“12 Years a Slave”: Thoughts on America’s Darkest Chapter

An examination of some of the issues raised by director Steve McQueen’s newest film, including its historical, cultural, and spiritual implications.

I did not go to see 12 Years a Slave intending to write about it, but as much for myself as for others, I feel a need to do so now.  What I saw was not an ordinary film.  I knew before I went in that it would prompt a great deal of philosophical pondering, but perhaps even this expectation has proved to be too small.

The film tells the story of Solomon Northrup according to his 1853 autobiography.  A free black man living in New York state, he was deceived and abducted into slavery while on a trip to Washington, D.C.  For the next twelve years, he witnessed the horrors of slavery on multiple plantations in Louisiana, until finally a chance encounter allowed him to press his legal case and earn back his freedom.  It’s the kind of amazing true story that screenwriters would normally dream about, but the darkness of the subject matter is likely part of the reason that no filmmaker has attempted the feat until now. Continue reading

Ain’t it Swell to Finish Well

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This photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. is part of a Library of Congress collection.

What can we learn from Martin Luther King Jr., George Costanza, Barack Obama, and King Jehoshaphat?

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech.  It was an appropriate moment to remember a man who gave so much and inspired so many.   He is rightly regarded as one of the greatest Americans who ever lived.  Yet, even as we praise him, it is also worth noting that King had one advantage that is denied to most of us, and an odd kind of advantage it was: he died young.

Now, before I cause serious offense to anyone, let me make clear that I am in no way happy that King’s life was shortened.  This was a major setback for the civil rights movement and a great tragedy for America.  What I am referring to is not the fact that King was murdered, but rather that his early death has preserved him in our memory at the height of his success. Continue reading

An Overlooked Fact about the Zimmerman Case

Zimmerman,_George_-_Seminole_County_Mug

From the beginning, the media wanted to make the Zimmerman case about black vs. white.  That is why the story gained national attention in the first place.  I’m not going to make a judgment about whether race played a factor in what happened that night, and I realize how complex and personal individuals’ feelings about race can be.  Be that as it may, I have always been struck by the fact that Zimmerman did not “look” particularly “white”.  His surname is German, but beyond that I didn’t actually know anything  about his heritage until I saw the picture of his parents in the courtroom: a white father and an apparently Asian mother.  Does the narrative change at all because George Zimmerman is actually biracial?  Should it?  It’s a question that I’ve never heard anyone in the media bother to ask, though I admittedly have not listened to all of the endless hours of coverage. (I have better things to do with my time.) What I do know is that it says as much as anything about our racial attitudes that we define him only by his white father and not his Asian mother.  Were this portrayed in the media as an incident involving two minorities instead of black vs. white, for example, I am willing to bet that the debate would have been much different.