It’s almost besides the point to say that 12 Years a Slave, which began playing at the Avon on Friday, is a great movie. Of course it’s a great movie. It’s technically polished, well-acted by all involved–Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, primarily, with brief appearances by everyone from Brad Pitt to The Wire‘s Michael K. Williams –and well-managed, if a bit self-consciously, by director Steve McQueen (not the guy from the 70s car chase movies). But this is beyond a great movie: it’s a statement, with enough sheer power to transcend its medium and become something far more important.
A lot has already been written about 12 Years a Slave‘s cultural significance, including this Washington Post article that quotes African Studies professor Tricia Rose and this Grantland column that is near as long as War and Peace. I can’t speak to the kinds of issues those pieces bring up. I’m not well-read or well-learned or well-cultured enough to be articulate about the broader relevance of the film in the context of American race relations or in the context of American filmmaking.
Here’s what I do know: When I was a kindergartner at a good public school in the Chicago suburbs, we learned about slavery. It’s one of the few things I recall studying in kindergarten. They taught us about the Underground Railroad and the North Star and all the songs slaves used to sing. It was undoubtedly well-meaning, and it was probably more interesting to us than anything else we would have learned. But it was also super problematic.
I mean, yes, I knew slavery was inhumane. But the way I was taught about it in grade school always fit in to the line of teaching that began in kindergarten–slavery was portrayed as a kind of aw shucks problem that was made manageable by heroes like Harriet Tubman and then fixed thanks to the bravery of Abraham Lincoln. Which is kind of bullshit. It’s left to 12 Years a Slave to show us the visceral horror of a not-so-ancient American abomination. And the film certainly accomplishes that, in no uncertain terms. This, then, is a movie that should be required viewing in high schools across the country. It makes its point–a point every American should be required to experience–and it makes it well.
I had written a lot more about the way 12 Years a Slave made me feel, but I scrapped all that. I’ve filed my own reaction away in a place where I won’t soon forget it, but I’ll leave you to have your own. All I ask is that you do see the film. No matter how busy your schedule is right now, you need to put aside two hours some time in the next two weeks and get to the Avon to see 12 Years a Slave. You owe it to yourself.