In my book, "1963: The Year of Hope and Hostility," I examined the political and cultural events that continue to impact the nation, which included Sidney Poitier winning the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Homer Smith in "Lilies of the Field."

It marked the first time that a black person was awarded the prestigious honor, reflecting a glimpse of hope that blacks could be viewed with the equality and dignity guaranteed by the Constitution. In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Oscar for her supporting role as Mammy in "Gone with the Wind." It is safe to conclude that no white actor could have played the role of Mammy.

But the significance of Poitier's victory was not simply that a black man won, but also the type of character he played.

In addition to Poitier, A-list actors such as Paul Newman, William Holden or Steve McQueen, could have very easily portrayed Homer Smith because it was a role based on being a good person and not dependent on one's race.

Hollywood, like the rest of America, has a history marred by the stench of racism. From "Birth of a Nation" to countless demeaning stereotypical portrayals of blacks in movies, reflecting much of the prevailing ethos of the times.

But on the 50th anniversary of Poitier's award, Hollywood reached another cultural milestone by acknowledging "12 Years a Slave" as the best picture of 2013.


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Based on a true story, "12 Years a Slave" tells the narrative of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, who is abducted and sold into slavery.

For 134 minutes, one is privy to the unspeakable horror that was the American institution of slavery. It is an unvarnished depiction of America's most tragic hour that rendered the majority of viewers feeling uneasy and relieved at its conclusion.

Because it's Hollywood, it is difficult to know if the depiction of Northrup's painful journey reflected reality. What is not debatable, however, was the barbaric portrayal of the institution of slavery, which robbed victim and victimizer of their humanity.

Still, a number of Americans, regardless of ethnicity, have avoided seeing "12 Years a Slave." I suspect it's for the same reasons many shunned "Schindler's List" in 1993: The prospects were too painful to be entertaining.

Before we give Hollywood too much credit, it should be noted that "12 Years a Slave" was not produced by the usual suspects. Sony, Disney, 20th Century Fox and Paramount, are not listed among its credits.

This was a British-American production that was not received with open arms by Hollywood producers, reflective of the arrested development that continues to haunt America at-large.

Perhaps the lack of exuberance was due more to financial considerations. Would "12 Years a Slave" be a profitable enterprise?

As of this writing the movie has grossed in excess of $158 million worldwide -- not bad for a film with an initial budget of $20 million; $58 million was revenue generated in the U.S.

To put this in perspective, the 2010 release of "Yogi Bear" is the 571st highest grossing movie in America with $100 million.

But "12 Years a Slave" demonstrates that uncomfortable historical dramas about America's original sin can be profitable. Moreover, it serves as a counter narrative to the sophomoric rebuttals on race such as "get over it." How can one get over something whose impact remains largely unexamined, stored conveniently in the basement of American history?

Slavery is as important to the American narrative as the Constitution. Without an initial compromise on slavery, there would not have been a United States, as we know it today, a Civil War, the need for the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, nor a civil rights movement; all of which have curiously combined to make America better.

Byron Williams is a contributing columnist. Contact him at 510-208-6417 or byron@byronspeaks.com.