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‘12 Years A Slave’ a talker, if you let go of your fear

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I am no stranger to slavery. I literally stumbled into it while doing genealogy research in the early 1980's, finding a matriarch who showed up in the 1870 census, which listed her as 61 years old and having been born in Africa.

Much meandering later, and with some hard-learned lessons – many of which I did not want to learn – I decided to embrace what I considered a healthier attitude about slavery, changing my name, clothes, language, etc.

This commentary, however, is not about covering the finer aspects of my journey. I share that opening simply as a reference point for the attitude that I took with me to New Orleans for the Red-Carpet premiere there earlier this month of "12 Years A Slave." The movie debuts in Memphis Friday (Nov. 1) after an advance screening Wednesday at the Malco Majestic.

When the opportunity popped up to attend the event, I embraced it primarily as an opportunity to further my desire to get a sustained conversation about slavery going on in Memphis. Tested by a long night of production at The New Tri-State Defender, I soon found myself right in front of the carpet and in prime position.

Down the carpet came Chiwetel Ejiofor, who portrays the central character, Solomon Northup, a free African American who was sold into slavery and suffered through 12 years of captivity. Within arms length, I asked my question: "Did you find out anything about slavery doing the movie that you didn't know before?"

"Loads," he said. "But that was also from the book as well, Solomon Northup's book. I think it is such a unique story in the sense that it's very rare to have a story from so deep inside the experience....I think that anybody reading the book just would uncover so much that maybe they didn't know about the time."

I followed up.

"African Americans find it difficult to talk about slavery. Do you think this movie will help in any way in terms of getting a conversation going?"

"Yeah, possibly," he said. "I don't know, really. It's something that I think there have not been enough films about it, and it's been something missing about it in the whole canon of cinema, especially something like Solomon's story, which, like I said, is from such a unique perspective; so inside the experience."

Northup wrote his story the same year he made his way out.

"I think that his story should spark some interesting conversation and I think it should be something that is like required reading, you know," said Ejiofor. "By the time you are 15 you should know this story."

Moments later, Lupita Nyong'o, who fills the role of the slave Patsey with scene-grabbing authority, came into view and fielded my question: "Will the movie change how and when you talk about slavery in any way."

"Most definitely. This taught me so much about slavery that I didn't know and I am sure that it will do the same for lots of other people," she said. "And it will give us a common vocabulary and a common story to really face this atrocity and begin to heal."

The stars were rolling steady now. Alfre Woodard, who plays Mistress Shaw, was talking about bringing characters to life no matter how much time is spent on camera and about what it was like to film on slave plantations.

"A lot of blood has been spilled, a lot of life has been lived and the energy remains," she said. "It just makes you even more conscious of what you should be doing as an actor anyway, just totally honoring the life of the character."

Over Woodard's left shoulder, I saw the director, Steve McQueen, making his way down the red carpet. From behind, I felt a push forward. I held my ground and seized my shot at one question.

"In Memphis, we are trying to get a conversation going on about slavery," I said, referring to my recurring guest spot on WLOK's "The Drum" with host Tony Nichelson. "It's really difficult," I said. "Do you see this film being able to help people talk about it?"

"Absolutely," said McQueen. "This movie is causing debate already and people to have a serious conversation about a moment in our recent past."

The red carpet event was in front of the old Civic Theatre. Inside later, during a panel discussion after the screening, McQueen was asked about not using African Americans (with the exception of Woodward) in the key roles.

"African Americans do not own slavery," he said. "I am here as a person from the West Indies, from London, Britain, whatever...It's not about ownership, it's about Diaspora, us, me and you. We're related ... your boat went left, my boat went right," he said.

He harkened back to a question he had been asked earlier about when he first discovered slavery. "That was like being asked when you learned your name. You cannot really remember," he said.

Knowing, however, that it was probably early in childhood, McQueen noted that "there is a certain sense of embarrassment, shame" attached to slavery, so you didn't talk about it. Fast forward to the film, he said, and all these years later, "I want to embrace it. I want to tame it. Similar to how other groups have embraced their unfortunate ... past....

"I don't want to fear it, I don't want to be embarrassed," he said. "I want to look at it right in its eyes because that is what happened. I want to talk about it. I want to think about it freely," he said.

And, McQueen said, "...this is not a black-American story. It is an American story. It is a white-American story. It is an Asian-American story. It's a Spanish-American story. ..."

Within earshot was Andre De'Sean Shanks, a 24-year-old aspiring actor, who had secured a non-speaking role in "12 Years A Slave." He was the first cast member I interviewed.

"I'm just one of the victims that gets hung from the tree," he said. "As Chiwetel (Solomon Northup) was walking past he runs into a lynching."

I asked what was it like to do such a scene.

"Man, it was very emotional. ... Actually ... the tree that we hung from was the actual tree that they used to hang slaves from on the real plantation. The owner was back there and showed us mounds and mounds of bodies that are actually buried back there. So, it was real respectful to portray how my ancestors were and for Americans to really see how we were really treated."

I asked if he would respond differently if he were in a conversation about slavery now as opposed to before the movie.

"I haven't seen the movie," he said before getting his first viewing at the screening that was to follow. "But from reading the reviews and the critics already, just from what they said, definitely!"