Tuesday, November 12, 2013

"12 Years a Slave" is History as we have seldom witnessed it

Last night my wife and went to see “12 Years a Slave”, the much-talked about historical drama based on the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man in antebellum New York State who was abducted and forced to live as a slave for twelve years.

I was thinking about writing superlatives about the film and its importance to our nation’s unmet need for open and honest discussion about our national history and its unhealed racial wounds when an email from Dick Peery arrived.

Dick’s take on the movie parallels my own, and I am delighted once again to share here something he has sent out into the ether.

November 12, 2013

The searing honesty of "12 Years a Slave" makes it the most important movie I have ever seen. Based on the autobiography of an educated and cultured black husband and father who was kidnapped and sold into bondage in the 19th Century, it depicts the ugly heart of American history in a way that has not been shown in a major movie before.

Throughout the picture, I could not stop comparing it to its polar opposite, "Gone With the Wind," that piece of racist fiction that reinforced white supremacy for generations of 20th Century Americans.  GWTW defined chattel slavery as a meritocracy in which intelligent whites naturally ruled over simple-minded happy slaves incapable of fending for themselves.

With its superb acting, "12 Years a Slave" makes it clear that American slavery was simply an economic power relationship rooted in terrorism. Its horrors brought out the worst in the oppressors and made them incapable of recognizing the dignity of their victims.

In the scene that spoke the deepest truth to me, a docile young slave is viciously whipped because her male owner likes her too well and his wife hates her too much.  It reminded me of what my mother told me of when she was a little girl at the beginning of the 20th Century. Her grandmother would ask her each day to rub oil on her back. Mother said tears would run down her face as she ran her tiny fingers over the welts left by an enslavers lash. "I couldn't understand how anyone could do that to such a sweet and gentle person," mother said. 

It is important that popular history gives us the truth. Our understanding of the past tells us who we are. America would be a different place if the insights of the movie had been contained in public policy over the last century and a half. Or even if they were recognized today.

Actually, I never saw all of "Gone With the Wind." One of the great frustrations of my childhood was that almost everyone I knew had seen it, but somehow I had missed out. Even when it made the theater rounds again in my late teens, I was too busy to  get there. When it finally came on television decades later, I could only stomach first half and had no desire to torture myself further.

"12 Years a Slave" tells me why.

Dick Peery

Director Steve McQueen
of Great Britain
The movie is directed by Steve McQueen. Chiwetel EjioforMichael K. WilliamsMichael Fassbender headline an extraordinary cast that also includes Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, and Paul Giamatti.


Local movie venues for the film are the Cedar Lee Theatre, 2163 Lee Road in Cleveland Heights and Cinemark at Valley View, 6001 Canal Road in Valley View.