Celebrating Our Story: Why '12 Years a Slave’s' Success is a Victory for All Black Americans

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by Charday Ward

The 2014 Academy Awards was a night of victory not only for Lupita Nyong’o, John Ridley and the entire cast and production of 12 Years a Slave, but also for all Black Americans, past, present and future.  12 Years A Slave is Black History; by depicting the autobiographical details of Solomon Northrup’s kidnapping and subsequent enslavement, it tells the story of the struggle enslaved Black people endured and triumphed through. With truthfulness and grace it exposes an ill of early American history, and reminds us from whence we came and why we should be proud of both our ancestors and ourselves. Because our story was recognized and celebrated, we were all made winners this award season.

In her acceptance speech for the SAG award for Best Supporting Actress, Lupita Nyong’o very poetically thanked 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen for “taking a flashlight and shining it underneath the floorboards of this nation and reminding us what it is we stand on.” The “floorboards,” or foundation of this great nation was its system of slave labor, and the thematic depiction of Solomon Northrup’s story shined a light on this often ignored and forgotten truth. It reminded us that America was once a place that harbored an atrocious institution that regarded Africans as chattel rather than humans, and showed us that we stand today as the embodiment of our forefathers’ and foremothers’ resilience and personal triumph.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o and other cast members of 12 Years a Slave are heroes. They not only portrayed their real-life characters with strong passion and great craftsmanship, but did it so well that they made the film industry and audiences around the world take notice and applaud. With respect and reverence they artistically honored every Solomon Northrup and Patsey who endured the bitter hardship of slavery, and they honored those of us who are the legacy of these great men and women. Steve McQueen is the man who deserves the most recognition, however, because the film was his vision, and one that he developed even before he learned of Solomon Northrup. His desire was to tell our story, and he did so bitter sweetly and with great elegance.

I jumped around my house when the Oscar for Best Picture was announced, similarly to the way that Steve McQueen jumped around the stage after he delivered his acceptance speech. I celebrated, not just because an excellent film was given a well-deserved award, but because my story had been beautifully told, and honored by Hollywood. I shed tears both times I saw the film, and I watched as others, both White and Black shed tears as well. We mourned over the lashes and abuse that Patsy endured, and anguished with Solomon as he longed for his family and the freedom he once enjoyed. We mourned because what we witnessed was truth, but I celebrate today because the truth has been told, and the world has been summoned to listen.

Charday Ward is a freelance writer, playwright, teacher and founder and director of a mentoring organization in Detroit, Michigan. Follow her blog LadyDaysLetters.com , and twitter @ladydaysletters

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