I’ve written before of the unbridled excellence and horror that is Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, the story of a free black man in 1841 New York who is kidnapped, sold into slavery and brutalized for a dozen years. For all the praise it has received—and it’s worthy of that praise—there are things I’m hearing at the multiplex that needle me.
No one is expecting audiences to enjoy it. And while movies are largely about entertainment, I think one of the things we forget when watching movies is that they’re not all about entertainment. It’s hard to remember, when faced with countless battling robots, superheroes and children murdering each other for food that movies can, beyond all their technical precision and inspired artifice, rise above entertainment.
Don’t get the wrong idea; entertainment itself is a worthy pursuit. But in this day and age when we’d rather numb out or watch our respective ideologically driven news sources than engage with what’s happening in our country, 12 Years a Slave is especially important. Here’s why, and take this for what it’s worth from the east coast-educated white guy.
Here’s a jackass waving the Confederate flag in front of the White House. Hey, look at the period dress of the present day! Just in case anyone needs reminding, the Confederate flag is a symbol of southern pride. And what did the south do after Abraham Lincoln was elected president? Secede from the United States, form its own country, and go to war over the right to own other people.
The next time someone tells you the War of Northern Aggression was about states’ rights, tell them, “Yes, the right to own human beings as chattel.”
Remember when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution—a major American newspaper—tweeted, “$1M GA lottery winner Willie Lynch can get 40 acres and a whole ‘lotta mules”? No? It happened on Oct. 23, 2013.
If you need proof that racism, be it casual, overt or insidious is out there in the present, check out the Twitter handle @YesYoureRacist and in the space of three minutes your mind will be blown. In fact, @YesYoureRacist is especially beneficial because it highlights racism against every group. It’s a stormy hateful melting pot of shit and there’s enough for everyone!
Racism is real. It’s present. It’s institutional. Just ask the Washington Redskins or this Nevada state assemblyman who said he’d vote for slavery.
“But Dave,” you say, “What does this have to do with 12 Years a Slave?”
I’m not suggesting you, personally, have a stake in the ugly history of racism in the United States. I’m telling you we all personally have a stake in the racist history of this country. Take, for example, this section of our Constitution:
“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”
This country’s founding document lays out that some people are only worth 60 percent of other people.
“But,” you say, “the Fourteenth Amendment! And the Fifteenth Amendment!”
Yep. And since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in June, at least six states have passed laws “requiring additional voter identification,” correcting for a problem—in-person voter fraud—that does not exist.
And whenever I hear the axiom “but my family wasn’t even HERE during slavery” at the movie theater—and I’ve heard it about a dozen times—I’m surprised, though I shouldn’t be. We, as individuals, may be kind, open-hearted, forgiving and beautiful.
As groups—as Americans—we’re ugly, warmongering, mean and we hate other people because of the color of their skin, or their religion, or even their gender.
And that’s why you should see 12 Years a Slave. Treating other people as lower than shit is a tenet of this country’s history, and we need to see it in all its ugly truth.
*For those of you who think “yay!” isn’t an appropriate movie rating, this time you’re correct. This one time.
12 Years a Slave
Directed by by Steve McQueen
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor
UA DeVargas 6