’42,’ ’12 Years A Slave,’ And Why The Oscars Needed ‘Fruitvale Station’ In That Heroes Montage

‘42,’ ‘12 Years A Slave,’ And Why The Oscars Needed ‘Fruitvale Station’ In That Heroes Montage

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'42,' '12 Years A Slave,' And Why The Oscars Needed 'Fruitvale Station' In That Heroes Montage

‘42,’ ‘12 Years A Slave,’ And Why The Oscars Needed ‘Fruitvale Station’ In That Heroes Montage

ThinkProgress sports reporter Travis Waldron and I did not much like 42, the stiff, hagiographic, poorly written biopic of Jackie Robinson released last year that has as its main virtue getting American audiences ready for Nicole Beharie’s excellence on Sleepy Hollow. And seeing it juxtaposed with 12 Years A Slave in the montage of movies about heroes in fights for justice clarified why. In the clip from the latter movie, we see Solomon Northup (an Oscar-nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor) explain “I don’t want to survive, I want to live.”

In profoundly different ways, the viciousness of racial oppression and slavery, and the need for movement icons, strip the people affected by both of their humanity. Slavery takes away Solomon’s ability to take pleasure in his intellect and talent, his ability to form relationships with integrity, his ability to treat people like his fellow slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) with decency. And the demand that racial exemplars (or other people who do credit to their marginalized ground) live public–and increasingly, private–lives of sterile exceptionalism denies them the opportunities to make mistakes, to lose their tempers, to cry in sadness and anger. Movies like 42 institutionalize that toll, rather than challenging its necessity in ways that can feel exhausting, and that have real impacts on public policy that demand that, for example, people of color correct themselves so as not to incur violence, rather than protecting them from violence they in no way deserve.

And seeing those two movies together reminds me, once again, how badly I wish Ryan Coogler’s exceptional debut film Fruitvale Station was represented in some way here tonight. That movie, about Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) on the last day of his life before he was shot to death on a BART platform, is about exactly the kind of living Solomon yearns for so badly. Oscar jokes with a pretty girl at the grocery store where he’s gone to beg for his job back, talks a store owner into opening his bathroom to Oscar and his fellow revelers, including a white pregnant couple on New Year’s Eve, pranks his sister, celebrates his mother. It’s a lovely celebration of everyday life, and why the loss of even the ordinary opportunity to enjoy it, is such a tragedy.

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