My Racial Indifference (an apology)

In September 2013, I attended the premiere for 12 Years A Slave at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). I didn’t choose which film I would be able to attend, but I knew I’d won tickets for a screening and the prize was for this specific premiere — which included the cast of the movie in attendance. That meant Brad Pitt, who was a producer on the film and portrayed a key character, would be in the room. I’d read somewhere that he was instrumental in helping to bring this true story to light, adding to the quality of the production. All the actors came up on stage before the movie started, with enthusiastic applause. Later, it topped all the other movies at the festival and cleaned up at awards season, including going all the way to the pinnacle of film recognition, the Oscar for best picture. 

Earlier in the evening, my guest and I were nicely dressed up for the exclusive event and were delighted to be at the city hot spot. After waiting in the roped-off section; amidst entertainment reporters with TV cameras, red carpet, the smells of fragrance (mine) wafting in the warm September air mixed with perspiration (also, mine), combined with everyone else’s, we finally went inside the very posh Princess Of Wales Theatre. I was more excited to be there, instead of knowing I would be sitting for the next 2 hours watching a movie that depicted horrific scenes of brutality towards slaves. A few times, I looked away from the screen or closed my eyes. Averting my gaze didn’t make the scenes any less impactful — my ears were still picking up on the cries, the screams, the sound of whippings, and fellow audience members shrieking. I felt so uncomfortable during one of the final scenes of violence, that I decided I’d had enough, so we left. I remember being shaken up about what I had just experienced and had no immediate appetite for a late dinner. I had to get the disturbing scenes out of my system, so I could enjoy the rest of the evening, hoping to run into more celebs at TIFF — because, why not?

I knew I had to become somewhat quickly desensitized so I could get back to my chill vibe and blend with everyone in the atmosphere. This was about my enjoyment, after all. I won this experience! It had to be fun! No stress or mood-busting allowed. Feeling disturbed by the content of what I had just watched (yet not even sticking around for the ending, nor caring enough to know if justice would ever be coming for the slave known as Platt), I intentionally shrugged off the buzz kill and walked out of this magnificent, important film, as did several others as well. Now, I regret that self-serving action — not one of my finest moments.

I had a strong urge a few days ago to write something in response to Black Lives Matter. However, it’s not as though anyone would be missing my voice, since I am not visibly recognizable as someone who would even have a personal perspective or story, that might add some meaning to the cause. While I am offering real life stories here on this blog (including some error-exposing situations that have impacted me), I’m willing to share my weaknesses, for the benefit of perhaps helping others to see things differently. When I have been corrected, I am glad to provide the positive results of my humbling. Even using the word “humbling” feels like it detracts some of the essence from the term, but I’m hoping this admittance will be effective and relevant.

When I started to write a few paragraphs on here, I hit a block …. I sensed I couldn’t properly write about 12 Years a Slave without reviewing a recap of the movie. However, all the statements I read were from others’ perspectives, from mainly professional movie critics. I needed to use my own intellect and senses to lead me to write, using a fresh experience of watching this film. Unintentionally, I woke up during normal sleeping hours and decided to rent the movie on my device. Too much caffeine from the previous day? Probably. Who wakes up at 3am and pays to watch a movie with graphic scenes of violence against slaves?! Someone like me. Because needed to go there.

So, with tissues on my bed and no movie snacks in sight, I played the movie; adding the captions as well, so I could read the dialogue, to not miss the impact of any of the scenes. My physical comfortability wasn’t at a peak (I was tired!) but I stuck it out. The characters who were terrorized didn’t get to rest in soft bedding, so my small sacrifice of no-sleep during the still-dark hours was nothing, I rationalized. At times, I let tears flow down my face, as I whispered for God to help me to become more of an empathetic person.

