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'12 Years A Slave' Inspires 'True Conversations' About Slavery


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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

NPR continues a series of conversations about The Race Card Project, where thousands of people have submitted their thoughts on race and cultural identity in six words. Every so often, NPR Host/Special Correspondent Michele Norris will dip into those six-word stories to explore issues surrounding race and cultural identity for Morning Edition.

The Oscar-nominated film 12 Years a Slave packs an emotional wallop. It's based on the memoir of a real person, Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1840s. The movie depicts the brutality of the slave system by telling the story of a man who endured it.

The Race Card Project has seen an uptick in six-word submissions about slavery since the film's release — particularly from people who have grappled with their own family connections to slavery.

Project curator Michele Norris and Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep both spoke with John Ridley, screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave (and an occasional commentator on Morning Edition), about what he hopes audiences will take away from the film.


Interview Highlights

On how the film has sparked very personal conversations about the nation's history of slavery

We have to remember, when Solomon wrote his memoir, at that time, this was a best-seller. It became a linchpin in the abolitionist cause. He toured, he spoke. And the story fell into obscurity. And we're having these conversations now, and what people are walking away from this film and this story with is that — and, by the way, I put myself ... at the head of this list — is how we really didn't have any concept of what slavery was all about.

So, I'm not surprised that many people would walk away from this film feeling like they need now to have a true concept or a true conversation about these kinds of things. I'm just sort of shocked that it's taken us this long to really try to excavate what slavery was all about.

On how he hopes the film will compel exchanges about slavery that aren't mired in guilt or anger

I think what cannot get lost in this is where we've come as a country. And I think there has to be a sense of pride that we have come this far. There's got to be pride for the individuals whose families survived all of this. I think there's got to be pride for those individuals who [can say], "If my family was like this, I am not." ...

My father was out here in California at [a school "grandparents' day"]. ... And a woman from Virginia came up to my dad ... and she said to him, "Oh, your name is Ridley? ... I used to have family in Virginia named Ridley."

And my dad just said very casually ... "Oh, well, you know what, your family, they probably owned our family. They may have. I have family from Virginia." And the woman was not shocked, she was not taken aback. She goes, "Oh, you know what? That's very possible." They started researching together, firing letters back and forth, looking to find out if that was true.

I think it's very important for people to not go into it going, "Oh, if my family did that 160 years ago, that's me." As opposed to, "Why don't we find out what happened? Why don't we find out how we got to a point now where our kids or our grandkids are in the same school, enjoying the same privileges, that we are citizens in the same country and can actually talk about this as opposed to being afraid or horrified about what happened?"

What happened, happened; we can't change that. But we can change who we are in this moment. That's how you move on from this.

On how he was struck by Solomon Northup and his story

[He was] a man who used every part of himself to survive — his wits, his guile, his physicality — but never gave into bitterness, never gave up his faith in other people and the system that completely let him down.

I have two boys. I just said, if I were trying to show these two boys, my two sons, what I thought the character of a man was — of an American man, of a man of color — that's what Solomon was when I read this book. And my message was just about character.

On the importance of a scene in which a slave owner forces Solomon to beat a fellow slave

Most importantly — and with almost everything that you'll see in the film — it was that way in the memoir. It was exceptionally important to me to hew as closely as possible to what was happening in the book.

And also ... it speaks to the mindset of the slave owner ... played by Michael Fassbender. It would have been very easy ... going to a 2013 mindset, to simply say, "Well, these individuals are all purely evil, and blacks across the board were just purely saints, and that was it." And that scene in particular really spoke to the multifaceted nature of that environment, and what it did to individuals across the board.

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