It is rare that a book, a song or a movie can change an entire country, but “Twelve Years a Slave” may just be that rare movie. Recounting in painstaking detail the horrors of racial slavery in America, “Twelve Years a Slave” is relevant not only for its historical narrative but also because it provides understanding as to where the United States is in terms of racial relations today – and why.
From “Birth of a Nation” to “Gone with the Wind” to “Roots” to “Mandingo” to “Django Unchained”, there have been a number of movies that have endeavored to convey elements of the American slave era, this country’s Original Sin. “Birth of a Nation” justified slavery. “Gone with the Wind” contextualized and sanitized slavery”. “Roots” recognized slavery. “Mandingo” exploited slavery”. “Django Unchained” caricaturized slavery.
“Twelve Years a Slave” demolishes the comforting myths and soothing lies regarding slavery. By telling the story of slavery absolutely and clearly through the eyes (and heart) of a slave, “Twelve Years” permits every viewer to step over a blood soaked and tear stained threshold into the horrible hell of American racial slavery.
Every viewer, regardless of race, will leave the movie theater having a very real idea of what it must have felt like to be a slave – to be property, to be the subject of indifferent cruelty and cruel indifference. Every viewer of this movie will walk to the edge of an ocean of pain, with wave after wave of assaults on one’s very humanity crashing upon the shore of their consciousness – and subconscious.
Insofar as motion pictures are concerned, it is has been said that “Schindler’s List” has provided the most vivid – and painful – understanding of what it must have been to be a Jewish victim of the Holocaust. In that same vein, “Twelve Years as a Slave” provides the most gut-wrenching, spirit-devouring rendition of what it must have been like to be a victim of American racial slavery. If only to understand the real history of these United States of America “Twelve Years” must be seen by every American who would prefer to live with the truth instead of a myth.
“Twelve Years” is also important in terms of understanding racial relations in this country today. It must be understood that the cruel and inhuman and barbaric institution of American racial slavery stained this country for over two hundred years. But the barbarism and inhumanity and cruelty did not evanesce upon the end of the Civil War or upon the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which abolished slavery.
What followed after the Civil War was another century of institutionalized racism taking the form of legalized racial degradation (segregation), state sponsored terrorism (Ku Klux Klan and rampant lynchings) and the general, anesthetized denial of a problem by most white Americans who did not live in the South. The passage of landmark civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965 made much of this horrific activity illegal. The spirit of racism cannot be outlawed and three centuries of indifference and dehumanization do not simply vanish into thin air, especially when they reside in the hearts and minds of men and women who, to this very day, embrace a culture that was built on the blood, sweat and tears of black slaves.
That is why there is nothing quaint or cute about the celebration of the Confederacy or the parading of the Confederate flag. The Confederate States of America initiated and fought the Civil War in order to protect and preserve American racial slavery. When anyone celebrates the Confederacy or parades the Confederate flag, they are clinging to a blood-soaked and sin-stained tradition that was literally a crime against humanity.
There are many reasons for the disparity that exists regarding the human condition of black Americans as opposed to their white counterparts. There can be no argument that there is so much more that black Americans must do in order to achieve and secure real progress.
But there should be no doubt that the ground upon which all Americans stand covers the bones and blood and tears and fears of millions of black men, women and children who were born, lived and died as slaves. And there should be no doubt that America’s Original Sin should not be set aside as an unfortunate episode in this country’s history.
The legacy of slavery lives with us all – to this very day.