12 Years a Slave and Today

Last night, I went to see a screening of 12 Years A Slave that included a conversation with Harry Belafonte and Steve McQueen about the film and it's role in history.

The film is a classic, for all the reasons you've heard, and all Americans should see it. In particular, it is a film that white Americans need to see. In this year, the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, and the year before the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, it's also a moment for us to consider why it took so long to bring a mass-market, narrative film that accurately depicts the horrors of slavery to American audiences film. Why did it take a British director with mostly British financing to make a film that tells the story of the quintessential American sin?

It's clear that most white Americans still don't want to see how the legacy of slavery thrives today. It is hard for white people to admit that we still live in a society in which black lives can be ended by white men without any repercussions -- in fact, if not in law. We still live in a society in which black bodies can be bought and sold by capitalists looking to profit by putting others in bondage. We still live under the same constitution and political system designed to protect the rights of slave owners and dehumanize black lives by counting them as three fifths. White people's unwillingness to confront the truth of slavery is part of what perpetuates the system of white supremacy we want to avert our eyes from.

As a Jew, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about how representations of historical injustices come to define the experience of a people. Since the Nazi holocaust, Jews in the U.S. have gained the privileges of being white. The process of how Jews became white is complicated, but we achieved a full recognition of our humanity, in part, due to the unflinching documentation of the atrocities of the Nazi holocaust in film, writing and education by Jews and gentiles alike. These depictions help fend off attempts to deny the horror of the atrocities we faced. We have found that telling the story of what happened is part of how we stop it from happening again. While anti-Semitism is still a real force in many societies around the globe, Jews can point to film after film that depict the horror of our oppression and use the power of those images to undermine anti-Semitism in the present. No one would ever want to do anything that reminded them of the Nazis they've seen on film.

Unlike the Nazi holocaust, there have been very few films that show the truth about American slavery. Until 12 Years A Slave, most Americans have never seen the brutality of slavery in such a raw and honest light. Mothers were violently torn from their children. Black men, women and children were murdered without cause. Rape and sexual violence were the norm. Individuals had no rights, no names, no dignity. The white people of America have never been forced to see themselves in the faces and eyes of the people who perpetrated this brutal system. It is not easy to identify with the slave owners, to look upon people who look like you and see their inhumanity. But it is impossible to recognize the ways you and your community perpetuate these injustices in the present if you can't identify with the root of those injustices. Unless you identify your relationship with the slave owner, you can't identify your relationship with white supremacy today.

White Americans like to think this story has a happy ending, but the story is always more complicated. In the film, there is an incredible sense of relief when Solomon is granted his freedom. But even the exhilaration we feel at Solomon's return to freedom is belied by the shocking realization that millions more never felt that redemption. Their children and generations that came after had to deal with Jim Crow, and then the school to prison pipeline. The roots of racial inequality planted by the institutions of slavery have never been ripped out.

In the theater I sat next to an elderly black woman. During one scene of a particularly nasty beating, she grabbed me with her wrinkled hand and said, in tears, "I feel so blessed I wasn't born at that time." It was like I could feel the weight of the past baring down on the present. Later on, during a scene in which a deceased slave is buried, the fieldhands gathered around the grave to sing the old gospel hymn and freedom song "Roll Jordan Roll." As they sang, the woman cleared her throat and started to sing along. Her voice, and the presence of Harry Belafonte in the audience, spoke volumes about the continuity of the black liberation struggle.

After the film, Steve McQueen and Mr. Belafonte took questions from the audience. A black woman rose up to ask a question about the white character who delivers a letter that ends up leading to Solomon's freedom. "Why do we always have to depend on white people to set us free?" she asked.

Mr. McQueen responded by saying that he took no liberties with history, and the man really did deliver the letter. But his response to her larger question -- who was the hero, how will her people gain their liberation -- was clear. "The white character who delivers the letter that sets Solomon free is not the hero. He just did what any decent person would do. Solomon was the hero for surviving." The role of hero in the black liberation struggle will always be played by black people who survive and thrive in a system that's designed to dehumanize them. White people can aid in the destruction of white supremacy by doing what any decent person would do -- baring witness to the truth of those who are oppressed and fulfilling the requests they say will lead to their freedom.

After the film, I thought of the white men who still profit from putting black bodies in chains. Do they see themselves as the new slave masters? Will they now? I would like to know if James Slattery -- of the now infamous Youth Services International private prison company -- understands that future generations will depict him as the new Master Platt. Would it make a difference to him if he knew? The film gave me a renewed appreciation for people, like the Dream Defenders, doing the painstaking work of uprooting the legacy of slavery in the South by confronting the new slavers.

This film is so important because it shows how white supremacy still affects all of us. As a nation, we can't reach the full potential of our humanity unless and until we admit the inhumanity of our creation. This nation was conceived in sin and had never been redeemed. Black people -- and white people alike -- can only express the fullness of their humanity if we destroy the system of white supremacy that we still live under.