Maybe you think slavery in America was a long time ago. Maybe it makes you sad to realize it happened but you think the history of it hasn’t got much to do with you. I used to think that, naively.
But that changed for me in 1990. I was reminded of this in disturbing and vivid fashion at a preview screening of “12 Years a Slave,” a movie that opened here this weekend.
On Feb. 10, 1990, I flew from Omaha to New Orleans for my grandmother’s funeral, which was two days later.
On Feb. 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison in South Africa after 27 years.
When the family gathered at my aunt’s house after the funeral, Mandela was all over the TV news that afternoon. And I got the shock of my life.
“That damn Nelson Mandela is nothing but a troublemaker. They should shut him up and get him off the television screen.”
Those were the words that came out of the mouth of my grandmother’s sister, a woman I had loved and admired right up to that moment as one of the kindest, sweetest old ladies I knew.
It rocked my world. I had never heard a racist word out of my mother’s or grandmother’s mouths, though I vaguely recall that “troublemaker” label being thrown around when Martin Luther King Jr. was advocating civil rights in the 1960s.
The family tree goes back to at least 1750 in New Orleans. The implications of what that might mean never came home to me fully until I watched “12 Years a Slave,” most of which takes place on plantations in Louisiana.
Not since “Roots” have Americans had the opportunity to see such an unvarnished, graphic account of what life was like for slaves in the American South. Mothers sold away from their children. Men and women stripped of dignity and hope and then worked until they dropped.
You also can’t miss the warped mental and psychological gymnastics necessary on the part of slaveholders to convince themselves that what they were doing was not morally wrong, that these were property and not people. A twisted plantation owner played by Michael Fassbender reads the Bible to his slaves, particularly passages that justify his subjugation of them.
Other scenes depict rape, scourging, beatings, lynchings.
The New York Times noted recently that movies “about America’s tortured racial history have recently emerged as a surprisingly lucrative Hollywood staple.”
Two years ago, Octavia Spencer won a supporting-actress Oscar for playing a maid in the South in the 1960s in “The Help.” The best-picture nominee earned $170 million domestically.
Last year, two best-pic nominees, “Django Unchained” and “Lincoln,” dealt with the issue of slavery in very different ways. One was about a president who pushed to ban slavery in the U.S. Constitution. The other was about a black man and a white man who roamed Southern plantations as bounty hunters. It contained some disturbing depictions of sadistic practices tied to slavery.
The central character in “The Help” was a white author. The central character in “Lincoln” was white, too.
This year, “42” recalled how Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in professional baseball, thanks to a white manager, Branch Rickey, who went against the tide. But Robinson was clearly the focus and heart and soul of the movie.
Also this year, “The Butler” traced the history of the civil rights movement through one fictionalized family, whose patriarch rose from the cotton fields to work for eight presidents at the White House. One of his sons served in Vietnam. Another joined the Black Panthers.
All these movies made money. But I suspect that all of them, even the ultraviolent “Django Unchained,” had more broad commercial appeal than “12 Years a Slave” might.
People don’t like to remember this chapter of our history. The camera in “12 Years a Slave” is unblinking, and what it reveals is painful to look at.
Yes, we have come a long way. We recently noted the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which brought an end to slavery. We celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and reflected on the progress made, the work yet to be done.
We’ve elected a black president twice.
But in the same way that the Holocaust must not be forgotten, so the brutal subjugation of African-Americans, for long decades and multiple generations, and then the segregation that followed must never be minimized, buried, glossed over in family history or dismissed as a long time ago.
Each new generation, both black and white, needs to come to grips with what this time did to individuals, to families, to the soul of the nation. Scars remain. Wounds have not yet closed.
To see “12 Years a Slave” could be a part of that process. It’s a rare occurrence, to see and hear how it was straight from an account written by a man who went through it.
Maybe at long last we are ready to look. To talk about it. To learn from our past. To work toward a more just future.