“12 Years a Slave,” Steve McQueen's critically acclaimed movie opening nationwide on Nov. 8, is the most powerful cinematic depiction of slavery ever seen on-screen. The critical buzz surrounding the film has rightfully focused on the combination of its astonishing performances, nuanced script and unflinching examination of antebellum slavery's impact on a nation founded on declarations of liberty and freedom for all.
But the film's biggest accomplishment is the way in which its artistry is at once an immersive experience that manages the nearly impossible, creating historical characters whose actions speak clearly and fluidly in conversation with the present.
Anyone who wants to understand the latest controversy over racial profiling at Barneys, a Hollywood actress in blackface for Halloween or an athlete spewing the n-word should immediately view “12 Years a Slave.”
Based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from Saratoga, N.Y., who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold to Southern planters, “12 Years a Slave” represents a stunning act of historical recovery, one that is designed to have an impact on a wider audience than any book or piece of scholarship could. By reminding us of a not-so-distant past that defined African-Americans as a species of property, the film provides answers to why racism, 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, remains stubbornly resistant to defeat.
It does this by revealing history not as we fervently wish it had been but as it actually occurred. Slavery was never merely the “original sin” of the republic or some kind of stain of an otherwise healthy democracy.
Slavery, and its subsequent parsing of groups of human beings based on race, is at the core of our national identity. Once this is understood, our contemporary circumstances become much clearer, even logical. From this perspective it's quite understandable why Reconstruction failed, despite the heroic efforts of African-Americans (and at times white allies) to reimagine a new, more inclusive country that had never been in existence.
Indeed, the first century after slavery's formal conclusion (1865-1965) featured a national project of racial segregation called Jim Crow that attempted to keep the majority of blacks in a state as close to legal slavery as possible. One hundred years of lynching, violence and segregation created a nation in which the status of African-Americans, as well as the economic and political distribution of resources in 1965, looked strikingly similar to that in antebellum America.
The poverty that has engulfed the black community ever since it provided the unpaid labor that built American capitalism is the most obvious present-day reverberation of slavery. Slavery represented a thriving business that helped the Southern, more agricultural economy flourish, but also one that had extensive Northern ties. The unpaid labor of enslaved Africans helped build elite universities, and resources from slavery were used for campus libraries and to propel university endowments.
“12 Years a Slave” therefore offers a panoramic history lesson that cuts to the very heart of contemporary race relations by implicitly answering questions asked by blacks and other ethnic and racial minorities as well as whites. For white people who may wonder why black people could not simply “get over” slavery, the movie provides searing, lengthy examples of the institution's political and psychological assaults on both individuals and the nation's character.
African-Americans who feel that the movie may be too painful to view should embrace this historic opportunity to delve into a past from which many remain distant or are even ashamed to discuss and dwell upon. But of course this film goes beyond black-white racial binaries.
The film, while meticulous and heartfelt as entertainment, offers a luminous portrait of a historical era that, however painful, remains virtually ignored in popular culture and national memory. Racial violence, inequality, poverty, mass incarceration and failing public schools all represent parts of slavery's contemporary legacy. The persistence of these social ills explains why we still need affirmative action. The toxic racial environment depicted in “12 Years,” in which blacks are daily assaulted, remains embedded in the nation's psyche and helps explain the resistance to public policy designed to heal decades of legalized discrimination.
Racial segregation's origin story remains firmly rooted in antebellum slavery. Only by squarely confronting slavery's violent legacy and continued reverberations can we not only come to terms with the past but also craft solutions to contemporary problems that, when viewed with an appreciation for history, no longer seem novel or inexplicable at all.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University.