Now, the world knows something of the story of Solomon Northrup, a “free” Black American from New York who was kidnapped by slave-hunters in the 1840s and for the next 12 years suffered the life of a captive in America’s man-made hell of Negro Slavery. And now, the world knows a truer version of what antebellum America’s “peculiar institution” – its peculiar evil – was and the pain it caused the nearly 4 million Africans and African-Americans directly ensnared in it and the half-million other blacks who, like Northrup, endured a precarious status that was far from true freedom.
“Twelve Years a Slave” gained Hollywood’s highest honor, the Academy Award for the best picture of 2013, capping a spectacular run of film-world honors and “buzz” from its opening last year. It became the first feature film directed by a Black man to win the top Academy Award; and its victory was made all the sweeter by Lupita Nyong’o winning the Oscar for best supporting actress. Understandably, the glow of the acclaim rightly awarded the film and the emergence of its director, Steve McQueen, and Nyong’o as artists of the first rank is still neon-bright.
So, it may be difficult for some to see the broader current of history that envelops both the film and Solomon Northrup’s 1853 written narrative of the same title—to understand what his experience of pain and brutality, countered, most importantly, by an indomitable will to re-gain his freedom shares with some recent developments that at first glance seem far removed in time and distance.
I’m thinking, for example, of the stunning discovery in Munich, Germany late last year of more than 1,400 paintings stolen or confiscated by Nazi officials from their Jewish owners and from museums during the 1940s a shadowy, reclusive German had hidden away in his apartment all these decades. And I’m also thinking of the efforts of Japan’s current prime minister to erase the facts of the country’s savage expansionist policies and actions – and crimes against humanity – during the wars on the Asian mainland and in the Pacific in the 1930s and 1940s.
The contrast is striking. On the one hand, the world has re-discovered paintings by some of the greatest artists of the last three centuries which had been lost to the world for nearly 70 years – an incalculable re-addition to the world’s cultural treasure. On the other, Japan’s national political leader is trying to pretend the evil his country engaged in a half-century ago didn’t happen.
What these things, and many more, have in common is that they show that the events and facts of history can be buried, and re-discovered—and, if the world isn’t vigilant, buried again.
Certainly, until recently that has described the arc of Black Americans’ existence. Solomon Northrup’s memoir was widely publicized and sold well when it first appeared in 1853, as the furious national debate about slavery careened inexorably toward the Civil War.
But it was largely forgotten in the war’s aftermath, and White America’s betrayal of Reconstruction. The truths of Black Americans’ enslavement and their achievements were most often distorted and drained of all positive meaning by “White” science, “White” theology, “White” politics, and “White” history—and, beginning with D.W. Griffiths’ landmark film of 1915, “Birth of A Nation,” by many of the “White” Hollywood movies that, far more than school history texts, were how most Americans “learned” about American history.
Indeed, its innovative cinematic techniques and concepts combined with its vicious racism to make “Birth” an enormously influential justification for the pervasive racist laws and policies Whites in the North and South had adopted and were adding to. And its portrayal of Blacks hung like a winding sheet over Hollywood films whose plots contained even minimal references to Blacks or a token number of Black actors. Its most prominent film offspring, 1939’s blockbuster, “Gone With The Wind,” powerfully reinforced for another three decades Blacks’ second-class status on and off the silver screen.
So, is it just a coincidence that “12 Years a Slave” has gained Hollywood’s most prestigious prize during the year that marks the 75th anniversary of the premiere of “Gone With the Wind,” and also the eve of the 100th anniversary of “Birth of A Nation?”
Or is it correct to think that the breakthrough of “12 Years a Slave” at the box office and at the Academy Awards is the result of not only a gripping story, excellent script and fine cast and director at work, but of history, too?
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City.