Last night’s best picture Oscar win for 12 Years a Slave was more that a tribute to powerful filmmaking. And the evening’s final acceptance speeches were more than ritual thanks to Hollywood insiders. The highpoint of the Oscar telecast became an awareness-raising mega-moment, alerting tens of millions of viewers that slavery didn’t end with the Civil War.
“I am dedicating this award to all the people who have endured slavery,” said 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen, “and the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today.”
“Everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live,” he said. “This is the most important legacy of Solomon Northup.”
12 Years a Slave is the true story of a free African-American in New York who was tricked in the 1840s into taking a job away from home, then trafficked to slavery in the South. Solomon Northop was freed more than a decade later with help from anti-slavery activists.
“It’s been an absolute privilege to work on Solomon’s story,” said Brad Pitt, accepting the Oscar with McQueen. Pitt was one of the film’s producers, and he played the Canadian abolitionist who helped Northup break free.
McQueen also thanked historian Sue Eakin, who rescued Northup’s story from obscurity. His original manuscript was a bestseller in 1853 and helped America move closer to outlawing slavery. But it had been lost to history until Eakin rescued one of the few remaining copies and restored it in 1968.
“She gave her life’s work to preserving this book,” McQueen noted.
With three Oscar wins — best picture, best adapted screenplay and best supporting actress — 12 Years a Slave hits store shelves this week as a DVD and digital download. If you and your friends haven’t seen it, consider hosting a house party to screen the film and discuss how slavery has managed to persist in the world today. You can download the Free the Slaves house party guide for tips about how to get organized. Download our slavery fact sheet for some eye-opening statistics.
History can shape the future. Let your community know that helping people to overcome slavery isn’t just a thing of the past.
One of the founding principles of Free the Slaves is that we must show the world that slavery still exists. That has meant traveling to distant and dangerous places to film the brutality of slavery today, as well as to showcase innovative ways to end it.
Over the years, FTS has been fortunate to work with one of the world’s best photographers, Robin Romano.
Whether it was hundreds of feet below ground inside illegal gold mines, or hundreds of miles upcountry at fishing camps or in rebel conflict zones, Robin did what it took to present visual proof of slavery’s reality to the world.
Robin died late last year, and fellow activists in the Child Labor Coalition are gathering over the next few days in New York and Washington, D.C. to celebrate the life of an exemplary activist, gadfly, award-winning human rights photographer and filmmaker, artist and friend.
- New York: Saturday, February 8th at 1 p.m., St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, 131 East 10th Street.
- Washington: Thursday, February 13th at 4:30 p.m. at the National Education Association, 1201 16th Street, NW. Register here.
The Free the Slaves staff will miss Robin, and our thoughts are with his family. Others who have worked with him will miss Robin, too:
“You were far more than just a photographer/videographer, but I want to say just a word about that aspect of your amazing life. I have thousands of your photos in boxes at home, the remnants of many projects we worked on together. I have looked again at many of these photos since you died, and recall vividly how you had an amazing knack for seeing in your subjects, mostly children, the spark of dignity and humanity that had often been almost crushed by their life circumstances. And you had an uncanny ability to encourage these subjects to show that spark.” –Pharis Harvey on Media Voices for Children blog.
“Robin was always covered in cameras. He was a one man show. He shot stills, video, took sound, did interviews. He filled every vacuum. He didn’t know how to delegate. He hated sharing. He wanted everything perfect and was willing to pay the price of doing it all himself. The price was physical exhaustion, illness, a candle burning at both ends. He was one of the finest natural light videographers I have known in forty years as a director-editor. And still his photographs are among the best the world has ever seen. This was the Robin I knew, working to take the perfect picture that would tell the story of a child’s life, and of our world’s indifference in one frozen second.” –Len Morris on Media Voices for Children blog.
Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Ridley is concerned that moviegoers might miss a key lesson from the poignant script he wrote for the hit movie 12 Years a Slave.
“As beautiful as this film is, one of the dangers is people will go in and say thank God we’re not like that anymore. The fact of the matter is,” Ridley said, “it is going on right now.”
Speaking Friday night on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, Ridley noted that millions are tricked into slavery today, just as Solomon Northop was in 12 Years a Slave.
The film is based on a true story — Northop was a free African-American in New York who thought he was joining a traveling musical group in the 1840s. He was trafficked to a plantation in the South until activists helped him assert his legal rights to return home.
