12 Years A Slave and the Power of Owning Our Own Narratives
With the recent release and acclaim of Oscar-favorite 12 Years A Slave, I found myself mentally revisiting Django Unchained by Quentin Tarantino. Not because I think there are any worthwhile parallels to draw between the two films, but rather because the brilliance and scope of 12 Years actually exposed Django for what it truly was, a base and reductive spectacle of the horror that was slavery. Django was nothing short of a post-racial caricature of slavery that could only be brought forth by a white male imagination. Proof being that many of the characters remained one-dimensional, the torture was over-the-top, and horrid elements of our racial past like the KKK were presented lightly as jokes, and I could go on. Point blank, the film revealed the true limited racial complexity of Tarantino’s imagination, and showed what little understanding he probably has of himself as a white man in a privileged position, and subsequently how under-qualified he was to even breach the subject of slavery on the national stage.
I say all this to espouse the importance of us marginalized individuals taking command of our own stories. In contrast to the hipster fantasy that was Django Unchained, 12 Years, with its Black director Steven McQueen, and Black screenwriter John Ridley, presented a film imbued with so much nuance and humanity that the complexity of the film is almost palpable. At its onset, we are presented with what is, at the start, a commitment to a true story—a film adopted from an actual slave narrative by Solomon Northup. Of course, often spearheaded by white patrons, slave narratives as historical artifacts are not to be taken as full-proof authentic forms, but we are at least treated with a film that was grounded in an effort to be truthful.
The truth that then follows in the film is undeniable. And this is not to say a truth that is, necessarily historically accurate, but an emotional truth about the corrosive horrors of slavery. Slavery was terrible not solely because of its assault on Black bodies, but because of it its attack on the psychological and emotional apparatus of both Black and white people alike. Even the white people in the film are not just vacuous villains, but people who too must deal with the rifts that slavery spreads in their psyches, families, and moral certitude. Furthermore, this truth, the idea that racism not only aggravates the oppressed, but contaminates the oppressor, is an idea echoed by Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and almost every Black cultural critic of American society. This is a nuance that I think often white people fail to understand about themselves. And an insight into Black and white consciousness that I think that comes from a combination of having a lived experience with Blackness as well as a critical consciousness of Blackness.
So we must tell our own stories because we live and know the multiple layers of our own stories. Now, this is not to say that all Black people have a vantage point of conscious purity, and can tell our stories free from having internalized dominate false truths (read: Tyler Perry). (In that vein, it is completely necessary to think about how a Black woman might have portrayed and rewritten the Black women of the movie.) Nor does telling our own stories disparage the necessity for coalitions across identities. (Brad Pitt was a producer of the film.) But many people in this country have this really damaging compulsion to tell and co-opt other people’s stories. And this is just wrong. Even with the best of intentions and a vigorous commitment to accuracy, telling another being’s story often skims over, undermines, or leaves out deeper and more complicated truths.
And so yes, 12 Years was brilliant and impactful, on many levels, but what allowed it to resonate with me was that it told the story of an “us,” based in the truth of an “us,” and by an “us” that still largely grapples with the after effects of the terrors the film uplifts. It therefore obtains a particular eloquence that becomes universal because it is so particular. It serves as a powerful reminder that owning our own truths are some of the most integral pieces to progress and liberation. (Whatever those terms mean to you.)