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12 Years…How to Showcase Slavery

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“If you don’t see 12 years a slave, then you don’t deserve eyes. Incredible.” Chris Rock (@chrisrock)12 Years

If you express any iota of despair about there being a non-comedic, true story (12 Years is directed by a Black man and the script is written by another Black man, from a primary source—a real life survivor) about the institution of slavery occupying the main stage in Hollywood, perhaps YOU don’t deserve the freedoms you enjoy.

Recently, 12 Years A Slave has set the pages and computer screens of writers ablaze; every person with an opinion about Steve McQueen’s latest effort has either applauded him or vilified him by saying he “lacks the passion to connect his affections to the spirit 12 years steve mcqueenof the human struggle (Slant Magazine).”  Even magazines considered reputable, like Time Magazine, have taken it upon themselves to permit their writers to “fact-check” how close 12 Years remained true to Solomon Northup’s account of his life, but in the most nuanced ways. I want to take Eliana Dockterman’s “fact-check” to task. In her commentary, she used ratings like, “Fact”, “Mostly Fact” and “Fiction” to make distinctions about the authenticity of the truest account of slavery Hollywood has seen to date. Here are some “Absolute Facts” that Ms. Dockterman should consider, too.

Absolute Fact: Slavery was an internationally, constitutionally-sanctioned, chattel institution that operated all over the globe and Black people like me will NOT “get over it” anytime soon.

Absolute Fact: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the ship ride over did not provide cruise ship luxuries for the countless men, women and children that were chained, often times on wooden planks that splintered their backs as the boat swayed, in the bottoms of these sailing, commissioned coffins filled with live people. So what if in the movie a contentious enslaved man was knifed to death as opposed to meeting his death perhaps from the disease-infested ships enslaved Blacks had to endure or the mental illness that12 years slave ship developed from the brutal conditions that caused them to jump overboard in suicide. The method of death wasn’t the point of the scene.  The experienced horrors, subjugation, and attempts to be one another’s “keepers” on the ship was.

Absolute Fact: Slavery was brutal—mentally, physically, emotionally, and politically. Eliana, you are right! To hold someone against their will, to reduce human life to that of “property”, to attribute the European concept of chattel slavery to heredity, to become obscenely wealthy from the hard work and abuse of others, to not acknowledge how abjectly wrong slavery was, WITHOUT any justification, is BRUTAL. Accept it. This movie had to show the brutality for everybody living in denial about slavery. Be thankful Steve McQueen was modest in his use of slavery’s brutality.

Absolute Fact: White women on plantations were referred to as “Mistresses”. How ironic is it that in post slavery days, the “other woman” is the mistress?  Slave owners took preference in raping, being with and even marrying beautiful, desirable enslaved women to the chagrin 12 Years mary and patseyof their wives and other White women. This anger most certainly led to the resentment and abuse the “Mistresses” inflicted on these enslaved women.  When Mistress Mary (Sarah Paulson) threw an object into the face of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) in the movie, Ms. Dockterman labeled this scene in the movie “Fiction” because Solomon Northup did not write about it per se. He didn’t have to. Other formerly enslaved women spoke and wrote about their experiences from like circumstances in other narratives. Most compelling, we know it happened because very few women are comfortable “sharing” their husbands with the “other woman”. Imagine sharing your husband with a person you never recognized as human?  It would not happen without dire consequences.

For the record, Lupita Nyong’o makes us feel slavery and empathize for the first time and in a way that has seldom been captured. This is why 12 Years… is a must see!

Non-fiction movies about slavery should be made and told every single time an opportunity presents itself.  I have read, to my dismay, bloggers expressing their sentiment about not wanting to see any more movies about “slaves and servants” and stating that “Black audiences need more than slave narratives (Demetria Lucas on www.thegrio.com).”  Taking Ms. Lucas to task, I would ask, when and how will we ever learn to be the resilient people our ancestors were if we never listen to and share their words—lessons—on how to navigate the world of brutal injustices we have inherited by virtue of survival?   The reality of the Black experience in America is expressed wonderfully by none other than one of America’s greatest servants, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He said:

“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

Yes. We served. We were enslaved. Those facts have been a part of our journey that we must dignify not mock, understand not denounce, and celebrate not cower to in shame.   Even if Black people never experienced chattel slavery in America, prior to our acquaintance with America, history has recounted and recorded our greatness. We have not become great because we served or were enslaved, we have been able to serve and endure slavery because our souls have been generated by love and the likeness of the Creator. We are great! 

