AIQ in Media

12 Years a Slave and the Legacy of U.S. Gun Laws

By Andrea Quijada -- I finally had the opportunity to see 12 Years a Slave in February. Aside from the fact that I am not the target audience for yet another extremely violent Hollywood-produced film created to teach white America that slavery happened and it’s stain is historical and not contemporary, the media literacy educator in me demanded that I watch it.

There is a scene where William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is waiting to transport his “property,” Solomon Northup, to a new plantation. While Northup lies on the floor in the foyer of his home, Ford hears a noise outside, reaches for his rifle and steps onto his front porch. I was struck by the image of this white man holding a gun, willing to harm or kill in order to protect Northup. To be clear, Ford is not protecting him because Solomon is a man who deserves to have his life, but because he was payment for Ford’s debt.  

In this scene I was reminded of an article by Thom Hartmann where he explains that the right to bear arms provision of the 2nd Amendment was specifically ratified in 1788 so that plantation owners and slave owners could maintain state-controlled militias and remain legally armed against the slave uprisings that occurred during this period.

A week after I saw the movie, the verdict for Jordan Davis was announced. Just like with Trayvon Martin and so many others, the stand your ground laws were used to protect the white shooters (or in Zimmerman’s case, the law was used to protect a Latino who chose to exchange a black life to access the privilege afforded to him by the white power structure). I kept thinking of William Ford on his porch and couldn’t help but see the connection: gun laws, from the second amendment to stand your ground, have always and only been created for the benefit of white men in this country.

It’s not enough for us to know our history (yes, the history of our country belongs to all of us, not just some of us), if we don’t use it to change our current path. So while Hollywood keeps churning out these films about America’s racist past, I encourage all of us to examine America’s racist present. The dots are connected.