By Mansfield Frazier
Initially, words eluded me. I left the movie theater literally dumbfounded … rendered speechless by the brutal magnificence, unmitigated horror and, yes, the ultimate heartrending beauty of director Steve McQueen’s cinematic masterwork 12 Years a Slave. Never in my entire life have I ever been so moved by a film that is, at the same instance, both cathartic and cauterizing … searing out the remaining rotting flesh of the longest running and most horrific (and need I remind you legal at the time) institutionalized crime in the history of mankind: Slavery as it was practiced in the United States for hundreds of years.
While the Internet is abuzz with speculation in regards to how many Oscars the film will receive, given the political nature of how winners and losers are determined in the race for the coveted statuettes, I care little if this most-deserving work of great historical significance is even nominated; it’s already accomplished what no other film in the history of moviemaking has done: Finally brought to the public a just examination of perhaps the most defining issue of the American experience. And the screenwriter didn’t put any yeast in the narrative … the true story on which the movie was based is able to stand very well on its own.
The fact is, our nation was born with the birth defect of slavery, an issue our Founding Fathers studiously ignored out of political expediency at the time. But it’s not as if they were not aware of the evils of this pernicious practice: John and Abigail Adams constantly railed against the “peculiar institution” at every opportunity. Perhaps if Washington, Jefferson, Madison, et al had known at the time that it would take a Civil War to end the practice, and that its lingering effects would still be felt in the nation 150 years after that war, they might have tried harder to put an end to the Triangle Trade.
12 Years a Slave, with brilliant performances by the entire cast, will undoubtedly reignite calls of “just get over it” by revisionists who wish to deny the lingering negative effects of slavery, and the blacks I know would love nothing better than to put this ugly period behind us, but we can’t — our race is still being impacted by what supposedly ended in 1864, but every honest person knows it didn’t. The acting out by thugs in inner-city neighborhoods has a direct and provable link to the practice of treating people as chattel … and this film should make folks uncomfortable … and it will.
Cinema can serve as a change agent: The 1998 film Gorillas in the Mist awakened the world to the plight of the upland gorillas in Rwanda and set in motion efforts — that ultimately proved successful — to save them from extinction by protecting their habitat from poachers. Perhaps 12 Years a Slave could potentially have a similar effect.
It could reopen the slammed door of the conversation surrounding reparations. Before anyone gets up in arms, I’m not proposing that black folks receive compensation — two-thirds of my race is doing just fine, thank you; we don’t need a check. But what I am proposing is that in return for the centuries of uncompensated labor blacks provided (labor that played a substantial role in making this country the richest in the history of mankind), serious programs that focus on underprivileged children of all races — proven programs that we know to work and work well — be fully funded and implemented so that we can once and for all eliminate the plague of low goals and lower expectations that were foisted on my race by the centuries of involuntary servitude. You see, there’s nothing wrong with my race, but indeed something was done to my race, and this brilliant films accurately portrays that “something” in all of its unremitting horror.
For my part, I’d be satisfied with a simple heartfelt apology for the indignities my forebears suffered, but this is something my nation has never had courage or honor to give. But I’d graciously accept one for my Grandma Betty, who was born a slave.
If you only see one movie for the remainder of the year, make it this one.
From Cool Cleveland correspondent Mansfield B. Frazier mansfieldfATgmail.com. Frazier’s From Behind The Wall: Commentary on Crime, Punishment, Race and the Underclass by a Prison Inmate is available again in hardback. Snag your copy and have it signed by the author by visiting http://NeighborhoodSolutionsInc.com.