Thursday, March 20, 2014

12 Years a Slave

A review of the movie made from the book by Solomon Northup

Initially I wasn’t looking forward to seeing the film 12 Years a Slave.  I knew the film would be a gruesome depiction of the institution of chattel slavery that would be difficult to watch.  However, I also knew that within that film there would be a biography of someone who had a unique story to tell.

When we went to high school, we probably learned something about the Civil War.  We might have learned that about the 600,000 soldiers who perished in that war.  We might have learned that General William Tecumseh Sherman, in his march through the Confederate states, ordered most of the buildings he could find burned to the ground.  The question is: Why did all this happen?

The film 12 Years a Slave gives an excellent answer to that question.  In Solomon Northup’s book written in 1853, he summarized his years in slavery.  He said that when he was made a slave he had “reached the threshold of unutterable wrong, and sorrow, and despair.” 

Unlike most slaves Northup had not been raised as a slave.  He had a wife and three children.  He was a carpenter and also earned money playing the violin.  Although he never had a lot of money, Northup understood clearly that his life as a slave was totally different from his life as a paid worker.

The most compelling reasons for the Civil War will not be found in the thousands of history books written on this subject.  No, when we look at the biographies of people like Solomon Northup, this is where we learn the real reasons for that war. 

We can look at the book and film of Alex Haley’s family titled Roots.  We can also look at the biographies or autobiographies of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Nat Turner, and Denmark Vessey.  When we look at the world through the eyes of these heroes of our history, then we can understand why there was immense destruction during the Civil War.

The legacy of slavery in the United States

We also might consider that the same political party that ran the slave system, as well as the system of Jim Crow segregation, is the Democratic Party.  Given the enormous amount of destruction this party has been responsible for, it is amazing that it wasn’t abandoned a long time ago.

One of the most difficult horrors Solomon Northup experienced was his separation from his family.  Today, the United States government has a policy of separating people from their families through the so-called criminal justice system and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Michelle Alexander documented how the government targets Black people for imprisonment in her book, The New Jim Crow – Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  The theme of Alexander’s book is to point out that Black people are grossly over-represented in the dungeons of this country.

We might consider that Solomon Northup was placed in solitary confinement for a few days in an attempt to break him of his will to be free.  Today there are entire Supermax prisons that confine inmates in solitary confinement for years as a time.

1,000 deportations per day

The Presidential Administration of Barrack Obama has been deporting people from the United States at a rate of about 1,000 per day.  This amounts to about 30,000 deportations per month, compared to the 20,000 per month under the administration of President George Bush. 

Thousands of those who were deported are the parents of children who were born in the United States.  When the I.N.S. sends these parents to other countries the children are sent to foster homes.  When the I.N.S. separates children from their parents, how are they different from the slave catchers of Solomon Northup’s day?  

We might also consider that today about 40% of the world’s population lives on about two dollars per day or less.  When someone is deported from this country there is a good likelihood that they will live in conditions where the salary is about two dollars per day.  Are these conditions significantly different from the conditions of slavery experienced by Solomon Northup?

Most immigrants come to this country from Mexico.  The facts are that the entire South-West of this country was stolen from Mexico through means of war.  The Mexican people are mostly of Native American descent.  This means that the ancestors of the Mexican people where the first ones to inhabit this part of the world.

What are the roles Hollywood gives to Black people?

The film 12 Years a Slave won the Oscar for the Best Picture of the Year.  Chiwetel Ejiofor should have won the award for best actor for his portrayal of Solomon Northup.  Lupita Nyong’o won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as a slave who was viciously beaten and raped.

Certainly I’m glad that this film was made and should be seen by anyone who is interested in our history.  However, we might list the biographies of heroic Black people who have not received attention from Hollywood.  These biographies would include: Frederick Douglass, Martin Robinson Delany, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. Dubois, Marcus Garvey, Ida Wells, Toussaint L’Overture, and Antonio Maceo.

On the other hand, Halle Berry did receive the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in the film Monster’s Ball.  Berry portrayed the wife of a Black man who was executed while in prison.  Berry’s character was also the mother of a son who died in a car accident because he needed to walk home in the rain.

Denzel Washington won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the film Training Day.  Washington’s role in this film was of a corrupt LAPD narcotics officer.  Washington should have also won an Oscar for his role of Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, who served twenty years in prison on framed-up murder charges.  I also felt that Washington gave a wonderful performance in one of my favorite films, The Great Debaters.    

Danny Glover is attempting to make a movie about the Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Overture, but he has had difficulty in getting funding for the project.  Indeed, Spike Lee needed independent funding to make his film about the life of Malcolm X, titled X.

Today we can all be glad that the conditions Solomon Northup experienced as a slave no longer exist for most people in this country.  However, when we understand the naked reality in the world today, it is clear that we don’t experience freedom.

My opinion is that the reason why the films 12 Years a Slave, and Roots have been so popular, is because working people today can identify with slaves who yearn to be free.  Genuine freedom is something we are all still struggling to achieve.     


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