There is more than one scene in Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave that's not easy to watch, but like many movies about some of humanity's most historically evil times, there's one that will stand out for most people. Without giving it away, I'll say that it's something that also happened in D'jango Unchained but not quite to the same degree, although I say that while taking nothing away from Quentin Tarantino's film.
People will immediately compare D'jango and 12, and for good reason. Both seem to be opposite sides of the same cursed coin minted from the blood/cotton money that is still owed to the descendants of slaves to this day. However, in one of these films, a character that is not based on any known historical figure kills almost every person involved in his bondage. In the other film, which is based on a true story (reportedly fact checked for historical accuracy by none other than Beer Summit attendee/Harvard professor/pseudo Obama friend Henry Louis "Skip" Gates), the hero receives no such satisfaction. No spoiler alert necessary--all one has to do is look up the story of Solomon Northup.
D'jango was famously criticized by Spike Lee. Some people (including this writer, who also attended Morehouse College and finds much of Spike's perspective on the state of black cinema to be spot-on) felt that Spike was overly critical of Quentin, and believed that his rejection of D'jango was based upon a personal frustration with the likely truth that he could have never convinced a Hollywood studio to green-light such a script with him serving as director. Spike told Vibe Magazine that he would not see the film, calling it "disrespectful to his ancestors." You have to wonder what he will say about 12 Years.
Many elements of D'jango/12 are similar. There are downright hate-able white slave owners played by top Hollywood talents (Leo DiCaprio/Michael Fassbender), petite, possibly equally wicked female plantation mistresses (Laura Cayouette/Sarah Paulson), female slaves whom the male lead yearns to protect (Kerry Washington/Lupita Nyong'o), and even good white guys who somehow happen to use the word "nigger" and don't draw the ire of the audience or main character (Christoph Waltz/Brad Pitt). And the debate will surely ensue in which people say which was their favorite, which is fine.
The winner is not a film--both have already been honored with some of cinema's most prestigious awards. The winner is the truth about what happened in America that continues to cause economic, judicial, emotional, spiritual and generational discord aimed at the African-American community both from the outside and from within. The winner is the possibility for discourse. The winner is the person who always feels as if he or she is being silenced or told to "get over it" when they've wanted to remind others about their ancestors, who may have been raped, beaten, and exploited by people in this country who generated extreme wealth and reaped the benefits of a charmed life that has never been properly shared or offered as condolence to those who provided the work that it took to produce. The winner is the chance to share the story of the loser, and how that person--those people--survived the very worst of times. The winner is the story of perseverance in the face of hopelessness, and the knowledge of history that does not allow it to be repeated.
When you go to the theater, know that you will leave with a heavier heart after almost three hours of unyielding truth in the form of a film. Know that if you are white, you may feel uncomfortable, and that's OK, because you will also feel uncomfortable if you are black, or Asian, or Latino, or Jewish, or anything else that people call themselves in America. You will feel like there is unfinished business, and that does not have to mean rioting or reparations, because let's be real. One is certainly more likely than the other, though it is also the more tragic of the two possibilities.The unfinished business is the conversation that should never stop until we find ourselves getting closer to the ultimate truth, which is supposedly a premise for which the beautiful, blood-stained country in which we live was built upon: liberty, and justice for all.
Watch 12 Years a Slave--watch every moment, even that moment when you want to look away--and do not let anyone tell you that if you've seen D'jango Unchained, you've seen enough. Do not let anyone else's opinion or spoilers or emotional response keep you from experiencing this movie for yourself. Do not let your willingness to let bygones be bygones corrupt your thoughts and keep you from seeing the failure of morality that was allowed to rule the days, years, and centuries of life for black Americans. Do not be afraid to admit to yourself that you are profoundly angry or sad or shocked at what this film tells you about yourself and what, if the history books are to be believed, this film says about the systems that are still in place today.
Most importantly, even if you are a racist who prefers to never see things in any other way than dominance of one race in order that your own has superiority over land and resources, do not turn a blind eye or spare yourself the pain of seeing the recreation of some things that actually happened. If you can't watch the movie, I for one will not judge you. But if you don't see the film, don't speak about it as if it is probably unnecessary or just an excuse for a persecuted people to complain about the way things are. Because if that's the type of person you are, it's clear that you just haven't yet found the heart to tell the world that you'd rather be back in the land of cotton, and any other noise that's coming out of your mouth probably sounds to others like you're just whistling Dixie.
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