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Nov. 5, 2014

Don't edit our history

by Neida Mbuia Joao, Online Op/Ed Editor
Since its release last year, the film 12 Years a Slave has been an important part of how the American public views slavery. It started out as a memoir penned by Solomon Northup, a free black man who was tricked, kidnapped and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War south, and has since morphed into a critically acclaimed and universally lauded movie. The film has become so important that on Sept. 18, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) announced plans to plans to distribute the book and movie to students at high schools around the country. All educators who get permission to teach the material will receive a kit for each student, including a copy of the book, a study guide, a printed letter from the film’s director Steve McQueen and an edited version of the film.

Understanding and accepting the United States' former history of slavery is key to understanding and maneuvering racial relations today. But to give young people a comprehensive and more relatable look at one of the most shameful parts of American history, the NSBA needs to provide an unedited version of the film. It's vital for students to get a complete understanding of the events, both good and bad, that have shaped this country's history.

12 Years a Slave provides a brutal, unnervingly honest look at the realities of life for black people before the Civil War. Very few people understand exactly how brutal and dehumanizing slavery really was. Slavery is topic that generally makes all Americans uncomfortable; we'd rather avoid talking about it if possible and as a result there are few depictions of slavery that show the institution in its full atrocity. People tend to be more comfortable with viewing something caricature-esque like Django Unchained or watered down like Roots. But the viciousness of the treatment of slaves in 12 Years a Slave is what helps viewers to better understand the realities of slavery.

Race and slavery in America are inextricably linked. Racism, at least against blacks, began in the U.S. because people used supposed racial inferiority to justify slavery. And so a fundamental understanding of slavery is necessary to understand racism, something that a lot of young people have trouble with.

Respondents to a 2012 poll believed that the U.S. is operating in a post-racial society. This belief can be attributed to millennials' perceived distance from the major racial issues of the past—the institution of slavery and the civil right movement ended 151 years and 44 years ago, respectively. This view indicates a gross misunderstanding of the scope and substance of American racism. An institution that has thrived for the past four hundred years, and that begins and end with the slave trade, cannot simply be overcome by a half century of political reforms.
The promotional photo of "12 Years a Slave." Courtesy of The Wall Street Journal
The promotional photo of "12 Years a Slave."

12 Years a Slave received an "R" rating from the MPAA for "violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality." But every bit of 12 Years a Slave is central to its impact, from the mothers’ laments after their children are sold to the brutally vivid depictions of flogging. But censoring the film is ultimately doing students more harm than good. If even a minute of it were to be cut out, it could lessen the impact of the film, thereby lessening its effectiveness in teaching students about what slavery was like for the people who suffered through it.

Exposing high school students to the realities of slavery through 12 Years a Slave will be an important step to exposing the scope and reality of the American institution of racism to them. That way, people can establish clearer, more personal connections to it and understand that it takes more than litigation and an election to end racism.



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  • Camille on November 6, 2014 at 8:11 AM
    Good points, Neida. I'm with you in believing that students (at least by the time they are in high school) are mature enough to be able to watch the unedited version of 12 Years a Slave, and that doing so would probably benefit them greatly. However, a point you failed to mention is that Board of Education policy prohibits the showing of movies rated R without parental permission. Teachers would thus have to make their 12 Years a Slave lessons optional if showing the unedited version, running counter to the point of exposing ALL students to the brutal realities of slavery. I would argue that it is better to show everyone a slightly diluted version of slavery's horrors than to let some elect not to see them at all.
    Of course, in my perfect world, the MPAA and its deeply flawed ratings would not be used to enforce censorship across America--but that's a different rant entirely.
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