Fruitvale Station, The Butler, and 12 Years a Slave

Posted: November 19, 2013 in Current Events, General Interest

imagesThree movies, three different critical points in time, one major unique similarity. All three movies about Black men, were directed and championed by three visionary Black men. Ryan Coogler, Lee Daniels, and Steve McQueen.

Three film makers who humanized issues and told three-dimensional stories,  giving us a view of history  from their side of the lens. Telling our own stories has always been the best way to deliver the message of who and why we are.

No, we’re not obligated to attend these movies, and you may  not even like them, but good Black directors deserve support. All three movies provided a “back story” about the lives of three men and their role in history past and present.

To all those who lament “why do we have to keep telling these depressing stories?” I feel you. But as long as there are those who don’t know their history, or who prefer to learn their history from fictitious movies of slavery told by those who re-write history for their own commercial gain, new movies still need to get made.To those who can’t go to see these movies because they’re so raw, sometimes brutal, and often disturbing, I’m feeling you too. But think about this, if you can’t watch it on film, then please go read about it, think about it, know about it, learn about it. Knowledge is power, inspiration, and fuels appreciation for all that has preceded us. Many say “I don’t want to see it cuz it’ll just make me mad.” I’m SO feeling you too, but you know what? You’re probably already mad about something racial; you might as well learn more of your history, so you can get that anger more focused and specific.

Unknown-1Many didn’t/couldn’t see Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” because it was so soon after Trayvon Martin’s death. Many felt like a painful, walking open wound, but if you’d seen the movie, you would have seen the last 24 hours in the life of a young man who the director humanized, and elevated from his “senseless tragic death of a young black man status” to a young man with a full yet often troubled life who had people who loved him, as he deserved.

Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” was shunned by many because the time period was one so full of the institutional racism that ran rampant for those in the service industry. We forget that maids, chauffeurs, railcar porters, mail carriers, were the middle class of the day during the 40’s 50’s and 60’s.  To see the men in the back room of the White House just being themselves, and seeing what was behind the mask of the serene “always ready to serve butler” was awesome. To see the lead character go home, to watch the struggles within his own family, and his ultimate reconciliation with his son was touching. His willingness to finally embrace the cause of civil rights, highlighted the conflicted two worlds those in service professions had to inhabit, and the code-switching that was, and is still so automatic.

images-1Think of the year 1853, 12 years before the 13th Amendment ended slavery, and what was depicted in Steve McQueen’s  “12 Years a Slave”, and then  examine our current racial/cultural tension, and ponder the intersection of the then and now 160 years later. Lots of progress has been made, but in a lot of ways we’re all still running in place. The differences in social classes, status, suspicion, interdependence of cultures, uneasy co- existence, the feeling of existing under a truce or a treaty, etc. Now think about “12 years” again. This is a movie that unraveled the very fabric of slavery 46 years after the 1807 Act banning importation of slaves to the United States. That didn’t stop the trade, it was just perfected. It takes all that’s ugly and doesn’t try to dress it up. It showed the humanity, the cruelty, the depravity, and the will to survive. No excuses, no apologies.

Even if you pick only one of these flicks to support, I hope you feel it’s worth the time and the emotional energy you may expend in the aftermath, processing what you viewed. No, the movies aren’t perfect, no movie is, but I wanted to emphasize the positives to try to push you into seeing them.

OK, I’ve almost grown back my huge 70’s afro, and have gone completely too deep into Black Studies mode. I’ll step down off my soap box before I fall off.  Just wanted to give you a lil more to think about.

If you do see any of these movies, come back and comment, I’ll be curious to hear what you thought. Even if you totally disagree with me, the best thing about an opinion, is that we all get to have one.


  1. Most excellent! I had decided not to see “12 Years A Slave” because I knew it would be hard to take the violence against slaves; had decided to read the book instead. Then I remembered I saw “Django” and kicked myself. I HAVE to support Steve McQueen. HAVE to. I’ll just cover my eyes, and stick my fingers in my ears and hum quietly during the violent scenes. Thank you for this, Shannyn.


  2. puccdetroit says:

    Great post! Thank you! Nick Hood 3


  3. Roxy L. Brown says:

    Thanks, Shannyn, for an extremely well-positioned essay on why we should be paying attention to this black renaissance of “reality” film making. I couldn’t agree more that we better drink from the cup while there is libation flowing! I love, love, love what is happening in the world of cinema making by black folks, right now. As for “12 Years,” I’ve started a stream of discussion on Facebook as to its relevance; so far, people who understand why we still need to tell the painful stories of slavery are in the majority.


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