Seeing popular movies will never change your heart at the deepest level. Yet movies are a powerful art form that can reach into your human heart and this power can deeply impact us, both personally and corporately. I believe 12 Years a Slave does this as well as any movie about race that I have ever seen. Indeed, it is the only full-length feature film to present slavery from the perspective of the slave. Think about that statement for at least a moment. Amistad was a magnificent movie but it was actually about the social and political struggle for abolition in America. So was Amazing Grace, but it too was about abolition in Great Britain. Both of these superb movies deeply move the heart. Roots was the closest thing that we’ve ever had to 12 Years a Slave but Roots was a fictional television series. 12 Years a Slave is based on a true story and moves the viewer profoundly if you will allow it to touch you.
In the light of the power of this amazing story, and because of the artistic medium of modern film, I not only encourage you to see 12 Years a Slave I further encourage you to see two other contemporary movies on race in America, both released earlier this year.
First, you should see Fruitvale Station. This is the true story of Oscar, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident who wakes up on the morning of December 31, 2008, and feels something in the air. Not sure what it is, Oscar takes it as a sign to get a head start on his resolutions: being a better son to his mother, whose birthday falls on New Year’s Eve, being a better partner to his girlfriend, who he hasn’t been completely honest with as of late, and being a better father to T, their beautiful four-year old daughter. He starts out well, but as his day goes on, he realizes that change is not going to come easy. He crosses paths with friends, family, and strangers, each exchange showing us that there is much more to Oscar than at first meets the eye. But it would be his final encounter of the day, one with police officers at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, that would shake the Bay Area to its very core. In fact, Oscar’s final day impacted the entire nation to become witnesses to the real story of the person this fine film is based upon, Oscar Grant. Oscar’s story, and the racism that clearly led to his untimely and unjust death, should be seen if we area to understand the race issue with deeper insight. This is especially true for white Christians who den too easily dismiss the impact of racism upon the everyday life of black people in our society. If you want to “see” this issue from outside your own perspective then this film will be a great help.
Second, I believe you should also see The Butler. This is a film that may well win Academy Awards. Cecil Gaines, the central figure in the story, was a sharecropper’s son who grew up in the 1920s as a domestic servant for a white family who casually destroyed his family. Eventually, striking out on his own, Cecil became a hotel valet of such efficiency and discreteness that in the 1950s haws employed as a butler inside the Eisenhower White House. There, Cecil would serve numerous US Presidents over the decades as a passive witness of history within the American Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum even as Cecil’s family had troubles of its own. Cecil’s wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), struggles with her addictions and their defiant eldest son, Louis. Louis strives for a just world which forces Cecil to decide whether he should take action in his own way. The Butler powerfully reveals the struggle of a black man, living before, during and after the Civil Rights era. In showing Cecil’s story we see what it was like to live inside a powerful white man’s world that was unequal, an America that was (and to a some extent still is) so very different than my own “white” world.
If you add these two films to 12 Years a Slave, the film that I wrote a good bit about last week, then you have the three best artistic expressions of race and racism available to modern Americans. The race issue in America is complex. These films may help you experience the complexity of modern racism by feeling the power of this issue in a new way. I recommend all three of them very highly.