There’s always the chance—or at least the hope—that some of Cyrus’s audience will stumble on one of the recent movies about our tortured racial history and make some kind of connection. As I tried to get a fix on my own conflicted response to the emotional clout of 12 Years a Slave, I thought back to the first dramatic treatment of race I was exposed to, the original stage version of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which I saw at age 11 in my hometown of Washington, D.C., in 1961. At that point in its history, the nation’s capital and the public schools I attended there had officially been desegregated. Raisin was a first step toward disabusing myself of that illusion. My “integrated” school was essentially white. So was my neighborhood. I finally began to notice the huge gap that separated my Washington—as well as the official Washington visited by tourists—from the racially divided southern town whose black population, much of it in poverty, supplied “the help” for middle-class households like my own.
There’s a moment early on in 12 Years a Slave that reminded me of the revelatory effect Raisin had on me back then: As the newly kidnapped Solomon cries, “Help me! Help me!” and wrestles impotently with his chains in a cell in Washington, McQueen’s camera cranes upward to capture the alabaster city on the hill, the Capitol glinting in the sunlight and indifferent to the rank injustice at its doorstep. It’s a harrowing juxtaposition that might make any teenager look twice at today’s Washington, where, incredibly enough, one of our two major political parties is still essentially all-white, and where white legislators in both parties have responded to the Supreme Court’s recent castration of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 largely with apathy, not urgency.
If the days when an Uncle Tom’s Cabin could sway an entire nation are gone with the wind, we can still hope that some young person somewhere is being moved—whether in front of a screen or while cradling a book or in a theater—by a piece of art that wants to make a difference in the world. But while such small victories still count, they shouldn’t be confused with the real-life battles that will have to be fought tooth and nail by adults if they are to be won. Reflecting on the Obama era in a symposium on 12 Years a Slave in the Times, McQueen said, “The problem is: When he’s not the president anymore, will these films still exist?” That’s hardly the problem. The problem comes when we go to these movies, have a good cry, and imagine that, through some kind of Hollywood magic, they will bring about change.