Bob Ray Sanders: A great film we're afraid to see

January 3, 2014 

Several weeks ago on a radio sports talk show, one of the co-hosts made the most amazing dare to his colleagues -- really to the audience as well -- about a movie, of all things.

Longtime Dallas/Fort Worth broadcaster Chris Arnold is not only one of the most knowledgeable people in sports, he is an avid movie fan with an encyclopedic knowledge of films past and present. He does regular segments about new movie releases during the sports show.

On this day, almost as an afterthought it seemed (except Chris never really does anything as an afterthought), he talked about the movie he had just seen, noting that it was a tough one to watch.

He then dared his on-air cohorts to go see "12 Years a Slave," publicly betting that they wouldn't have the nerve, or the interest, to do so.

The sports guys apparently aren't the only ones reluctant to see this highly acclaimed movie, as several film critics have reported that within their circles of the so-called literati they have run into people who simply can't bring themselves to view a movie on such a weighty subject -- at least not yet.

Slavery.

It is a topic many Americans simply don't want to be reminded of and are in no mood to talk about.

Slavery was an institution in American, and we are rightly ashamed of it. From the very beginning, it contradicted what this country's founders supposedly stood for. It was a chapter in the nation's history that made a lie of our coveted Declaration of Independence, to wit:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

I know there are those who will resent this column simply because of its topic. And it is to them that I issue the dare to go see "12 Years a Slave," based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a freeborn black man from upstate New York who was kidnapped while visiting Washington, D.C., in 1841 and sold into slavery.

This film by director Steve McQueen portrays slavery more accurately and poignantly than Hollywood ever has before.

It deals with the complexities of human bondage in a "democratic" America, including the separation of child from mother, the slave as a sexual object, the dehumanization process, the religious rationalization of such a vile system, the physical cruelty and the plantation politics between master and slave and between bondservant and bondservant.

It is powerful storytelling that is indeed difficult to watch. Some scenes you will never be able to forget.

"12 Years a Slave" has had limited release compared to many other films, but it is likely to be on a lot more screens as the awards start to pour in.

It's already won the audience award from the Toronto International Film Festival, has seven Golden Globe nominations (the awards are to be presented Jan. 12) and four nominations from the Screen Actors Guild.

When the Academy Award nominations are announced Jan 16, it is expected to be a leading contender.

Many critics, including the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Cary Darling, have named "12 Years a Slave" their top movie of the year.

So make it your New Year's resolution to see this film. And then talk about it. Discuss not only this one man's story, but slavery itself, the vestiges of which still remain.

I dare you.

Of course, to talk about slavery means you'll have to talk about something else most Americans don't want to discuss: race.

Bob Ray Sanders, columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram; bobray@star-telegram.com.

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