The real culprit to the sentiment of being tired of “slavery and servant” films is the fictionalized romanticism and White-person-heroism that always seems to infiltrate most slavery and servant movies—the depiction of the perceptions of happy endings to centuries of brutalization and dehumanization.  From viewing audiences, there has been an allowance for any and everybody to have license in discussing the suffering of Blacks in America without authenticating or even relying on the use of the voices that lived the suffering—the narratives.  In the name of art, the story of slavery has been codified as an aside that happened in this country that we must now learn to laugh about because at least Black people have arrived; after all, the 21st Century boasts the largest Middle Class America has ever seen for Black America.

Absolute Fact: Slavery nearly crippled this country economically and politically through the Civil War. Over 700,000 lives were lost! Socially, America is still paralyzed from the systemic effects of slavery—an institution designed to empower one group and subjugate another—in reality America is still fighting a Civil War.  The recent government shut down? The discontent and constant feuding between political 12 years Roger Ebertparties? Denying people we don’t feel deserve to eat access to the government’s food stamp program, SNAP? 

In my opinion, one of the kindest, humanizing offerings of dignity paid to the suffering of a mass group of people came from the media by the late movie critic Roger Ebert’s website (www.rogerebert.com) about Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.  On June 24th, 2001, he wrote:

“The Holocaust is a subject too vast and tragic to be encompassed in any reasonable way by fiction.”

He also goes on to refer to the Holocaust as “the saddest story of the century.”

Roger Ebert wrote:

“The terror of the Holocaust comes not because a monster like Goeth could murder, but because thousands of people snatched from their everyday lives became…Hitler’s willing executioners.”

Replace “the Holocaust” with slavery (which was a holocaust as well), replace Goeth (a Nazi soldier) with slavers, and substitute Hitler with international executioners for capital gain, and we begin to understand the far-reaching hands and impacts of slavery on everybody that lived during and after the confines of slavery.

Please go to see this movie and celebrate the painstaking work of Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley in finally telling the story.John Ridley There is no comic relief to break up the pain and suffering of slavery’s horror. There is no happy ending even though Solomon Northup is able to return to his family.  There is no great white hope to save the day.  Although Northup’s letter is delivered by Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt’s character), Northup is not saved from the stain slavery will have on his life for the remainder of it which is possibly the reason he disappeared into obscurity.  Go see this movie because it is the best way to convey to Hollywood that although people like the fantasies, what will heal America is reality that can only be reached by telling true, honest, stories of the past…even when they are brutal.

“If you don’t see 12 years a slave, then you don’t deserve eyes. Incredible.” Chris Rock


  1. This is one of the best responses to the critics of 12 years a Slave. The fact that people are trying to fact check to ease their conscious proves just how powerful a movie it was.

    • Zakiyyah Ali says:

      Wow! Thank you sooooo much for this amazing and encouraging comment. I really appreciate it!

      Ms. Zakiyyah Ali Twitter: @DoItGurl “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it.’ Frantz Fanon

  2. Anonymous says:

    As usual Zakiyyah you have broken it down. Now go fact check that!!!!

  3. […] If you didn’t see 12 Years… check out what I wrote about it and Lupita’s role here: 12 Years A Slave… […]

  4. Keanya says:

    Awesome response and critique of the “critics”. You have strongly stated why the story of slavery is something that should be told in its entirety. Think about the social construct of racism that has been shaped by this institution. Along with the burden of this past atrocity, do we even understand the forced separatism that was placed upon us through sale, kidnapping, and killing of our people? When you think about the black family today and the “voluntary” separatism we create by leaving our families, having children with various women, creating “fractured” families, sometimes with offspring that will never meet, indeed this story needs to be told. We need to know as black people who we are and the strength we had to fight against that separatism, not knowingly perpetuate it.

  5. ForPatsey says:

    Ah, but he did write of the mistress’ violence towrds Patsey:

    “…if she was not watchful when about her cabin, or when walking in the yard, a billet of wood, or a broken bottle perhaps, hurled from her mistress’ hand, would smite her unexpectedly in the face.” – Chapter 13, p. 295, 12 Years A Slave

    Again, Eliana Dockterman is wrong in this matter, as well as Tibeuts being an overseer, as he was not but a carpenter.

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