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February 27th, 2014

What 12 Years a Slave Teaches Us About Racism Today


Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor star in “12 Years a Slave.”

Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave.”

12 Years A Slave hurt. Emotionally, sometimes even close to physically, it was painful to watch … and that’s putting it mildly. The film pulled no punches when dealing with the harsh realities of America’s slave trade and the evil acted out by those who took part in it. The movie tells the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwitel Ejiofor), a free African-American from Saratoga, New York, who is drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery in 1841 by men he thought he could trust. Solomon witnesses firsthand the malice of slave traders as he is passed from master to master as a piece of commerce, experiencing treatment unlike any he had ever received in his life.

Showcasing such horrors as rape, murder, brutal whippings, and lynching, the film doesn’t shy away from the cruelty slaves endured. Rather, it thrusts such cruelty into the forefront, forcing the audience to behold just how dreadful and terrifying life could be for slaves. 12 Years confronts its audience boldly and does not let up. It was a movie (easily “Best Picture” quality) that left me speechless as I stared at the credits, blown away by what I’d just witnessed.

One of the more captivating moments is when Solomon — and by extension, the audience — meets Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, pulling off a deft Southern accent). Ford is kind in comparison to the rest of the cruel lot, but the film goes out of its way to remind us of his true character. Solomon himself almost gets fooled, telling fellow slave Eliza, “Ford is a decent man.” “He is a slaver,” she responds defiantly, but Solomon still defends the man. “Under the circumstances,” he begins, but is cut off: “Under the circumstances, he is a slaver.”

It’s this sort of reminder that keeps 12 Years A Slave grounded, and keeps its audience from relativizing what they see before their eyes. Certainly some audience members felt the same way about Ford that Solomon did, allowing him some leeway because of the “circumstances of his time.” But Eliza’s response confronts viewers with the fact that no matter what the circumstances, subjugating and degrading others, as in the case of slavery, is wrong.

Just as when the camera pans to reveal our nation’s capital as Solomon is first captured and sold into slavery, the film challenges us not to distance ourselves from what we see on screen. We need to recognize slavery not only as something that happened in history, but something that happened in the history of our country and to not allow such prejudice and callousness to occur again. It’s not something that’s going to be comfortable for everyone to deal with, but at the same time it is something that we need to come to terms with.

We must realize that, though we’ve done away with slavery in the United States, the attitudes and stereotypes that surrounded it still pervade our culture to this day. In our everyday lives we encounter the same racism that fueled the slave trade, from the shooting of Trayvon Martin to the reactions people have to something as innocuous as a Cheerios ad. Advertisements themselves can be littered with racially insensitive or offensive content. Racism is not a thing of the past, as much as we may wish for it to be.

Just as slavery was entrenched in the American South and normalized, systems of oppression continue to exist in our society, and we cannot be complacent. Moments in the film like the conversation between Solomon and Eliza force us to not only view the past from a different angle, but also to re-evaluate where we stand in the present. How often are we like Solomon and convinced that things aren’t that bad? Like Eliza in the film, we cannot excuse injustice, no matter the veneer it may hide behind. When we see racism in our communities, schools, churches, popular culture, and even our own families, we must address it. We must change it. We must examine the systems in today’s society that keep people — no matter their race, income, education, gender — from being all that God created them to be. This is not always easy work, but it’s work God calls us to do. We must take the spirit of Eliza with us from the movie theater and into a world that needs more prophetic voices to bring about true change.

Where do we start? With ourselves. The changes we hope to make need to flow from within. If we want to encourage others to treat everyone equally, we must first model that behavior in our own lives. By broadening our own understandings of race and challenging others to do so as well, we can be the prophetic voices of our time. Get involved with an organization already working on racial justice issues in your community. Become more informed by reading about the history of race in the United States and having conversations with others about what you learn. I have a book (and movie) suggestion for you: 12 Years a Slave.

The Author : Louis Sullivan
Louis graduated from Fordham University, where he majored in English and theology and is now pursuing an MBA in Marketing at Saint Peter's University. He is an avid comic book and movie fan, and is the publisher of the Batman website From the Batcave, as well as co-publisher of NYCityGuys.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • IndianRapist

    In the US its okay to walk up to an Indian man and ask him if he took any dowry for his wedding. Its also perfectly acceptable to accuse Indian men of being liars because their culture teaches them to lie and ill treat women. Infact western media puts harassing men from Asia as “vigilante justice”. (In other words, the law hasn’t got the obviously evil Asian men, hence some brave white man got them)

    Being a man of Indian descent in US, I get humiliated on a regular basis, almost always white people. But according to mainstream media, only speaking against blacks and mexicans makes you a racist.

