By Renford Reese, Ph.D: “12 Years a Slave” is the most important film since Roots on the subject of slavery. This Oscar-worthy film is unrelenting in its brutality and gruesomeness. It is a horror film based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free-born black man who was drugged, kidnapped, and forced into slavery for 12 painful years. Northup was a successful violinist who lived in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and children. He was captured in 1841 and regained his freedom in 1853. Northup, brilliantly played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, was well-educated, played his violin at many well-known hotels, and worked in construction and carpentry before his capture.
I saw the movie early in its release and did not know what to expect. After 10 minutes, I found myself trapped. The indescribable brutality and callousness had me wanting to leave the theatre on multiple occasions. However, I knew I needed to endure the rawness of the film in order to tell others of its importance.
The film is important because rarely has Hollywood captured historic reality in such a profound way. The industry generally favors stories of entertainment value over all else. Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” was a gruesome but entertaining depiction of slavery in which Django, played by Jamie Foxx, outsmarts and out-guns white slave owners and rides into the sunset victoriously–that is Hollywood, not historic reality.
Roots was a television mini-series that captured the grisly inhumanity of slavery. The most memorable scene in the film was when the overseer beat Kunte Kinte into saying his slave name (Toby). Those of us who have seen Roots know the pain we felt in watching this scene. But in Roots, the audience had the chance to see other non-brutal facets of slave life.
In watching “12 Years a Slave,” there is no chance for you to escape the brutality of slave life. There is no chance to take a break from the verbal abuse, beatings, rapes, contradictions, and sheer evil of the institution. The brilliance of this film is in its ability to grip you from the beginning to the end and put you in that dehumanizing place and time. It puts you in the shackles of a once-free man and forces you to live his tragic story one brutal beating at a time.
This film is important because it gives us the capacity to examine the ubiquitous divisions in our nation today. We see the genesis of an “Us” vs. “Them” mindset and the legacy of racial hate, bigotry, and social injustice.
For African Americans, “12 Years a Slave” is important because it shows us why we have been locked in an identity crisis in this country since the Middle Passage. We see it in our youth who join gangs and kill each other over colors they wear and for protecting `turf’ that they do not own. We see it in the over 50 percent dropout rates among young black men in our inner-city schools. Some 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock. We also see this identity crisis in a number of other social ills plaguing the black community.
As the founder/director of the Prison Education Project, the biggest prison education program in the U.S., I could not help but see the striking similarities between “12 Years a Slave” and today’s prison industrial complex. Young black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated for the same crime as their white counterparts. Mandatory minimum sentencing, the “Three Strikes Law,” and a myriad of drug laws that evolved from the failed “War on Drugs” have resulted in a disproportionate number of black men serving an array disproportionate sentences. As in 1841, America has embraced noble principles but ignoble practices.
“12 Years a Slave” is important to watch in order for us to begin to empathize with the victims of social injustice in this nation. This film should inspire Americans to match our practices with our principles. The film should inspire all of us to confront our past and to examine our policies and behavior in the present and the future.
Renford Reese, Ph.D. is a political science professor at Cal Poly Pomona. He is the author of five books and the founder/director of the Prison Education Project: www.PrisonEducationProject.org
Source Los Angeles Daily News/Pasadena Star News Guest Columnist: Renford Reese, Ph.D.
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