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Still a Slave

12 Years a Slave
Still a Slave

By Drew Trotter

No one can argue that 12 Years a Slave was a worthy winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture this year. The production values were superb. The movie’s direction, its cinematography, its editing, its sets and costumes, its make-up—all proclaim the care and attention to detail exercised by the myriad people tasked with creating these elements in the movie.

So why did it only win two Oscars other than the Best Picture award? Gravity, its generally accepted rival for the big prize, won seven Oscars including awards for many of those elements that everyone knows go into making a great film. It won for direction, cinematography, original score, editing, sound editing and sound mixing. Why did it not win Best Picture, if it won the awards that individually count for making a great film? The question is especially relevant since Gravity won Best Director, and film students have for years believed that no person is more important to the success or failure of a film than its director.

Of course there is no simple answer to the dilemma, if for no other reasons than a large group of people vote, the voting is secret and the results are secret. We don’t know whether 12 Years a Slave was a run-away or photo-finish winner, though most think it was the latter.

I’d like to venture a suggestion for why I think it won. I believe it boils down to two things: our fascination with true stories and the guilt we still bear as a nation for the slavery common in the times 12 Years portrays.

In three of the last four years, movies based on true stories have won the Oscar for Best Picture. Last year Argo surprised many by beating two other films up for best picture: Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty. And guess what? All three of them were based on true stories. Argo portrayed the amazing escape from Iran of the hostages taken when radicals stormed the U.S. Embassy there in 1980. Lincoln explored the last few months of the life of our 16th President and particularly the battle over the Sixteenth Amendment. Thirty went behind the scenes of the daring assassination of Osama bin Laden and the incredible search that found his hiding place. Interestingly, the other six movies nominated that year were all fictional stories.

Why has this interest in films based on true stories suddenly come to dominate our most prestigious awards ceremony? It has always been there to some degree; Patton and Chariots of Fire come to mind as past winners based in history. I wonder if the answer is not simply that, the further and further we get away from believing in the importance, and even the reality, of history, the more we desperately cling to it, hoping it is real, wanting to believe it is real. Perhaps by telling stories over and over, we can convince ourselves that what we know is lost forever can somehow be recovered, that our memories, creating and re-shaping past events over and over again, will not fully erase what actually happened.

Of course, what I just suggested is based on a thoroughly non-Christian understanding of history. The Christian believes that history is real because God is real and because He created everything outside Himself in space and time, sanctifying both by His generosity and grace. The creation, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection—all these demonstrate God’s majestic imagination, God’s work, God’s will. The rest of history, perhaps not as supernaturally defined as these events, nevertheless flows from the same sovereign Source. The security and wonder of this thought is beyond compare.

I think a second reason also contributed to the victory of 12 Years over Gravity. Like our sense of triumph and gratitude to the greatest generation for winning the Second World War causes us still to honor movies about that war over seventy years later, so our sense of shame and distress causes us still to work through the trials and tribulations brought on by slavery in America. There have been many movies about the Civil War, many movies that have had major racial themes. Some of those are Academy Award winners like In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But there had never actually been a movie about slavery until 12 Years a Slave. Even the quintessential Civil War movie, Gone With the Wind, barely touches on the subject.

12 Years a Slave changes that. Not only does it graphically portray slavery in all its horror, setting it in the context of the real lives of slaves through the extraordinary performances of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and the capable writing of John Ridley, the film also forces us to ask ourselves about the ways in which we treat others unlike ourselves, how we are racist in our attitudes and demeanor. While viewing this assault on our senses of injustice, hatred and unspeakable violence, it is impossible not to think, How could this happen? Yet it did, and then instantly to realize that we are capable, too, of this horror because the masters portrayed in the film are not really so unlike us (including their wives who commit some of the worst atrocities in the movie).

That’s why I think 12 Years a Slave would make a wonderful discussion starter for ideas like racism and justice. It is a long and brutal film, but it should be watched and talked about. We will never stamp out the racism that is inherent in our selfish hearts, but we should do everything we can to try.

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