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12 Years a Slave: Slavery’s Legacy as a Lens for the Present

Kalia Abiade • Jan 24, 2014

“The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner

Even before it was released in theaters the film 12 Years a Slave was widely lauded for its depiction of the brutal — if complex — reality of slavery in the United States. The film has since picked up a number of formal accolades, including a Golden Globe for best motion picture in the drama category and several Oscar nominations. While12 Years a Slave is by no means the first movie about slavery in the United States, it has sparked a renewed public dialogue about history and the legacy of racism.

Screenwriter John Ridley recently discussed this phenomenon for a segment on NPR. He reminded listeners that the film is based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, an African American man born free then kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Ridley said Northup’s book was a bestseller at the time he wrote it, and his story became a key part of the absolutists’ campaign until he and his story fell into obscurity. Northup’s story has been emotional and gripping for a new audience who is seeing a version of it play out on screen.

Critics have noted that part of the film’s resonance has a lot to do with director Steve McQueen’s decision to include lingering shots of merciless beatings and lynchings in the film. Some audiences have found it hard to watch, but it seems fitting that a film about slavery would actually convey some of the painful violence that many people endured. McQueen and Ridley have said that uncomfortable feeling was intentional, but Ridley says it’s also important to consider the present.

“I think what cannot get lost in this is where we’ve come as a country, and I think there has to be a sense of pride that we have come this far. There’s got to be pride for the individuals whose families survived all of this,” Ridley says in the interview. “I think there’s got to be pride for those individuals who look at, if my family was like this, I am not.”

There is truth to what Ridley says. There is much to be said for the sheer survival of people who were enslaved. And more, still, to be said about what progress has been made in the in the century and a half since. But we cannot think of slavery only in terms of the past. After some criticism that 12 Years a Slave does just that, McQueen responded, “The past is absolutely about the present for me.”

The legacy of slavery is all around us from the segregated neighborhoods many of us live in, to the schools where generations of black children are being undeserved and are failing. The unfair prison system, limited access to health care and dismal employment rates are all linked to systemic problems of racism, discrimination and, yes, slavery. Even U.S. trade and immigration policies are tied to the legacy of slavery in this country.

As we engage in this public conversation, it is important to keep this intertwined history in mind, especially as our political leaders insist their positions and policies — as they often do — are not at all intended to have discriminatory effects.

Of course there are current policies and practices that are meant to — and do — marginalize, such as SB 1070-style immigration bills, anti-sharia legislation, unfair wages, housing discrimination and others. But we also must consider the impact of policies and practices, even when they are not intended to have racially unjust outcomes.

We have to ask ourselves: Do the policies and practices in our society today work to remedy the problems of our past? Or, do they perpetuate them?

12 Years a Slave has, indeed, reinvigorated an important conversation, but it is important that we not let it fade away when the news and awards cycles move on to something else.

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