Second of March at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles, California: 12 Years a Slave wins three Oscars. For the first time in 86 years a movie directed by a black person wins the award and Afro American Lupita Nyong’o takes home the film’s industry higher honor as best supporting actress. The script is also awarded as the best adapted screenplay of the year. Media underlines the importance of these awards as a landmark in the race discussion and the newly elected Academy’s President African-American Cheryl Boone Isaacs, says that with 12 Years’ success, “a major door have been kicked down… I believe very strongly that the entertainment and motion picture business is going to be more open and aware of different voices.”
But far away from the string of reactions and global buzz that the picture generates along with the Hollywood Hills flashes and glamour, the story that tells and is a reminder of the recent past of the United States is still causing a lot of uncomfortable situations for many.
One place hidden from the limelight is Rapides Parish, the community in rural Louisiana where the real story of “12 years a slave” occurs. The picture is based on a book of the same name and it tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man who is kidnapped and enslaved. That was 161 years ago, but even today that legacy stills lives on today.
The book was rediscovered in 1968 by historian Sue Eakin, who lived in the same area were Solomon Northup was enslaved. As a white woman championing the story of a black slave in the days of deep segregation, and therefore as a women championing a shared societies vision, Eakin faced many challenges. 50 years after that, her great-nephew, Lamar White still has to deal with controversy as, even today, there are many who refuse to acknowledge this area’s history. As White says, “It is difficult to build a community when there’s that giant psychic wound that slavery inflicted. It was easier for people to get along if they ignored it”.
As the BBC reports in its article “Louisiana grapples with 12 years a Slave” at a two-day discussion on the book held recently at Louisiana State University, “Northup’s story was debated by a group of black and white Americans. Ginger Jones who leads the university’s multicultural committee, says her initial proposal to host a symposium on race relations met with resistance”
People whose ancestors were slaves in the area refused to attend because it was a painful topic to address. Karen Riley a panelist at the symposium says “there’s shame, fear and mistrust”. She points to the way many in the South celebrate the start of the Civil War and the lack of memorials for those who suffered slavery. Bob Vincent, a white pastor whose ancestors were slave owners believes the conversation will only open up if America fully acknowledges the past. “Here in America our hands are very bloody with the legacy of slavery”.
Therefore, here we have a case where a Hollywood success has again had a translation into the real world. Despite all the troubles and difficulties, the bad memories coming alive and resistances found in the way, there are a lot of positive angles to stress starting from the fact that the powerful filming industry starts breaking its own racial barriers. And second, but as important as the former, the efforts of the communities to initiate frank talks about their past and to move forward a shared future in a shared society.
Additional information: see the original text from the New York Times (20th of January, 1853) that documents Solomon Northup story. “THE KIDNAPPING CASE. Narrative of the Seizure and Recovery of Solomon Northrup. INTERESTING DISCLOSURES”.