Why Everyone Should See 12 Years A Slave


If you don’t fancy reading, a recording of this piece is available below.

I cannot hide my happiness at 12 Years A Slave being the Best Picture of the Year at the Oscars last night. I cannot hide my feelings of pride and sisterhood to Lupita Nyong’o in winning Best Supporting Actress, in taking Hollywood and the world by storm, in interrupting beauty norms and discourse for the betterment of all of us. As a Black African woman, I am proud. But more importantly, as a person, I am proud.

At the end of last week, I was surprisingly and suddenly given the opportunity to ghostwrite about the movie. I was both scared and humbled given who it was for – which of course I am unable to reveal. I have always enjoyed ghostwriting because I think imitation of a voice in writing is akin to acting in some ways – it feels somewhat easier to find truth in intentional performance. I say intentional because life is a performance of sorts, isn’t it? Where there is audience, there is performance. And we are surrounded by audience everyday.

But I digress.

When 12 Years A Slave first came to the big screen last year, I had not gone to see it. At first, I simply could not find the time. But mostly, I was uncertain whether I really wanted to see the film in the cinema. I thought I would be better off seeing it in the comfort of my home, by myself. I could not gauge what my reaction would be as I so often cannot with movies of this nature – given my work in academic life, my perspectives on the history and politics of race, especially in film, and given simply the culmination of identities I live in, in this world.

Alas, I saw it this weekend. Twice. Of course I went because I needed to write my ghost-piece. But once would have been enough; once was enough. But I went twice to pay attention not just to my emotions and reactions as they were happening, but to the emotions and reactions of the audience in the cinema, as much as one can in a dark cinema for over two hours, anyway. And indeed I had several reactions to the film – anger, bitterness, compassion, confusion, shame, and through it all a sense of solidarity to the history and the message of the film. And I do not believe I have experienced such emotions while watching a film since The Passion Of The Christ. It was indeed spectacular.

One thing I have learned as a Black foreigner in this country is that Black American legacy is not my legacy in my lived experiences. And I say this not to separate myself because we cannot separate ourselves from our connected human histories. But I also do not want to pretend that I endure the present experience in my body, that Black Americans do. It would be a false claim and one that does nothing for Black diaspora around the world. Yet as anyone who has ever read anything I have written on race knows, I have a passion for the experience and feel a relentless commitment to always make it a part of my writing.

I have learned through writing and academia and everyday life that if there is a history that the United States loves to sweep under the rug and embellish, and where possible, even silence, – along with the genocide of Native Americans, it is the history of slavery and the legacy that it leaves behind today. That slavery was (and is) brutal and unconscionable at any time, in any place, is something most would agree on. But the extent of the diabolical institutions that plagued these United States, and the remnants that affect it to this very day, is often not confronted in the imaginations of the history most people would rather tell themselves.

It often comes to me as no surprise then, that race dialogue and conversation is plagued with half-truths and half-realities and ignorance. If one doesn’t understand the very bedrock of the conversation – the history – how can the present be anything other than always and already lagging behind truth? And what is the truth? The truth is whichever way you look at it, the history of Black people in the world but indeed specifically in this country, is plagued with a darkness, violence, oppression, and brutality that can only be described as “evil.”

And the film captures this. And it is very moving, and is very uncomfortable to the point where it is almost unbearable. But you and I just have to sit and watch it. As far as history is concerned, many had to live it. As far as the present is concerned, many still do. And yet despite this evil tale that the film tells, one cannot leave without realizing that in the midst of it, dare I say, the point of it, is that there is a relentless and unfailing beauty in the story being told; in the history being shown. And one that no amount of evil can take away.

See, although this film is based on the life and experiences of a Solomon Northup, and indeed it depicts the history and tragedy of slavery, this film is also based on life. There is a darkness in life that I think societies and individuals are plagued by at any time, anywhere. And yet you find that people, ordinary people, can and do retain beauty and humanity for themselves and for others. The film above all, I think, shows this.

In this world full of many kinds of audiences, if you choose reality over fantasy, the truths over the half-truths as much as is possible, you may find yourself easily overwhelmed. But I think even when we are – overwhelmed, that is –  even when the stories we know of, and deem important, are stories that are ugly and dark and full of sorrow, there is always goodness, there is always beauty, and there is still always humanity. We must see this film to remember this – for our history, for our present, and for our future.

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