Monday, November 4, 2013

Guest Post: Movie Reflections: 12 Years a Slave

We've been blessed with a another guest post from the Diva blogger Tasha Rose. She shares her thoughts on the recent movie, 12 Years a Slave. Please engage our guest in the the comments below.  Be sure to follow her on Twitter @TRosePhD


(Disclaimer: Let me start off by saying that this is not a review. I have my own particular beliefs about reviews, which can be summed up by saying that I find all art and entertainment to be too subjective and personal for me to lend any credence in them. Additionally, I hate when film experts (loosely defined as people that went to film school or made a few films or just people that decided that because they like movies and decided to write about them that they should be experts) trash a movie I like and endorse a movie that doesn’t move me. So this is not a review. This is a reflection.)

12 Years a Slave is not for the faint of heart. The storyline itself, and the fact that it is based upon a true story, is troubling, if not heartbreaking. Although I am not a stranger to the knowledge of how horrific and brutal the institution of slavery is, and knew that it would be tough to watch this movie, I still was not quite prepared for the reactions I found myself experiencing. In some of the more difficult scenes I found myself so shocked that I could not even cry or think. There were times when I wanted to just walk out, which I have never done at the movies. If I were at home, I would have just turned the channel like I do whenever an uncomfortable scene comes on with anything I watch. But I stuck it out. Still, I left feeling a variety of things that I was not able to articulate until I read some comments on line from others regarding their reactions, questions, and decisions regarding whether they did or did not watch them.

A consistent sentiment I’ve read about this movie is why Hollywood continues to make movies that depict the brutality and imagery of slavery. I partly understand the frustrations of some people about slavery themed movies. It makes sense to argue that with all the advancements that African-Americans have made, more focus should be on positive stories. However, I disagree with the idea that films about slavery are negative. Before you can know where you are going, you have to know where you came from. While some may consider that statement cliché, the truth of it resonates in knowing that the past provides context to much of what we see in the world around us. For many of us, it’s a short leap between today’s cases of blatant racism and modern-day lynchings and the history of how people of color have been treated in society; however, there are large groups of people today that don’t make that connection. Even for those of us who recognize the connections, sometimes we get so comfortable in our positions, that we sometimes forget, amidst our frustrations, how significant our achievements are as the offspring of former enslaved people.

One of my reactions as I watched Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character Solomon hiding the fact that he could read and write (because being educated could result in a slave being killed) was how so many young Black people take their education for granted; they don’t even seem to really value it. I sat in that movie seat thinking about the fact that my multiple degrees and my love for reading and writing were “luxuries” that my ancestors could not even imagine. As Maya Angelou so eloquently stated in her poem “Still I Rise,” the lives many of us lead are the “the dream and hope of the slave.

As uncomfortable as it was to watch this film – which made it not exactly the ideal Friday night flick – I believe that it was an important film. I believe it needed to be made and needs to be seen. As a former high school and middle school teacher, I have watched the subject of slavery, and other societal atrocities, steadily reduced to footnotes in many history books. The result has been that many African-American students today are walking around without a sense of history of what their ancestors went through, the world that they lived in, and what the legacy of slavery was and is. I still remember a student who once summarized his understanding of the Civil Rights Movement and the Civil War by stating that Martin Luther King freed the slaves (and yes, he was being completely serious). As crazy as it may sound, that kind of story was the sum of this student’s knowledge about slavery. Non-African-American students are disadvantaged due to this whitewashed version of history fed to them. They too are unaware of slavery’s atrocities. They have no clue how horrid slavery was or its impact on today’s society.

The reality of this was driven home to me just last month during one of my lessons on censorship. Just last year, there were several reports about New York removing words like “slavery” and “terrorism” from their state test. One of my students agreed saying perhaps slavery should not be taught because when she learned about it made her angry toward white people, and she would rather have just not known about it. In that one statement, this student summed up what I feel is the crux of many negative critiques about this movie. In general, there seems to be this idea that by not looking at the bad parts of historical and present day societal issues we can avoid the negative feelings they bring up, and maybe wish them all away. But without these conversations, society doesn’t change and history could repeat itself. Learning from the past involves having to look at everything, the good and the bad. Sure historians and scholars understand that, but your average person doesn’t. I am not arguing that this was Hollywood’s intention with making this movie; I am saying that regardless, it can be used as a tool for others.

Have you seen 12 Years a Slave?  What were your thoughts?
Do you agree with the some of the criticism?
Should Hollywood continue to make movies about Slavery?
Why doesn't society get "tired" of movies that repeat themes from White America?
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