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“A Film That Touches the Depths of Who We Are”: Harry Belafonte on ’12 Years a Slave’

"A Film That Touches the Depths of Who We Are": Harry Belafonte on '12 Years a Slave'

For anyone lucky enough to be at Monday’s New York Film Critics Circle awards dinner, Harry Belafonte‘s moving presentation of Best Director to 12 Years a Slave‘s Steve McQueen was the undisputed highlight. What’s most regrettable about the headline-grabbing misbehavior of one of the Circle’s members is that it’s overshadowed what should have been the lead. So at Criticwire, we’re proud to help restore balance by presenting the official NYFCC audio of Belafonte’s speech. (Special thanks to chairman Joshua Rothkopf for allowing access to a piece of the Circle’s private archives.)

Woodrow Wilson infamously called D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation “history written with lightning,” a term that could be applied as well to McQueen’s chronicle of American slavery. Belafonte, who won the Circle’s supporting actor award for 1996’s Kansas City, began with Birth and then shifted to the personal impact of racist movie depictions on his young self. Watching Tarzan movies as a child, he recalled, he was struck by the “human beauty” of Johnny Weissmuller’s jungle king, and the “grossly subhuman” countenances of the mock-Africans around him. “Not until Johnny Weissmuller stepped into a scene did we know who we were, according to cinema,” he said. “The one thing I never wanted to be, after seeing that film, was an African.”

Nearly a century after The Birth of a Nation, Belafonte framed 12 Years a Slave as a rebuttal, one that “answers the charge… that we were not a people, we were evil, rapists, abusers, absent of intelligence, absent of soul, heart, inside.”

“I can say, in my 87th year of life, that I am joyed, I am overjoyed, that I should have lived long enough to see Steve McQueen step into this space and for the first time in the history of cinema, give us a work, a film, that touches the depths of who we are as a people, touches the depths of what America is as a country, and gives us a sense of understanding more deeply what our past has been, how glorious our future will be, and could be.”

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