Race
5:43 am
Thu January 16, 2014

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

Originally published on Fri June 27, 2014 5:39 pm

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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. We're talking about slavery on MORNING EDITION this week. Though it was abolished a century and a half ago, the details of slavery become excruciatingly present when people explore their family histories. We've heard two of those stories thanks to the Race Card Project as NPR's Michele Norris. Let's talk now about a movie that's prompted more conversation.

INSKEEP: Michele and I talked with John Ridley, a screenwriter and occasional commentator for this program. The Oscar-nominated "12 Years a Slave" was his creation. He was working from the memoir of a real person, Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery. The movie shows the sheer brutality of the slave system, but Ridley was also compelled by the man who endured it.

JOHN RIDLEY: The thing that struck me was about Solomon's character as an individual, 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, in a system that completely let him down. And I wanted more than anything - I have two boys and I just said if I were trying to show 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.

INSKEEP: Can I ask John Ridley about the inclusion of a scene in this film, and it's advanced in the film so I won't describe it too precisely, but it's probably the most brutal of the various beatings that are administered in this film. And in this scene, a slave owner is about to whip someone and then hands the whip over to a slave, Solomon Northup, says you do it.

RIDLEY: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Why did you include that scene in that way?

RIDLEY: I included it for two reasons. One, and 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 I think also what is very important is that it speaks to the mindset of the slave owner as well, played by Michael Fassbender.

It would have been very easy, again, 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.

MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: I'm assuming that this was a difficult task for you, that you really wrestled with this story.

RIDLEY: I would say this was in every regard the most challenging thing that I've ever been faced with. And I don't think I really knew that when I read the book. I did not know what I was getting myself into. Until I saw the film, I didn't have a moment where it hit me the way I think it hits everyone else. You know, I'd seen it previously but the first time I'd seen it with people, that's when I really felt the magnitude of everything that story was and what everyone had put into the film.

NORRIS: Take me to that moment. What was that like for you?

RIDLEY: It was overwhelming for many reasons. One, it was at the Toronto Film Festival and that is just a whirlwind in and of itself. And I had no expectation on how an audience would perceive it. And the emotional connectivity of that audience, where people begin to move as an organism and they begin to feel as an organism, and to get to that moment - I'll just call it the soap scene with Master Epps and not being able to carry out this whipping and forcing Solomon to do it and the reaction of the audience, and I myself, I couldn't watch.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

MICHAEL FASSBENDER: (as Epps) You admit it.

LUPITA NYONG'O: (as Patsey) Yes. Freely. And you know why? I got this from Mistress Shaw. Mistress Epps won't even grant me no soap to clean with. I stink so much I make myself gag.

RIDLEY: I'd seen it before.

NORRIS: And you couldn't watch.

RIDLEY: I truly covered my eyes, looked away. My wife is crying, people behind me are crying. And more than that, when you sit with an audience and you get caught up in their reactions, it was too much. It really was.

INSKEEP: We've heard in recent days of folks who have found out a very personal, close connection to this issue of slavery, and it's changed their view of the world.

NORRIS: Well, I certainly find that people - in the weeks since I've seen it, I've had so many people approach me who suddenly want to talk about slavery.

RIDLEY: I certainly - I absolutely believe that this film has reached a point that it has a cultural density, and it's been going on for months now. And I appreciate that deeply. I appreciate it for my own involvement and certainly for what Solomon left behind. And we have to remember, when Solomon wrote his memoir, at that time it was a bestseller. It became a lynchpin in the abolitionists' 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 - at the head of this list, at 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 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.

INSKEEP: I think there's something that's underlined in this movie that maybe a lot of people don't realize, which is the intimacy of it. I'm thinking of a particular scene, the entire scene is a slave owner, Epps, and the slave, Solomon Northup. And the slave owner is talking with the slave and their faces are three inches from each other. And the slave owner has got his arm around Northup and, in fact, a lantern in his hand which is lighting the scene.

And they have this entire conversation inches from each other. And you realize it's something different than segregation. It's something that people did in exceedingly close contact to the evil that they were perpetrating or living through.

RIDLEY: It was certainly an up close brutality. I mean this was not something waged at a distance. And the fact of the matter is when you have plantation owners or overseers or individuals who have to be next to each other, to force individuals to do things, the way they live. Or other individuals feeling like, Look, you're a property - I can do with you what I want, I don't need to maintain a distance out of fear. I can get right up next to you because I control the situation.

NORRIS: It is difficult to look back at a difficult history. Somewhat easier, if I can even use that word, if you have overcome horrible circumstances; if you've climbed up the rough side of the mountain and you - there's something ennobling in some way about surviving. And yet, were you trying in the film to make sure that people would think about, not just Solomon Northup but also the people who owned him?

RIDLEY: I wanted people to consider all aspects of these circumstances. But 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 look at, if my family was like this, I am not.

I mean just anecdotally for my own family, my father was out here in California at one of the schools where our kids go, and they were just having a grandparents' day. And a woman from Virginia came up to my dad - they were wearing name tags, their last day was Ridley. And she said to him: You know, your name is Ridley. My dad said yes and goes: Oh, you know, I used to have family in Virginia named Ridley.

And my dad just said, very casually, because my dad is that kind of guy. He said: 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. You know, as opposed to, you know, what don't we find out what happened. Why do 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.

INSKEEP: John Ridley, thanks very much for the time.

RIDLEY: Thank you. Thank you both for having me. I deeply appreciate it. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.