12 Years a Slave

I know I’m going to catch hell from a great many of you, but rock with me for a minute.

After Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years A Slave won the Oscar for Best Picture, many Black folks expressed their displeasure that the Academy gave the top prize to a film about slavery. Leading up to the ceremony, people took to social media and blogs to argue that Oscar voters were only comfortable doling out prizes to films where Black people played roles that show them in a negative or “demeaning” light.

And to that I say, so what?

Does it make me uncomfortable that Hollywood seems to recognize us when we play certain “downtrodden” roles? Sure, however, our validation shouldn’t be contingent upon what Hollywood thinks anyway (which is a whole other conversation we should have).

But do I think we should stop telling uncomfortable stories, particularly those about slavery because of it? Hell no.

Let me make one thing clear: our history did not begin with slavery.

I understand that our history stretches back to the beginning of time when man first sprang forth from the cradle of life in Sub-Saharan Africa, and continued to thrive for thousands of years. While our story spans millennia, our time in the U.S. (and other parts of the Americas) began (en masse) when we were shipped across the Atlantic and forced into chattel slavery.

Though there have been a few notable films that explored the topic—Roots, Glory, Amistad, and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman to name a feweven more of our ancestor’s stories deserve to be told.

America’s relationship to slavery is complicated. It’s something we acknowledge occurred, but actively work to forget. Though several of our issues today (generational poverty, unequal intuitions, racism) are linked to the attempted dismantling of Black people in the Americas, we refuse to accept it. Many White folks would rather not be reminded that, even if they did not own slaves, they have benefited from the system of slavery and white supremacy; and many Black folks feel that we shouldn’t dwell too heavily on slavery because it makes us look “less than” as a people. Moreover, some in both camps feel that African Americans should’ve been able to completely pull ourselves up by our bootstraps by now, despite being just one generation removed from legalized segregation and Jim Crow laws.

But slavery happened. From 1654 when John Casor became the first Black man to be legally declared a slave, to December 6, 1865 when Georgia finally ratified the thirteenth amendment, ending slavery in the U.S, America participated in the systematic oppression and abuse of Black folks—and those stories should be told.

For every Kunta Kinte and Solomon Northup there are scores of men and women who have had their narratives snuffed out by history and our willingness to turn our backs on their horror and triumphs.

While many bemoan projects that show African Americans in bondage, films about slave rebellions, uprisings, acts of defiance, and the plight of Black women have yet to be shown.  And we need those stories. We need to honor our ancestors by highlighting and remembering their experiences, because they are why we are here.

Without the acts of bravery, humbleness, kindness, and sheer will, we would not be here. Had our ancestors simply given up and resigned themselves to a lifetime of bondage we would still be working on massa’s plantation for free. But we’re not.

Our ancestors fought back, escaped, filed lawsuits, educated themselves when reading could get them killed, and wrote their own stories so they would not be forgotten. And yet in some sort of twisted campaign to be seen as respectable and valuable and equal in the eyes of our White counterparts, many of us want to turn our backs on the stories of our ancestors because we’re tired of seeing downtrodden Black folks.

Look, I get it. Hollywood has done a poor job of producing films that depict the breadth of our experiences. Like many of you I’m frustrated that Hollywood seems to view issues of race and racism as if they only happened in the past (hence why Fruitvale Station was such an important film). But that doesn’t negate the need to celebrate and highlight the experiences of our ancestors because they did not fight, and struggle, and overcome such horrific circumstances in vain.

I mean, can you imagine seeing a film  about Harriet Tubman or Dred Scott or Nat Turner or Elizabeth Key Grinstead or Touissant Louverture or the German Coast Uprising or an adaptation of Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s breathtaking novel Wench on the big screen?

While Black films should not only be set in the past—we do need films that seriously deal with who we are today—we cannot and should not run from our history.

I have yet to hear the Jewish community complain that there are too many Holocaust films (and there are A LOT, I counted over 70 made in the U.S. alone), and yet when it comes to illuminating the experiences of our ancestors in America there is a problem, because…we’re sick of being seen as oppressed? Instead, how about showing the stories of our victories?

Why are we so uncomfortable hearing, reading, or seeing films that show America for what is was—brutal, inhumane, and extremely hostile to Africans in America? Slavery was an international business. Films about experiences in the Caribbean, South America, and other parts of the world are also worthy of being seen.

Should films about slavery or the struggle for civil rights be the only Black stories on the big screen? Certainly not. But they shouldn’t be off-limits either.

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