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The Oscars and Race: What Aren’t We Talking About?

A character in Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing says:

“We have laws in this country. You break them, you pay your fine. You break God’s laws, that’s a different story. You can’t kidnap a civilization and sell them into slavery. No amount of money will make up for it, and all you have to do is look, 200 years later, at race relations in this country.”

He’s the nominee for assistant attorney general for civil rights, who is talking with the President’s deputy chief of staff on the issue of reparations. It’s a conversation the White House isn’t comfortable having.

I thought about that scene a lot after watching Fruitvale Station. It tells the true story of the 2009 police shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, played with grace by Michael B. Jordan, at a BART station in Oakland. The movie won last year’s Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and received praise from both audiences and critics alike when it was released last summer. But, when nomination time came for the Golden Globes and the Oscars, the movie was shut out.

It could be that the movie was forgotten because it was released last summer, long before the usual fall timeline for Oscar hopefuls. Or it could be that Fruitvale Station hits too close to home. Perhaps Samuel Jackson said it best:

“America is much more willing to acknowledge what happened in the past: ‘We freed the slaves! It’s all good!’ But to say: ‘We are still unnecessarily killing black men’ – let’s have a conversation about that.”

That kind of “real” conversation about race may only be possible on Twitter. Take this comment by @xicacha during this year’s Golden Globes:

When I first read this, I laughed out loud. I was sitting next to my friend Gilliane, but when I read it to her the power behind @xichacha’s words actually sunk in. Her tweet was one of many expressing anger and disappointment over the lack of awards that director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave received that night. The movie won the prize for “Best Picture (Drama),” but that’s all that it won, even though it was nominated in seven categories. This cut especially deep because 2013 was deemed a breakout year for black film.

12 Years A Slave is a divisive film, arguably the most talked about movie of this past year. And understandably so. It tells the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man living in pre-Civil War, upstate New York. He is ripped away from his wife and children, kidnapped, and sold into slavery in the South. His name is changed; he is cruelly beaten and whipped, forced to work on Louisiana plantations for 12 years.

I watched Fruitvale Station and 12 Years A Slave with Gilliane. Both of us were raised straddling two cultures. Gilliane was born in upstate New York to Haitian parents. I was born in Colombia, but was raised in Miami from the age of four. Even though we see ourselves as American, our cultures influence who we are today. We talked about that a lot after watching 12 Years A Slave: how feeling like an outsider has shaped our views on slavery in the United States. How U.S. history will forever be entwined with the sin of slavery, and we both wondered if the country will ever be able to truly move forward.

For Gilliane, the questions went even deeper. As a black woman, the living nightmare of 12 Years a Slave struck a chord in ways that I could never understand. As she wrote to me:

“Every scene carried with it the fear that I had now entered a world where the moral consequences I was used to no longer existed and literally anything could and would happen. The worst part being that it did and in some places still does happen.

The realness of that was overwhelming for a lot of reasons. One of them being that slavery still exists in the country of Haiti, the former home and birthplace of my parents and grandparents and countless other family members whom I will never meet. I don’t know if Haitian slavery exists to the extent that it did in the U.S. for so long. But I do know Haitians share an island with a people who will not recognize them as citizens and, to this day, devalue them as humans. Yet despite this and the number of other unfathomable hardships Haitians are faced with on a daily basis, they are a people of hope. A people who will greet you with a smile as bright as day and a spirit that is strong and proud.

I don’t know what my spirit would look like if faced with similar circumstances. I don’t know if it would survive constantly being broken day after day after day. But it happens. Seeing this movie helped me to understand as I never have before how truly far we have come and it showed me a perspective of hope and of determination and of survival that I will not soon forget.”

Director Steve McQueen has said that 12 Years A Slave is not just a movie about race and slavery, but it is a “discussion about human dignity.” I get where he’s coming from. There are arguments to be made for watching the film in that light. But the shocking and brutal violence of slavery that it depicts makes it hard to focus on, let alone remember anything else.

Even though Fruitvale Station begins with the actual cell phone footage of Oscar Grant being murdered on the station platform, the violence of that act is not what breaks your heart. It’s the loss of a father, a son, and a friend. His was a life so young and full of promise. It’s a loss that is still present, that still occurs all across this country. We seem to be open to talk about — and celebrate — a movie that shows the life of a black man in 1841, but the life of a young black man in 2008? Hollywood isn’t comfortable with that.

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