It can only be described as a funny feeling, the devil’s cocktail of emotion palpable in an AMC Loews theater during a Sunday matinee of 12 Years a Slave. The mix — two parts nervousness and anxiety with a twist of anguish — was unmistakable. Midway through the movie, as the neck of the protagonist is deliberately positioned in a noose hanging his body low enough to keep him alive but high enough to keep him bobbing in and out of consciousness, director Steve McQueen’s camera rests on its subject for an excruciatingly extended take. Each time I assured myself we were nearing a cut, or promised myself the respite of another scene, the shot continued. The room grew more and more silent once it became clear that this specific shot, mere minutes of screen time that dragged on like hours, was not to be ignored.
This was American slavery as presented by 12 Years a Slave: a veritable hell without any contemporary inkling of justice or fairness, an institution that cruelly traps its victims within the tortuous in-between of liberation and dehumanization.
As I exited the theater, re-entering the blistering cold, surrounded by pedestrians who hadn’t just experienced what I had, I was struck by the supreme importance of the film.
“Everyone ever should probably see 12 Years a Slave,” tweeted the friend I saw it with, and I shared her sentiment, though for more reasons than were immediately clear.
Outside of Django Unchained, Amistad, Glory, and Beloved, few films in the past 20 years have contributed to an ongoing dialogue about slavery in America. Roots, the ABC miniseries based on the Alex Haley novel of the same name, is nearly 40 years old; a well-produced narrative of the American slave experience is long overdue.
Spike Lee and Tyler Perry can no longer exist as the sole members on the shorthand list of African-American filmmakers specifically cataloging the black experience. Despite their talents, their singular notoriety perpetuates the dual misconceptions that they are: (a) the only two talented black directors working today, and (b) that two men can speak about the entirety of the masculinities, femininities, and complexities that comprise the black experience. Just as there is more to being an Italian-American than is recorded by the Godfather trilogy or Raging Bull, more to the city of Boston than is documented in Good Will Hunting or The Departed, there is more to being a person of color than is acknowledged in Precious or Slumdog Millionaire.
With data from the 2010 census listing nearly 80 percent of Americans as identifying as “White Alone,” it’s neither surprising nor alarming that the majority of new releases star or feature a predominantly white cast. Though Woody Allen’s summer hit Blue Jasmine featured no actors of color, I identified with its characterization of wealth, consumerism, and constructions of female identity more than I could with The Help, a 2011 film with a large number of African-American actresses. Human stories — those that transcend race, class, and sexual orientation — exist and are valuable. The problem is that despite the rightful plethora of movies dramatizing the Holocaust or other genocides, I can count on one hand the number of films that mention, let alone feature, Native American removal, African-American slavery, Japanese internment, and the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
For demographics well represented in media, the lack of minority narratives on screen is understandably difficult to notice. When the entertainment industry is dominated by writers and directors who speak to the experiences of those of their status, it’s inherently challenging to understand the sentiments of minorities for which this doesn’t happen. Still, well-produced and widely-seen media has a well-documented effect of prompting re-examinations of institutionalized discrimination that can bring about change, which is why more movies that access the causes and effects of current class and racial tribulations are important — it is only in the arts that honest dialogues about difficult topics can exist. President Barack Obama, for example, credited the NBC sitcom The Cosby Show for his palatability as a black presidential candidate, recognizing the show’s effect in normalizing positive images of black families and black men, not with elaborate rhetoric or sweeping phrasing, but casually and artfully, in living rooms across America.
With a score of 96 on the movie review website Metacritic, 12 Years a Slave is an incredibly well-received film with themes that transcend ethnic and racial history. It’s not only important in the discriminatory realities it depicts, but in those that its release represents. There is a serious dearth of American-produced media that aims to document the wrongdoing and genocide that affect American minorities most personally, and 12 Years a Slave is an important first step in addressing this deficiency.