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The lesson of ‘12 Years a Slave’ for a nation in the age of Obama

Jonathan P Hicks | 3/6/2014, 10:51 a.m.
It is a story that America doesn’t like to look at, much less take the time to consider the implications ...
Jonathan P. Hicks

There has been a number of movies that have centered on the topic of slavery over the years, but there has never been a film that depicts the experience as starkly and painfully as “12 Years a Slave,” the spellbindingly compelling film by director Steve McQueen.

As historical depictions go, this film presents slavery in an uncommon mix of relentless harshness, brutality and emotional agony. It is a story that America doesn’t like to look at, much less take the time to consider the implications of what that nation’s experience with slavery means in a modern world. And because of that, there was something deeply satisfying about this film being selected as the Academy Award winner for Best Picture.

For those few who haven’t seen the film, “12 Years a Slave” is an adaptation of the 1853 book written my Solomon Northrup, an African-American man who was born free and lived in New York. He wound up being kidnapped in 1941 and sold into slavery and transported to Louisiana, where he worked on a plantation before he was released.

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A still from the film '12 Years a Slave'

It is a harrowing, chilling story presented by McQueen in all its excruciating and jarring detail. In many ways, the film is almost too painful to watch. There is no break in the movie for any lightheartedness; there is no comic moment or a second of relief from the unrelenting adversity of slavery. And that is precisely where the film’s genius lies. There was little to nothing cheery in the lives of people held in servitude. It is an important movie, although a deeply difficult one to watch in comfort.

The world of 2014 is such a distance from that of 1841. People in today’s world know little to nothing about John Tyler, let alone that he became president of the United States in 1841—the year Northrup was kidnapped. Yet, we’re living in a nation where the effects of those antebellum, pre-Civil War days linger in strange and vibrant threads. When we look at the gap in educational achievement and the issues related to accumulating wealth in a modern African-American world, the problems can be traced directly to the days of Northrup and the challenges he and others faced in the muck of slavery.

While Northrup regained his freedom, millions did not. And it would be more than a century before the descendants of Northrop and his colleagues in the fields of Louisiana and elsewhere in the South could vote, serve on juries or enjoy many of the benefits of American life. The effects of that era extended into the painstaking journey for voting rights in the 1960s and beyond.

There are many messages accompanying the success and notoriety of this important movie. It is wonderful to see an Oscar for Best Picture for a film directed by a Black man of such vision. Likewise, it is heartwarming to see the award for Best Supporting Actress bestowed on someone as stunning, poised and thoughtful as Lupita Nyong’o, whose acceptance speech was superb.

But it would truly be a worthwhile development if viewers of the film would consider not just the gripping story of Northrup, but how that era of American history has shaped our own. It might just inform the perspective of many Americans toward the African-American experience in the age of Obama and produce a more tolerant, more understanding community with a deeper commitment to right the wrongs generated by the past.