By Aaron Bumgarner
12 Years a Slave is only the third movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture with a black person* in its starring role. The first was In the Heat of the Night, starring the great Sidney Poitier in a story about a black cop facing racism in a corrupt, Southern town. The second was Driving Miss Daisy, which I love but which does not give its black star, Morgan Freeman, a flattering role to play as the driver for the initially racist character that Jessica Tandy plays. So the movies that history will remember as the best movies starring black people in the first 85 years of the Academy’s history all deal with racism. That apparently, is the only story about black people that Hollywood has deemed worthy of setting in stone for future generations.
This is sad, but not the fault of those three movies. In the Heat of the Night and Driving Miss Daisy, while heavy-handed with their themes, are very entertaining stories with great performances. 12 Years a Slave is heavy-handed too, but only because it comes at you like a fist made of the heaviest of heavy stones and crushes any preconceived notions you might have entertained about slavery in the American South. It’s a hard movie to watch, to say the least. It’s also the best movie you could watch.
I’ve had several people tell me that they don’t want to see 12 Years, because it will be too hard to sit through. They don’t think they can endure it. As much as I want to grab their shoulders and shake them and tell them they have to watch it, I can’t blame them. It’s very hard to sit through. Screenwriter John Ridley has us following Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from the everyday joys of freedom to the everyday ignominies of slavery, which is hard enough. But director Steve McQueen shoots 12 Years as if he’s documenting real-life events. When Solomon is strung up on a tree after challenging a white foreman, McQueen lets the camera linger on him struggling against the rope, his toes barely grazing the grass as they desperately try to touch, the other slaves on the plantation going about their business in the background, including children playing. With that shot, McQueen lets us see that the slaves know the futility of their situation, just as he lets us see the brutality of the whippings, the abuse, the rapes. I understand why people don’t want to watch that. But McQueen and Ejiofor and Ridley made this movie because we need to watch it.
We need to watch it, because it’s not enough for the history books to tell us that slavery was ethically wrong. It’s not enough to think of slavery as a political black spot in America’s history. It’s not enough to think of slavery as a past that the civil rights movement had to overcome. No, slavery was something that happened to people, real people, and that’s what we need to learn from 12 Years a Slave. There’s a scene near the middle of the movie in which the great Lupita Nyong’o’s character begs Solomon to kill her, so weary is she of her existence under the thumb of Michael Fassbender’s plantation owner. That’s the kind of human desperation that slavery bred. It’s hard to understand that slavery robbed people of their humanity when it’s considered in the abstract. Watching 12 Years a Slave makes that thought process painfully easy.
It worries me that we still haven’t learned that lesson yet though. It’s tempting to look at 12 Years as a faux-documentary of a terrible time in America’s past. And McQueen has shot it that way, paying close attention to the period details. But don’t think for a minute that McQueen didn’t make this movie with a thought to what it might have to say to us now. A period movie may be set in a different time, but it’s always meant for the time in which it’s released.
We can be excited that a gut-wrenching movie about slavery won Best Picture, and we can be excited that people actually turned out to watch it. But I worry that we’ll think we did it, we’ve made it, there’s no progress left to be made. If you were counting up top, that’s 3 Best Picture winners with black people in the starring role…out of 85. (Spoiler alert, sort of.) If the end of 12 Years is any indication, there’s work left to be done. Solomon is the only slave that gets freed at the end, and he has a moment with Patsey (Nyong’o) right before he leaves in which they both realize that his horrors are finished, but hers are nowhere near completion. If there’s a lesson to be learned from 12 Years, it’s not “Look how far we’ve come.” It’s “We can’t stop now.”
*Note: I say “black person”, but I really mean “black man”, because no movie starring a black woman has ever won.
Aaron is a speech-language pathologist working for Oklahoma City Public Schools.