I’m usually late to the game. That’s been a running theme in my life since the early ’80s, when, as a result of my Hebrew-Israelite years, I found myself often years behind on pop culture trends. New books, new music, new dance moves, new colloquialisms, new movies. I might as well declared myself as an adult in April ’81, at least as far as the ’80s were concerned. Yet I did catch up, sometimes taking as long as a decade to get a punchline to a joke that my nemesis and classmate Alex made in seventh grade.
But not following the herd has its benefits, too. For one, I’ve gotten to look at things from a fresh perspective (some would even say as an outsider — that’s accurate as well), without succumbing to hype or groupthink about a piece of culture. Waiting also has meant that I’ve often read reviews of movies but managed to miss content-based details and that I’ve read books without forming an opinion based on its popularity ahead of my read (it’s also true about my path to Christianity). Being forced by circumstance to wait has meant that I am less apt to make sweeping declarations like “I grew up on hip-hop” when I in fact grew up with it, not on it like a drug.
With 12 Years A Slave (2013), though, I wanted to see it even before it came out here in the DC area in August. I’d heard about this film for months even before it was out in “select cities” in the US. Between Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender — two supreme British actors — I knew the film would be good. And depressing. And sad. And anger-inducing. And stomach churning. It would be an emotional roller-coaster-ride akin to my introduction to Roots on ABC in February ’77, when I was only seven years old.
So what stopped me from seeing it? My ten-year-old son. I wanted him to see the film with me. But I also knew that he would have a lot of questions. Outside of family and his visits to watch me teach my American and World History classes, my son has had little exposure to race in popular culture in an obvious sense. Most of his friends in our suburban, middle-class Silver-Spring-world are White, and his other Black friends have even less exposure to race than our deliberate injections (or inoculations) for our son.
I decided not to take him to see 12 Years A Slave because it would’ve been two hours of questions in a crowded theater, with those sitting around us ready to strangle us for ruining their watching experience. But I did queue it via Netflix weeks before it came out on DVD, with the expectation that we would watch it during his Spring Break, Easter Week.
As soon as I told my son that we were watching 12 Years A Slave last week, he became whiny and upset. Whiny because his time away from anime and Disney shows would be interrupted with parenting. Upset because of the movie title and its implications. As my son said to me when he was upset, “You made me watch Roots last year!” Well, we watched three hours of it, enough for him to see the sequence of kidnapping, the Middle Passage, slave auctions, running away, rape, whippings, and Kunta Kinte’s foot cut off. I guess the message of slavery and history really did stick with him!
We finally sat down and watched 12 Years A Slave Thursday evening. And yes, Noah did have a ton of questions, about Solomon Northrup, about free Blacks, kidnapping, mistreatment and the concept of property, about race, sexual attraction and rape, and about the rule of law. But I was more surprised about two things. One, my son sat through most of the two-and-a-quarter hour film, and only got up twice. Two, he paid serious attention in a way that he hadn’t appeared to in watching serious films before.
Still, my son was more than happy to return to his Nintendo 3DS and the land of Disney shows before bedtime that evening. The fact that he fell asleep right after bedtime, though, made it obvious, at least to me, that we’d given him more thought for food about history, race, and his own heritage.
And though I don’t think the movie was as epic as the hype-meisters have presented it to be, it was a great film, with great acting — I’m not sure if todays American actors could’ve pulled off Ejiofor’s, Fassbender’s or Lupita Nyong’o’s roles. 12 Years A Slave is also an important film, at least in terms of interrogating the meaning of race and inhumanity in this world. I just hope that those messages made it into my son’s conscious thinking. Time will tell, but enlightenment is a journey, not a race.