“It can happen, it can happen here,” Ridley said about trafficking today. “Whether it’s forced labor, whether it’s sex trafficking, if there are individuals that cannot have their right of self determination, then it’s slavery.”
“There are literally tens of thousands of people here in this country right now, where it’s happening,” Ridley noted. “The places where it can happen will shock you.”
“Slavery is not just a thing of the past,” Maher said.
Ridely has been nominated for a best adapted screenplay Oscar. He transformed Northop’s original book about his ordeal in slavery into the story now being seen by millions in theaters.
Northop’s book was a best seller in the 1850s and helped propel the United States toward abolition. Learn more about the book here. The film has already won this year’s Golden Globe for best drama, and is up for nine Oscars, including best picture, on March 2nd.
Learn more about the state of slavery in the world today on the downloadable Free the Slaves Trafficking and Slavery Fact Sheet.
Last Saturday, I was standing on hallowed ground. As I rose to speak to hundreds of people gathered for a benefit concert at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, I had to take a deep breath. That’s because on that very spot, 150 years ago, anti-slavery activists were attending the funeral of one my wife’s ancestors, the noted abolitionist and congressman, Owen Lovejoy.
I knew that my words could never be as powerful as the eulogy delivered in 1864 by Plymouth Church’s founder, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher.
“Owen Lovejoy was evidence that a man might become heroic,” the New York Times quoted Rev. Beecher as saying about Lovejoy and his dedication to ending slavery. “He was built broad and square and healthy and resolute, fitted to fight this battle.”
As I stood where Rev. Beecher had, I noted that our movement today is just as strong, just as resolute. My words stressed our connections to the past, and commitment to finish the job that our predecessors had started.
Saturday’s concert was an extraordinary combination of reflection, song and prayer, thanks to the kindness of Plymouth Church, which put on the benefit concert for Free the Slaves, and the Brooklyn Historical Society, which organized a panel on modern day slavery the night before.
Plymouth Church was founded in 1847 by Henry Ward Beecher, one of the most prominent abolitionists of the pre-Civil War era. The fight against slavery was, in fact, a family cause. Henry’s sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. His brother, Edward, was a leader of the abolitionist movement in Illinois, where he worked closely with another famous set of abolitionist brothers – Owen, Elijah and John Lovejoy. Owen Lovejoy was Abraham Lincoln’s closest friend in Congress. Edward Beecher was a staunch defender of Elijah Lovejoy, who was eventually murdered by a mob for publishing an abolitionist newspaper.
Plymouth Church was a key link in the Underground Railroad. Abraham Lincoln attended Plymouth Church in 1860, the day before he gave an anti-slavery speech in Manhattan that helped secure his Republican Party nomination for the presidential election. It was thrill to sit briefly in the Abraham Lincoln pew at Plymouth Church!
On Friday evening, the Brooklyn Historical Society, which has mounted a wonderful exhibit on slavery and abolitionism in Brooklyn, hosted a panel on modern-day slavery. Dr. Timothy McCarthy, a well-known historian of social movements who is on the Harvard University faculty and the FTS board, gave an erudite and passionate talk on the lessons that modern abolitionists can draw from the antebellum abolitionist movement. Tina Frundt, founder and executive director of Courtney’s House, gave a moving presentation on her experience as a slavery survivor. I had the opportunity to speak about the lessons we have learned at Free the Slaves about combating modern day slavery. Loretta Lynch, U.S. attorney for the eastern district of New York, moderated the panel. More than 125 people came to the session and engaged the panel in a lively discussion.
The following evening, Plymouth Church hosted the concert. The truly incredible line-up of performers consisted of The Inspirational Voices of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens, and The Impressions. The people who braved a stormy night to attend received a rare treat. There is no way for me to capture the beauty and power of the singing. All I can really share is that the entire evening was a deeply moving and captivating experience. We are so grateful to Plymouth Church, the organizers and the performers for a truly unforgettable experience.
TICKETS ARE STILL AVAILABLE SATURDAY, JANUARY 11: Plymouth Church will be hosting a benefit concert for Free the Slaves. Join an all-star lineup, including The Impressions, Naomi Shelton, members of The Dap-Kings, The Gospel Queens and the Inspirational Voices of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Plymouth Church has a long history of involvement in the abolition and civil rights movements. It was once known as “Grand Central Station” of the Underground Railroad. Abraham Lincoln attended service there. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached there. The historic venue will again be filled with the sounds of freedom at the Let Freedom Ring concert.