in dramas about people’s lives, we see heavy handed attempts to portray the protagonist in the most positive light possible with little to no faults. In essence the main character becomes reduced to little more than a cardboard cutout of virtue, instead of a fleshed out human being with emotional, physical, mental, or spiritual obstacles to conquer. This is exactly the criticism I leveled at the film “42”; I was glad to see “Fruitvale Station” didn’t follow that same script.

Over the course of the film we see Oscar not take his prospects of getting a job seriously. We see a man at times quick to anger, but even quicker to flash his smile at someone. We see a person learning to accept the responsibility of fatherhood while trying to become a more supportive partner to his girlfriend. We also witness the interactions he has with his mother (great job by Octavia Spencer) and the initial guilt she feels immediately after his death.

“Fruitvale Station” on its surface is a movie about a shooting, but really it’s a movie about the relationships between Oscar Grant and those around him. Through his friends and family we see him as a person bending in the direction of slowly, but steadily, improving his life. I would strongly recommend anyone who hasn’t yet seen it, to make an effort to watch it while it’s still in theaters. It may leave you teary eyed at points, but chances are, you’ll be better for the experience.