Lupita Nyong'o in 12 Years a Slave


“Why now?”

The rapturous applause had just died down. The incredibly talented cast had all gathered on-stage. The deeply affected crowd begrudgingly gave up the lengthy standing ovation. It was in this moment, this afterglow of pure effusion that the question was posed to a (surprisingly jovial) Steve McQueen. There are a litany of ways to answer that question – and lord knows McQueen is capable of all of them – but the response he chose was illuminating.

“The timing seemed right. Between the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor King’s March on Washington and the fate of Trayvon Martin, America has shown that the flame is still burning”

So, what began as a glimpse back into our past suddenly became a reflection of our present…a stunning, unflinching, and powerful reflection of our present and how we got here.

But then we got Ferguson, and Eric Garner, and Baltimore…

Suddenly a film that encapsulated events from one hundred seventy years back was a totem for our present. With every incident, and every protest, 12 YEARS A SLAVE seemed to glow brighter and brighter. Within it we witness the blows that have given our racial relations the scars still carried today. Likewise, within it we witness the resolve to endure – the greatest act of defiance that any movement could ever want. All of this comes by way of amazing imagery, a deeply affecting story, and some truly complexed acting. This film could have been medicine, it could have been a plate full of vegetables. Instead, it arrives with a surprising amount of subtle beauty, and sings a stunning melody under some violent lyrics.

Quickly, what started as a banner for a moment became a flag for a decade gone sideways. And yet, as the flag waves in the hot summer breeze, there’s the slightest feeling of hope that comes with it. It’s the hope that maybe one day, a film like this will be seen as ancient history instead of a reflection of our times. It’s the hope that the the information we share through modern technology mean that atrocities like what we see depicted will not happen in vain.

So “why now”? Probably because there is a long history in America of artists using their work to call attention to great injustice. While we most readily associate such things with events from fifty years ago, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t still songs to be sung, and stories to be told.

12 YEARS A SLAVE reminds us that the change still hasn’t come…but maybe it still can.


Click below for my original review of 12 YEARS A SLAVE, and feel free to leave comments with your thoughts on this film and its place in the decade so far.