Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
The Oscars did the right thing by bestowing the honor of best picture to "12 Years a Slave." The movie earned it.
Based on the true story of Solomon Northup's debasement into bondage, the film is a gripping and powerful story about the evils of slavery. It also serves as a historical marker, an important step toward acknowledging America's complicity in slavery and the perpetuation of racism.
Ever since watching the movie, I have been haunted by the saying by the French author Francois de La Rochefoucauld: "Neither the sun nor death can be stared at with a steady eye." But hard as it is, we need to stare at slavery and racism with a steady eye, and this film forces us to do that.
When I saw the film, I was stunned by its stark portrayal of this heinous institution, which turned human beings -- men, women and even children -- into sexual tools and sellable commodities. I encouraged all my friends to see the film, but I was surprised by the response. Many of them answered with a slightly embarrassed shrug and the excuse that they didn't want to have to face the cruelty.
"I'm sure it's a great movie," said one of my staunchest liberal allies, "but I just don't want to see that."
This attitude of not wanting to watch the truth about American slavery dogged "12 Years a Slave" right up to Oscar night, with reports coming just days beforehand that an exceptional number of academy voters were so disturbed by the subject matter they still hadn't watched the film.
Oppression that is hard for movie audiences to watch is infinitely harder for its victims to live through. Lupita Nyong'o, in her Oscar acceptance speech for best supporting actress, made exactly this point. Speaking about her part as Patsey, a whipped and raped slave, Nyong'o said, "It doesn't escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else's."
We do not have a right to look away from the horrors of chattel slavery that America inflicted on millions of people decades after a good portion of the Western world had abolished it. We have an obligation to look at oppression squarely and unflinchingly.
This is not "a downer." It's a way to grapple with our history, and by so doing, to recognize the importance of freedom and to honor the value that every human being holds. That recognition, in the end, is uplifting.
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and journalist living in Santa Fe, N.M. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Copyright Darryl Lorenzo Wellington