“12 Years a Slave”: Keep talking


I had a variety of things I could’ve written about this week and I had so many great ideas, and then I saw The Open Letter to The Walker Art Center published on Opine Season regarding the October 30 screening of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave; and while my being an artist who happens to be black may have a lot to do with this, I just had to address it. I could tell by reading the comment sections of the publications where this beautifully written piece was posted that everyone had a lot of feelings that deserve consideration. I want to air some of that out as respectfully as possible as issues involving race need lots of diverse perspectives to assist with clarity.

This is about more than about how the Walker chooses to present their film series (there was a presale for members, and the tickets went on sale to the public afterwards and sold out quickly). I just wanted to address to some of concerns I encountered as I find them very valid and valuable.

1. It isn’t more important that one demographic of people see this movie over another; it’s important that EVERYONE see this movie. Regardless of skin color or socio-economic background we are all members of the same human community. Slavery is a part of our history and, as Americans, we have a collective amnesia about the uglier side of that history (an amnesia that reverberates generationally). Hiding ourselves from our past of racial strife only breeds animosity and ignorance that continues to foster the anger and hatred of the past. (That’s why, in 2013, people still go to Halloween parties in blackface.) We cannot eradicate that negativity from the world, but we can certainly rise to meet it and learn to navigate it with understanding, empathy and education. 12 Years a Slave is art and art is the most powerful and positive form of education and it deserves a wider audience.

2. This open letter was a fantastic example of a group of people making their voices heard and making one’s voice heard is how one takes responsibility for the wants and needs of their community (and remember, we are ALL a part of the same community). I think some people read this letter and saw it as people of color ranting about white privilege in order to avoid taking responsibility for misplaced emotions. That isn’t what it was about at all. Dialogue about race needs to occur continuously in order to foster personal growth, find common ground, heal longstanding wounds and strengthen our relationship with one another. This letter wasn’t an attempt to only represent black people but to give as many people as possible a chance to partake in a dialogue that should be constant. Art is also a really great tool for starting and continuing important social and cultural conversations.

3. It’s true, the Walker does get to decide what they show to their paying members. While large mainstream arts institutions have taken part in a structure of racism that exists within the arts (i.e., the Ordway’s Miss Saigon debacle), I don’t think the Walker’s intention was to cause harm or discriminate in this case. That being said, art is for EVERYONE. Since 12 Years a Slave is art, then that means Steve McQueen is an artist and I encourage those of you interested in having this film screened in your area to contact him and continue this dialogue. Given the uncomfortable subject matter featured in this film, it makes sense that it would have a difficult time finding multiple venues, especially considering our current cultural climate. But all the more reason this film should be seen and discussed everywhere by everyone. 12 Years a Slave could be for us what Roots was in the 1970s: a story about slavery told through the eyes of African American characters that conjures expressions of empathy and a desire to understand and gain knowledge.

I think the one reason we don’t have these conversations more is because we’re afraid that someone will call us a racist or tell us that we’re being too sensitive and we should just “let it go.” But if we could just let it go, then none of these letters and films and pieces of art would exist; they wouldn’t need to exist. Beside, you can’t let go of something that you never talk about and you can’t talk about something that you don’t know anything about (well, I guess you could, but you would end up sounding mighty stupid). That’s why 12 Years a Slave needs a wider audience; as important as this conversation about the Walker has been, let’s also talk about screening this film in as many venues as will have it. Our art scene is open and diverse and broadening this films audience plays to those strengths.


CORRECTION: The second paragraph of this column originally stated that the Walker decised to show the film “to an audience comprised exclusively of its own members, most of whom are white.” That was in error, and has been corrected. Thanks to the Walker for contacting us with this correction:

The Oct. 30 screening of 12 Years a Slave was not exclusively for Walker members. There was a short pre-sale to members and then tickets went on sale to the general public. It sold out to the public in a matter of days. The Walker Art Center made a statement to the Star Tribune that mentions this: http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/blogs/229750411.html.