Much Ado About ’12 Years a Slave’

Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Much have been said about “12 Years a Slave.” The epic slave film, directed by Steve McQueen, has made the rounds of all the awards shows, snagging a Golden Globe Award for Best Picture. The movie has also received Academy Awards and NAACP nods as well.

What’s the big deal about Hollywood being enamored with another slave movie?  Well, this isn’t just another slave movie created to work on the sensibilities of some people.  There are some people like “Scandal” actor Joe Morton, who are not too particularly fond of films like “12 Years a Slave.”

In an op-ed piece he wrote for the Huffington Post that calls out films that he said showcases more about plight and victimhood rather than triumph, Morton sort of unleashed on “12 Years a Slave.”  Here is an excerpt of that editorial:

It is very difficult for me, as an American of African descent, to view a film like 12 Years a Slave, as brilliant as it might be perceived, without being angered about the amount of violence perpetrated upon black flesh and black womanhood, without feeling that the self-worth of modern day African Americans is being diminished, without feeling that this kind of film enflames an omnipresent and smoldering mistrust of whites by blacks.

I feel differently than Mr. Morton. In my opinion, “12 Years a Slave” is brilliantly done and does not diminish anything the modern day African American has accomplished. That is really a silly and ignorant notion and concept that Morton comes up with. Without the re-telling of these horrific stories how do we keep tabs on the past?

What do we tell our children, our grandchildren and great grandchildren about our past? Should we just let those who enslaved us tell us what our story should be? Whether we want to hear it or see it or not, slavery and the subservient segregation lifestyle forced upon our ancestors is our history.

Our history is what it is. The fact that African Americans overcame the mysterious slaughter of innocent children, the lynching of many men and women by night marauders and marching down Jim Crow voting and human rights laws, does not say anything about being a victim. It says a lot about triumph.

Yes, there are a lot of triumphant stories out there about the African American experience. But Mr. Morton forgot that African Americans did not come to American soil as success stories. They were bound in chains and treated worse than dogs. Are my children not to understand this? There is no triumph without a struggle.

Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Sadly, the greater part of African Americans being acclimated to the way of this country has come with a huge price of being enslaved at another man’s whim and being denied the opportunity to become an equal citizen, whether it was being denied the chance to learn to read and write or going to the polls to vote.

We don’t need to lie about it. We don’t need to manufacture the truth about slavery and the immense sacrifice our ancestors went through for us to enjoy the luxuries we are offered today. However, the struggle is not over.

The battle against racist ideology, bigoted doctrine and unequal laws is still an ongoing fight that is done in a much different manner than the physical reality of chains, lashes and master imprisonment of yesteryear.

In my opinion, there is not enough movies or films made that has told our story as African Americans. There are plenty of triumphs after the trial success stories, otherwise African Americans would not be where we are today.

We would do our ancestors an injustice if we all sat around and let people like Mr. Morton tell us that true stories like “12 Years a Slave” pigeonhole us into thinking we are all victims. That is a misguided falsehood.

Speaking the truth about one’s past does not put me into thinking like a victim. What it does is open my eyes more clearly about the way history was taught to me in school and how it is furthered disseminated today to our children. The education system in America dismisses slavery and the early African American experience as some abbreviated accident.

What “12 Years a Slave” does is provide an avenue of thinking, a level of intellectual boxing match that challenges the premise that slavery was a simple walk in the park or was not as brutal as some people make it out to be. The film is probably most powerful when it touches on the terrifying ordeal that black women had to endure.

I did not come away from watching “12 Years a Slave” as a victim. What I came away with was how immensely powerful the depth of triumph the human spirit can conjure up.

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