By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON: Hollywood has finally taken an unflinching look at slavery. It’s past time for the rest of the country to do the same.
I wanted to wait a few days before writing about the best picture Oscar for 12 Years a Slave to see if it still felt like an important milestone. It does. Academy Award recognition for one well-made movie obviously does not make up for a century of pretending that slavery never happened. But perhaps the movie industry’s top prize can give impetus to the efforts of artists and scholars who are beginning to honestly confront this nation’s Original Sin.
We tell ourselves that we know all about slavery, that it’s ancient history. But we’ve never fully investigated its horrors, which means we’ve never come to terms with them, which means we’ve never been able to get beyond them. Where slavery is concerned, we are imprisoned by William Faulkner’s famous epigram: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The success of 12 Years a Slave may be a significant step toward our collective liberation.
The movie came just a year after Django Unchained, the 2012 epic in which Quentin Tarantino re-imagined slavery as a Southern-fried spaghetti Western. Django had one of those traditional hero-on-a-quest story lines that Hollywood can’t get enough of, and Tarantino’s blood-spattered style was perfect for capturing the unspeakable brutality that sustained American slavery. But 12 Years is vastly more important, for two reasons: It won best picture, and it’s based on a true story.
Solomon Northup, a free man, really was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery. He really did spend a dozen years in captivity. He really did meet a brave young woman named Patsey. He really did survive the experience, secure his release in 1853 and publish a powerful memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, that was the basis for John Ridley’s Oscar-winning screenplay.
It took a British auteur and an A-list movie star to bring Northup’s harrowing story to the screen. Steve McQueen, the first black director of a best picture winner, has said that his wife “discovered” Northup’s book; in fact, it is one of the best-known slave narratives. Producer Brad Pitt provided the box-office clout needed to overcome Hollywood’s reservations about this ambitious film, starring unknown black actors, that sought to challenge audiences rather than delight them.
No matter. Chiwetel Ejiofor delivered a searing, Oscar-nominated performance as Northup. Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar for making Patsey the film’s most haunting character and has emerged, by consensus, as the year’s brightest new star. And because of the awards, there is new interest in McQueen’s film and Northup’s book — which means that more people will educate themselves about slavery.
I called it the nation’s Original Sin because slave owners, including the Founding Fathers, knew very well that they were sinners. Owning slaves was a matter of economics — one could hardly be expected to run a plantation without them — and personal luxury.
James Madison called slavery “the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man” — but did not free the slaves he owned. Thomas Jefferson believed slavery should be ended in the future — but continued to own slaves throughout his lifetime. Patrick Henry, who said “Give me liberty or give me death,” believed that slavery was “evil” — but would not free the men and women he owned because of “the general inconvenience of living without them.”
One price the slave owners paid was constant fear of insurrection, especially after the Haitian revolution. As the slave population in the United States grew sharply after the invention of the cotton gin, techniques of repression and control increased in brutality.
Many people think of slavery as only a Southern phenomenon, but some of the biggest slave traders in the country were based in Rhode Island. Commerce in cotton picked by slaves was so important to New York’s growth as a financial center that the mayor, Fernando Wood, wanted the city to secede during the Civil War in order to continue doing business with the Confederacy.
As the war raged, slaves across the South took advantage of chaos to escape. Able-bodied whites who otherwise would have fought in the Confederate Army had to stay home to make sure that slaves did not rise in rebellion or simply run away.
Scholars digging through public, commercial and family archives are unearthing facts and stories that have long been swept under the rug. Hollywood’s recognition of 12 Years a Slave announces an uncomfortable truth: Slavery’s story is America’s story.
Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.