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.

 

Slavery Makes A Comeback in Recent Films

It is fitting that the Emancipation Proclamation turns 150-years-old this month, during a time in which slavery is receiving more media attention than at any time in the last 30 years.

Just in the last few weeks alone, “Django Unchained” was released, “Lincoln” hit theaters, and BET showed the mini-series “Roots” in the days leading up to Christmas.

The subject of slavery has historically been what I referred to as America’s ‘Black Box.’ Everyone knows it’s there, but few are willing to acknowledge its presence, and even fewer are willing to open the box and dig into its varied contents.

When “Roots” debuted in 1977, it was groundbreaking on so many levels. “Roots” tells the story of Alex Haley’s family from first being kidnapped in Africa, to the trials and tribulations of slavery, and ultimately, freedom. Never before had the American public dealt with the depths of slavery told through the eyes of people of color on such a public platform before. “Roots” would go on to be one of the most watched television series in American history. BET was honoring the 35th anniversary of “Roots” and I was glad they showed it because many in my generation (those under 30) may not have had the opportunity to see it before.

Though I have yet to see “Django Unchained,” just based off friends I know and those on Twitter, the grand majority of people seemed to have enjoyed it. It is not often that a movie encompassing the decidedly serious subject of slavery would be described as entertaining and enjoyable, but this movie seems to have accomplished just that for a number of people. Meanwhile, as good of a job as people say Daniel Day-Lewis does of portraying Abraham Lincoln in “Lincoln,” many are dissatisfied at the apparent absence of Fredrick Douglass anywhere in the movie.

The topic of slavery in film is not a new one. It was touched on as far back as “Gone With The Wind” in 1939, and in more recent films such as “Glory” in 1989 and “Amistad” in 1997. In 1998 Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover starred in the film “Beloved,” that centered around a couple trying to rebuild their lives following slavery. The movie didn’t do well in theaters, perhaps a reflection of the sensitive and uncomfortable topic that is American slavery.

One such ‘slavery’ movie that had a profound impact on me, was “Brother Future.” “Brother Future” stars Phil Lewis as T.J., a young hustler who’s all about himself. T.J. is growing up in present day Detroit (which when this movie was filmed was about circa 1990) and we meet him as he’s running from the police. He gets hit by a cop car and knocked unconscious. Instead of waking up on the concrete, he wakes up in the year 1822, in Charleston, South Carolina.

While on the plantation, T.J meets Denmark Vesey, a man who was a real life slave at one point and who organized one of the largest slave rebellions in U.S. history that was ultimately put down before it even began. T.J. sees first hand as a fellow slave is whipped and beaten because he was caught trying to learn how to read. He also meets a slave woman who works as a maid, and informs him that the only way he will get back home to Detroit, is if he commits to helping one of the people on the plantation. T.J. ultimately risks his life to lead a young couple to freedom.

Here’s some of the opening scenes from “Brother Future.”

Here are some scenes that include Denmark Vesey and one of the slaves being punished for reading.

I think it is good that there are films dealing with slavery, if only on the periphery. It is important that we not forget that slavery as an institution is older than this nation itself (the United States that is). One of the best ways to educate people is to inform them. However, before people can be informed on a particular issue, they must at first be made aware of seriousness of it. These movies are doing just that.