    The way western media puts it is , men from Asia apparently need to be “tolerated” (like the blacks were tolerated in the 50s)

    • YaraGreyjoy

      Dear Sir,

      I am so sorry you have encountered such unconscionably rude & ignorant white people here in America. I can only speak from where I live in New York but in my many encounters with Indian people (who I have found to be an exceedingly polite & genuinely friendly people if you will allow for a generalization) it would never ever occur to me, or to anyone I know to stand up and call an Indian man a liar who treats women badly (?!?!) I cannot imagine where the people you encountered get this image of Indian culture as it is the opposite of what I believe is the common perception of the Indian people.

      It is extremely racist & mean-spirited for people to say those things to you & any civil person with a shred of decency or just common sense knows it is. If I or anyone I know heard such things being said, we’d be shocked someone would say such things & certainly take your side.

      Asking about a dowry is slightly different but still not good manners, it’s an embarrassing show of ignorance on the part of the person doing the asking, as you know it’s based on the half heard stories of dowries from a very long time ago in India (like asking a white woman like myself if I wore a corset!) or perhaps they gleaned this idea from practices of a tiny, tiny group of people in the remotest parts of your homeland who live way out in rural areas and hence not at all representative of modern Indian culture. I must apologize if I have made any mistakes here or offended you & on behalf of ignorant people who have said such things.

      Also I must say that the term “vigilante justice” is not used as a positive description unless someone taking the law into their own hands sounds like a good idea to the person saying it! Stories of vigilante justice, like the Trayvon Martin case, in my opinion and the opinion of many others, was a tragedy precisely because some guy decided he was above the law & an innocent teenager was shot & killed. That’s how vigilante justice usually turns out – an innocent person get either hurt or killed. Definitely not a positive thing in my book but I agree the words make it sound like it could be viewed in a positive way ie the word justice being part of the phrase is problematic from this angle.

      My friend, you are like a brother to me and my own family who came to this country in the early 1900s & had terrible, racist things thought about them and said to them & in some cases done to them (the results at their worst killing 2 of my immigrant ancestors). I fear you are experiencing the rough treatment immigrants to America are still receiving and have received ever since the US opened our shores to them(us).

      In the bad cases, to the “natives” the immigrant comes from an unknown culture, so they are viewed with suspicion & often not kindly, with all the bad stereotypes thrown at them with no care by the least thoughtful or the most resentful. In addition to this, the American system has always been ingenious at pitting people who should stand together against each other – some people blame immigrants for “taking” jobs that they believe rightfully belong to them. But no one ever gets angry at the bosses looking always for lower wage workers or the government for the economic shortfalls & joblessness – it isn’t the immigrant worker’s fault at all, never has been, but that tired old refrain has not changed.

      It is also true that certain prejudices or instances of racism seem to get taken more seriously than others – we both know racism against Asians in general is not a hot button topic, like it is with African-Americans, Latinos & also I’d add people who are LGBT. But I know that no people of good, honest will would look at the way you have been treated and not know it is the worst kind of prejudiced, racist behavior. I promise you there are people like that out there – the jerks are a lot louder though :(

      Speaking as a descendant of immigrants who went through similar unfriendly behavior I’d just like to extend to you a sign of peace and solidarity from my immigrant tree to yours & your family’s. Good people, should speak up for you & a few will but people are also largely cowards (in my humble opinion). Most people disagree with the loudmouth calling you a liar & think he’s obnoxious but they remain silent for a variety of reasons, none of them of much comfort to you I’d bet.

      The feeling of being hostilely “tolerated” I believe has more to do with the immigrant experience in America than being specifically Asian. As a rule American stereotypes about Asians, when compared to historical stereotypes of other groups & stereotypes of certain groups today are more neutral in nature (Asians are good at Math & Engineering for the most common one) – the most negative modern days stereotypes about specific groups now tend to be focused on Muslim people (perhaps these people think you are Pakistani? Not that it matters or justifies it). Americans tend to get very resentful of immigrants’ perceived lack of assimilation into American culture, not that it’s their business. As the descendant of immigrants who alternately did poorly, well & everything in between by this standard, this attitude has been around as long as America has had immigrants. The most common thing to criticize is “they’re not learning the language!” or not learning it fast enough or whatever. Like I said, none of their business but it happens.

      I hope this will bring you something good – you’ve indeed been treated poorly. In the metropolitan areas, we are quite accustomed to Indian people & have been for a comparatively long time. I doubt you’d get barely a glance in my city let alone have someone go off on you. If it’s really bad, consider your options. Take care & be well.

    • JuliePurple

      Wow, that is a total bummer that you had to hear all that.
      I don’t watch mainstream media, so I didn’t know about some of the stuff you were saying. It’s sad that people are treated like that. It’s not right.
      For what it’s worth, not all Americans are so ugly towards folks from India, Asia, and wherever. Some of us actually have the notion that we’re all pretty much alike.

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