I did not want to see 12 Years a Slave. It sounded like a magnificent movie that was nearly impossible to watch. But I went anyway, to keep up with Oscar best-picture nominees. I’m glad it won–now more people will overcome their wish to look away, and go see it.
How people direct their gaze is an important motif in the film. The camera lingers on the brutality of a system that subjugated millions of black men, women, and children. Protagonist Solomon Northrup, who has lived a comfortable life as a free man until he is kidnapped and sold into slavery, looks directly at people. A fellow captive aboard the steamboat delivering them down the Mississippi to their enslavement advises, “Survival’s about keeping your head down.” Indeed, slaves who have never known freedom avert their eyes. In contrast, the menacing, sometimes psychotic gazes of white owners are as crucial to the system of terror as whips and lynching ropes. Plantation mistresses stare silently from the porches above.
The most compelling scene is an interrupted lynching. Solomon, rope around his neck, dangles from a tree an inch above the mud. For hours, he tries to maintain contact with the yielding ground by shuffling his feet back and forth in a tortured tip-toe. Meanwhile, his fellow slaves come in and out of their cabins and go about their business without looking directly at him.
Solomon survives only to endure years of even worse agony until his release is finally secured. Traveling safely on the road returning him to freedom, he gazes intently at those left behind on the plantation.
We, too, have traveled far from those times. Yet around the time 12 Years a Slave was released, news broke that an African-American freshman had been tormented by his white suite mates at San Jose State University. They taunted him with names like “Three-fifths” and “Fraction,” displayed a Confederate flag, and placed a bicycle lock around his neck. This went on for weeks, until the freshman’s parents intervened. Once the outcry became impossible to ignore, the tormentors were suspended. Some face criminal hate-crime charges.
But how long were eyes averted? The victim himself apparently tried to survive by keeping his head down. So did the many who were silent witnesses to his ill treatment. A report describing widespread racial discrimination on campus had been shelved by the administration two years earlier.
In the wider world, too, we look away while African-Americans still struggle to gain traction. The unemployment rate among blacks is twice that of whites. Housing discrimination and de facto school segregation are widespread. Racial disparities in drug laws have resulted in mass incarceration of African-American males. Voting rights are under attack. Young men are treated with suspicion, and sometimes even killed, because of the color of their skin. And while it’s true that President Obama has won the presidency twice, it’s also true that racial animus has fueled a concerted effort to delegitimize him.
This is not the antebellum South. It’s happening now. How long will we continue to avert our eyes? 12 Years a Slave–this unwatchable must-see–forces us to look directly at America’s horrific history so we may come to terms with our unreconciled past and ongoing shame.