Thursday, January 30, 2014

12 Years a Slave is a Must-See

“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” Elie Wiesel I said I wasn’t going to do it, but I lied. I tried to bite my tongue and swallow the words making their way from my brain to my lips, but I couldn’t do it. I was engaged in another debate about the film 12 Years a Slave. Surprised and dismayed by the reaction, I find myself defending the film to African Americans of don’t want to see another movie about slavery. I have never heard Jewish people utter such foolishness about movies about the Holocaust.

The fact that my people don’t understand why 12 Years a Slave is a must-see film makes me sad. It’s not as if movies about slavery are rolled out on a regular basis—two within the same year in very different genres does not measure up to, too many in my book. In America, we shy away from stories about the slave trade—an integral part of American history, but often flock to see films about the Holocaust. I often wonder if we embrace the tragedy of the Holocaust, but not the Transatlantic Slave Trade because we take comfort in knowing that the atrocities of Holocaust did not happen on American soil.

As Americans we like to hold ourselves superior to the Germans, but I don’t know how when America also promoted racial superiority. Just as the Holocaust is Germany’s shame, America must accept slavery as this country’s shame. The same thought process set that allowed Hitler’s reign of terror over Jewish and other “undesirable” people in Europe was also a mindset in America. We too, had a strong eugenics movement and believed in racial superiority that was born out of the very institution that we want to people to forget and get over because it happened hundreds of years ago.

We cannot ignore the impact of slavery as its effect is still being felt today. There is a scene in the film where Solomon is lynched, and as he stands on tip toe with his life in peril, the slaves on the plantation go on about their day—timidly looking on, but saying nothing. One woman gives Solomon a drink of water before going on. I sat in horror as I digested the mindset of those who acted, but did nothing. And yet, I see this in my life all the time. The police stop young men of color and search them all the time, and the rest of us watch and say nothing. I watched 12 years a slave to learn. I watched to pay homage to my ancestors. I watched to draw strength, to draw courage, to have faith. I am because of who they were.

There is no shame in me for being a descendant of slaves. I am a product of those who survived such horrific circumstances, and I’m thankful to those like Steve McQueen who tell the stories that need to be told.

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