Richard Friedman
Jewish Federation director, Journalist

Jews Should See “12 Years a Slave”

By Richard Friedman, Executive Director

I saw the movie “12 Years a Slave” on Sunday. It’s about a free black man, Solomon Northup, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. It is based on a true story. The movie is brutal, chilling, heart-breaking and haunting, and the kind of film that stays with you after you’ve seen it.

I have found myself thinking a lot about the movie since Sunday, probably because I had just experienced parts of the Southern Jewish Historical Society’s annual conference which was held this year here in Birmingham, AL. What Jews did and didn’t do during the Civil Rights movement was a recurring theme, as was relations today between African-Americans and Jews.

Thus, the African-American experience in America was very much on my mind when I saw the movie. At times, I was reminded of chillingly graphic and brutal scenes from “Schindler’s List,” Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece movie about the Holocaust.

There were similarities in the sadistic attitudes of the slave owners and their overseers and the Nazis and their accomplices. Both oppressor groups set out to dehumanize their victims. There is very little in either movie that is redemptive, because each filmmaker had the courage to tell the story honestly — which meant raw and unvarnished.

The audience at the movie Sunday was about two-thirds black and a few families even brought young children. Hearing the reactions from the mostly African-America audience — gasps and murmuring — made an impression on me. For them, as is the case with Jews and the Holocaust, slavery is not just history, it is something real that affected their families.

I think all Americans, and particularly Jewish Americans, should never lose sight of the impact of slavery on the consciousness of black America. Blacks in America still live in the land of their enslavement, among the descendants of those who enslaved them. I would think that it is hard for non-blacks to fully comprehend what this must be like. I do think this is part of the reason that blacks and whites often view events and trends in this country differently.

“12 Years a Slave” is a film worth seeing. It will heighten your understanding of the travails and trauma of slavery, and create a deeper understanding of the pain that characterizes important parts of black history in America.

Understanding one another better does not always lead to agreement. But what it does is create a climate more conducive to cooperation and mutual respect. This alone is a reason to go see “12 Years a Slave.” As painful as it was, I am glad I did.

About the Author
Richard Friedman is Executive Director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation in Alabama. He also is a well-known Alabama journalist.