‘12 Years a Slave’ Shows Real Value of Ethnic History

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After the Golden Globe win and all the Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, “12 Years a Slave” re-opened nationwide hoping to cash in and become everyone’s MLK weekend date night pick.

Maybe it’s a sign that slavery is ready for its close –up.

Not that it has done all that well so far at the box office to date.

As an example, on Saturday, Jan. 11, “Lone Survivor,” a violent, “war buddy-Call to Duty” type film, was No.1 with $14.4 million nationwide that day alone. (It’s earned more than $50 million in 23 weeks.)

“Anchorman 2” with its Filipino racist joke, and Blacks having dinner with Ron Burgundy still brought in 2.6 million that day. (The movie’s grossed over $119 million in 30 weeks. My take on its race flaws are here: http://aaldef.org/blog/anchorman-2-movie-didnt-need-racist-ethnic-joke-against-filipinos.html )

And way down in the list on Jan. 11 was “12 Years a Slave,” with just $127,000 that day. (It’s brought in just $39 million in 91 weeks, but with international openings this week, looks on pace to make about $100 million.)

America’s taste is America’s taste. And commercial success is all relative. Melvin Van Peebles would have liked to have had those numbers. “Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song” in 1971 reportedly grossed $15 million in its lifetime.

But this isn’t the new “Blaxploitation”

This is slavery on the big screen for real.

And It took Steve McQueen, a Black Brit to give us a modern “in your face” look at the institution by bringing his version of the story of Solomon Northup ― a free Black man in New York, kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1840s.

As I mentioned in my AALDEF blog, I know I’m late to the party. (http://aaldef.org/blog/12-years-a-slave-worthy-of-golden-globe–and-oscar-too.html)

I figured seeing the amount of racial hate and discrimination as I do on my beat as a journalist, I didn’t need to see a film about. I get it. (Gordon Parks also did a version of Northup’s book in 1984. It wasn’t new.)

But I’m glad I saw this version, despite the brutality. This isn’t a movie that beats around the bush with style or euphemism. They don’t use the phrase “N-word.” Nor is slavery depicted in “S-word” style.

We hear racists say “Nigger.” We see masters beat the level hell out of hard-working slaves.

One black critic called it “torture porn.” McQueen known for titillation in his movies, does take it right to the edge. You’ll ask if we must see every lash, every welt on poor Patsey’s back.

But maybe we do need to, in order to experience the unimaginable—because it happened.

That’s why I called the movie “electroshock for racists.”

Conservative types who continue to fight policies like affirmative action by saying that the debt to minorities and blacks in particular has been paid, need to see this film.

How could any debt be paid if America’s understanding of that debt isn’t truly understood?

Slavery?  You think you really know what it was about?

The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen has become infamous for a recent column on how the film helped him understand that slavery wasn’t some benign thing that happened in the south.

Slavery benign?

Hard to believe. But that’s how deep ignorance runs.

When all that people know about slavery is from high school, Classics illustrated, and Rush Limbaugh, once again our education system has failed.

Want to know why there’s a passion for ethnic studies in the academy? Because without it we’d be ignorant about matters such as Solomon Northup.

You can’t expect to hear his story in the 3 pages devoted to slavery in a standard U.S. high school text. And in college? Well, you can go through four years of any college and not take one history course.

That’s why I harp on movies and the pop culture experience. For some, it’s the only way people know what little they know.

And this awards season shows Hollywood is still far behind in honoring the true stories.

Apparently, Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” depicting the views of a real life White House butler, was too true for Oscar.

And “Fruitvale Station,” the story of the Oakland murder of young Oscar Grant, was too close for Oscar.

But “12 Years a Slave?” Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir? Far enough away for Hollywood’s longest lens and at least worthy of Oscar mention, if not a full nod.

Emil Guillermo writes on issues of race for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (www.aaldef.org/blog)  Like him at www.facebook.com/emilguillermo.media ; twitter@emilamok

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