Tuesday, March 4, 2014

12 Years A Slave And The Opportunities It Presents

I was glad to see that 12 Years A Slave won best picture at the Oscars.  Not only is it a great film, it presents a great opportunity for change.  As I noted after seeing it, 12 Years A Slave brilliantly picks apart old Hollywood depictions of idyllic life in the antebellum South.

For decades Hollywood has reinforced this nation's infantile relationship with its past, one where America is a righteous defender of freedom and land of opportunity.  So many today, in the Tea Party movement and not, unironically cite Thomas Jefferson as a great democrat, despite his ownership of scores of his fellow humans.  The "Founders" are two dimensional god-figures in the public imagination, and racism ended when Martin Luther King marched on Washington.  Those erroneous opinions are not on the fringe, they are central to how most Americans understand their past.  Conservatives in places like Texas have been fighting to change history curricula to eliminate any unpleasant aspects of America's past, since the nationalistic narrative of American history reinforces their own claims to power and shuts down criticism of the status quo.

Cinema can help correct the record.  12 Years a Slave makes it difficult for anyone who views it see buy any of the paternalistic narratives about American slavery or to romanticize the old South.  The tears of enslaved men and women drenches the shiny plantation house, their blood fertilizes the cotton.

It's time to translate that understanding of slavery to depictions of the 18th century, that much mythologized time of the nation's founding.  A great film could be of the Stono Rebellion by slaves in South Carolina, or the "Conspiracy of 1741" in New York City.  A truly great historical epic could tell the story of those slaves who took up arms with the British during the Revolution to fight for their freedom, only to be colonized in Sierra Leone and Nova Scotia.  Above all, I would love to see a film about Oney Judge, a slave of George Washington's who managed to escape to freedom despite his concerted attempts to recapture her.  Such a film might challenge the deeply held taboo over acknowledging that the Father of the Nation was intimately and inextricably tied to the institution of slavery.  If this nation is ever to have a mature relationship with its past and by extension, have a better understanding of its present, stories such as this need to be told just as often as the tale of the crossing of the Delaware.

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