The final scene of the movie (that I had previously missed) was incredibly moving. I repented for my self-serving attitude on the night of the movie premiere. What had been a privileged experience, to attend this event — I’d actually made it more about me and my fulfillment. My shallow words and photos on Facebook got lots of attention that night. I can’t remember exactly what I posted, but this is probably what was I was thinking, exaggeratedly (aren’t I special? …. look at me at TIFF …. check me out…. hey, is that Brad Pitt over here?) Pathetic! I was so wrong to think and behave that way. It took this year and this season in my life, for me to realize I was indifferent to racism, yet I assumed I was adequately sympathetic and thoughtful. I am deeply regretful and so sorry for my insensitivity in walking out of the film. Yes, others did as well, but I can only speak for myself. I can assume some of the filmmakers and others in attendance were bothered by such a display of displeasure. I didn’t realize I was being cowardly and insensitive, while exercising my right to reject the remainder of the screening.

If you haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave, I highly recommend it. It’s definitely not a film to watch for entertainment value or if you are in a room with young children. One remarkable thing I noticed was that much of the dialogue from the slave owners had a biblical influence. They felt entitled to have slaves, as property. They were mostly inhumane to the slaves, treating them more like animals, much less than human beings. They were professing “Christians” (I use that term loosely), using ancient words to justify the laws that permitted them to own slaves.

There are biblical passages that mention slavery and it feels like an obligatory add-on to this essay to mention them. While I have wondered why they are included in the canon, I try deciphering purpose in them, yet admit it’s a tough call. I have intentionally asked for the Holy Spirit’s gentle guidance in addressing these scriptures. Ephesians 6:5 says “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ” and Colossians 3:22, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.” I have concluded that these texts were interpreted to bring order to working environments between “earthly masters” (employers) and “slaves” (employees). The beauty of wrestling with difficult to process scriptures, is that there never needs to be a literal acceptance of every word, from an interpretation of the Bible. Otherwise, it would be an example of bad theology to read everything at face value, because of the subversive nature of these verses. Rightly dividing the word of truth must always be done with reverence, humility and love for God and others. 

I took some screenshots of dialogue on the bottom of the screen while watching the movie and I’ll include some of them:

“…. shall be beaten with many stripes.”
“…. that’s his master, do you see?”
“That’s Scripture.”
“The curse of the pharaohs were a poor example.”
“Ain’t nothing Christian in us carrying on like this.”
“And there will be a day of reckoning yet.”

The final two statements were from Brad Pitt’s character, who sent for help in freeing Solomon Northup, the husband and father, who was kidnapped, sold into slavery and suffered for 12 years as a slave, renamed Platt. His story should be known by everyone, to better understand race relations, racial tensions and the unfortunate history of slavery in the United States. His life restoration, sadly, didn’t represent the majority of slaves, however.

In closing, I will share a few thoughts about how I feel about what has been happening in the USA, in light of the recent killings of people of color. If you are begrudgingly feeling as though Black Lives Matter has been blown out of proportion or in the news too often lately, you are ignorant, misinformed and need correction. You can change the channel, but I suggest you try to keep up with what is actually occurring. What happened to George Floyd ***before our very eyes*** was the most diabolical, senseless murder by an individual — paid a comfortable salary to serve and protect. It took the raw angst of all the other brutal killings and cold blooded murders of people of color (POC) by Caucasians and it lit the righteous anger on fire. The Minneapolis police officers who participated (even the ones enabling the murder) in this heinous crime must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Besides that fact, policing needs to be improved to protect everyone and law enforcement practices should be deconstructed or “defunded” and carefully reconstructed.  Brutality in all forms, is evil.

While finishing up my viewing of the movie with daylight poking through my window, I wondered…. if modern day racists watched a film like 12 Years a Slave, would they be humbled? Repent? Confess their prejudices? Treat all people fairly and with dignity? To me, it feels like America is broken. Despite the wonderful progress that was evidenced in the 2010s, the land is aching for restoration. Many of the ancestors who suffered, bled and died to help free future generations from racism and hatred have had their legacies affected, for the worse. The most vile of our carnal instincts have been dominating and domineering on TV screens and online. America must stop the hate, the violence, the senseless killings, the ignorance and the indifference to those who have suffered for too long. I honor you, those who have been advocating for POC and actively seeking justice, because Black Lives Matter.

From page 321 of Solomon Northup’s memoir, 12 Years a Slave
https://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/northup/northup.html

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