This weekend seems strange right now. Simply put, Lee and I went to the Gaslamp to celebrate Chinese New Year in San Diego. It is a small, but fun event and last year Lee won a prize in the raffle (we gave it away, but winning was nice). Sunday, during the day, we went to see 12 Years a Slave. Then today the news that Shirley Temple Black passed away. How do you fit all this together? Well, settle in and I will try to guide you through this. Bear with me, this is not a well mapped road.
Let's start with 12 Years a Slave. This was a powerful film, but very difficult to watch. The last film I saw that was this hard to watch was Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ`. The performances were excellent, but almost overwhelmed by the power of the story itself. 12 Years a Slave is the film that makes you want to see Django Unchained. You need a good revenge fantasy after seeing all the evil that occurred without any justice being meted out.
If you are not familiar with the film, 12 Years a Slave is based on the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free man from Saratoga, New York in 1841 who is tricked into coming south to Washington, D.C. and is chained and sold as a slave. This occurs within sight of the Capitol dome. From the moment chains are placed upon Solomon Northrup, he is stripped of all he expects, the respect he has earned as a musician, common courtesy, his clothes and even his name. Alone, bereft of his family, beaten regularly and even forced to play the violin as the other slaves are forced to dance after a hard day of picking cotton. When a female slave begs him to kill her rather than allow her to continue to be raped and beaten by their master, you urge him to consider it. Even though Northrup regains his freedom, the people who are responsible for his situation are never brought to justice. Even though his book was on the best seller list for over eight months, nothing that happens in his life could restore the belief that other people are generally good and the world is benign. In his life, every twig snapping must instantly become the sound of a whip cracking, and in a world where carriages use whips, there would be no escaping the sounds of a nightmare made real.
After watching 12 Years a Slave, I could not help but reconsider the exhibits I saw in the small museums in San Diego relating to Chinese immigrants in San Diego. Comments made in journals regarding casual discrimination suddenly seemed more than just isolated instances, but rather exactly the same behavior occurring just a few years earlier in the eastern states with African Americans.
Then on Monday morning, hearing that Shirley Temple Black had passed away, it made me think. Shirley Temple had done a film, The Littlest General, about a little girl in the south who warmed heart of the old Confederate grandfather she was living with. In this film, she dances with Bill Robinson. Now Ms. Temple-Black was never a bigot and certainly neither was Mr. Robinson. However, the scene of them dancing together could easily have been edited into 12 Years a Slave and not have changed the tone of the film at all. If anything, it would have included Shirley Temple's character in with the evil slave owners and shown Mr. Robinson dancing only for the entertainment of a white child who must be obeyed.
With Ms. Temple-Black's passing, perhaps it is time to put away the cute images of slavery, as shown in The Littlest General. Better to pay attention to 12 Years a Slave, or if you cannot bear to watch the horror depicted there, at least watch a series on Youtube called “Ask a Slave”. The young lady in the series, Azie Dungey, works as a historical character at Mount Vernon. The series is simply a compilation of the clueless questions she gets asked during work. She approaches the subject in a humorous fashion, staying in character throughout. Sadly, people provide her with a great deal of material for her series by displaying a level of ignorance that barely recognizes slavery as a bad thing. Perhaps they have not moved beyond Shirley Temple yet.