12 Years A Slave Meets the Academic Community

12 Years A SlaveLast year Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln led to an outpouring of reviews by professional historians, who pointed out what they perceived to be a wide range of interpretive problems and omissions in the film. In sharp contrast, Steve McQueen’s powerful adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s 12 Years A Slave has garnered a very different and even muted response from the academic community. I sense a collective sigh of relief that finally we have a Hollywood film that directly challenges Lost Cause nostalgia surrounding slavery in Gone With the Wind. It could also be an acknowledgment of just how closely the movie conforms to Northrup’s autobiography.

The violence (both physical and psychological) is emotionally draining and will leave you feeling numb by the end. I never thought I would be saying this, but the final whipping scene makes Denzel Washington’s Academy Award-winning moment in Glory seem mild in comparison. In that case Tripp’s whipping eventually leads to a demonstration of his manhood and defiance in the battle scenes that take place later in the movie. There is redemption in Glory where there is none in 12 Years. We follow Solomon home to Saratoga, New York for a very brief reunion with his family, but our hearts are still with the remaining slaves on the Epps plantation in Louisiana. And then the theater lights come on.

While the brutality depicted in the movie may have given us the clearest picture of the violent nature of slavery it does run the risk of leaving us with a view of slaves as lacking any humanity. If we’ve learned anything from the last 40 years of scholarship it is that slaves found innumerable ways of challenging masters’ authority and asserting their own humanity and agency. Historian Glenn David Brasher.

In the last 40-50 years, historians have demonstrated that antebellum slaves were far from docile automatons, and that they found creative and ingenious ways to reach within themselves to create a culture that resisted the complete domination of their lives. Slaves routinely played tricks on their owners, covertly left the plantation for moonlit social and religious gatherings, entertained themselves, and created strong bonds that enabled them to maintain sanity and hope. Slaves laughed at their master’s expense; told stories to teach their young how to outwit, control, and fool their owners; engaged in slow downs and “laid out” to negotiate their work load; and worshipped a Christian God that they believed would one day free their people and damn their masters to hell. There are few and only fleeting glimpses of this type of resistance, self-determination, and hope depicted in 12 Years a Slave.

First, I am not sure the situation is as dire as Glenn makes it out to be. Depending on how you view the characters and individual scenes, it seems to me that there are numerous examples of slaves doing just the kinds of things pointed out in this review. The slave Anna refuses to forget the children that have recently been taken from her. She weeps during Sunday service as her master reads from the Bible. Is this submissiveness or defiance? I guess McQueen could have gone further in the direction outlined by Glenn, but I also wonder how this transfers to the big screen. Will the average audience pick up on what were incredibly subtle forms of defiance?

As in the case of Lincoln why is it that we expect filmmakers to be familiar with scholarship? This is not a work of academic history. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with raising questions that have come to shape recent historiography, but I tend to think that these discussions are more appropriate for the classroom.

One of the features of this film – in addition to its portrayal of violence – that clearly reflects a significant step in the direction (intentional or not) toward recent scholarship is its depiction of the relationship between Epps and his wife. We see how slavery has come to dominate and shape their relationship. More importantly, we see the wife’s direct involvement in the management of the slave community in all of its forms. I can’t help but think of Thavolia Glymph’s book, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household.

Regardless of where you stand on these issues, I know I speak for Glenn when I say, GO SEE THE MOVIE.

36 responses... add one

Whenever I read the reviews academic historians write of good popular movies on Civil War-related themes, I always wonder how they would react to turnabout. What if 12 Years screenwriter John Ridley reviewed, let’s say, “River of Dark Dreams” and found it wanting as a screenplay (“too many characters”, “why the steamboat obsession?”, “what is economics doing in here”.

Roughly 3 million Americans have seen 12 Years, only about a fifth of the audience for Lincoln. Any sense of why this year’s “Civil War film” is doing so much smaller box office? Is it the violence? The fact that Lincoln may have been the most talked about film last year because of its contemporary subject matter? Race? Or is Lincoln a vastly better film? I saw it in a theater in the African American community in my village and the sex and violence clearly embarrassed some black parents who had brought their children with them to see the film. Has that kept the numbers down?

My own recommendation is families should see this film, but I would caution against bringing sensitive children under 13.

Pat,

I agree with you about children under 13. I’m all for having honest discussions of slavery with anyone; but, this is a film that was definitely not appropriate for the audience I was with who had to listen to a baby and three year old fuss and cry during a significant portion of the movie (not because of what was on screen per se; but, they’re too little to not be restless).

As far as the numbers go, I think a significant problem has been the limited release on October 18th (which I thought was a full release) and then the selected theaters that had it when it supposedly was fully released on November 1st. In Richmond, Virginia (a place directly connected with Northrup’s story and with the slave trade), only two theaters had the film. A friend of mine who lives in the Shenandoah Valley reported that the nearest theater to him showing it was 50 miles away.

I think there was a lot of buzz and interest in seeing the film but then the selected release has likely kept some people away.

Dabney, I agree with you about the limited number of theaters. When it was first put into general release, it was only at two theaters on Long Island, a region of 2.8 million people. Now it has expanded , but only to 5 theaters. It is also clearly being marketed here as a “Black Movie”. All the trailers at the showing I went to ranged from films on Mandela to Tyler Perry. While the audience was racially mixed, it was clear that the exhibitor saw this as a film with little appeal to whites and Latinos.

I think it all primarily has to do with marketing. When I wanted to see Lincoln, it was very easy to find it at a convenient time. 12 Years, not so much. However, I think it has less to do with race than with the studio’s decision to market this as a art film rather than a blockbuster. Lincoln benefited from Spielberg’s status as a hit-maker, as where McQueen is definitely viewed as more of an auteur. My preview experience also didn’t match yours, as the films were primarily prestige pictures which did not appear to be marketed to any particular race.
It’s also worth noting that 12 Years isn’t exactly a crowd-pleaser. Although Lincoln ends with an assassination, it’s primarily an uplifting movie with a predominantly happy ending. As Kevin indicated 12 Years leaves you numb and mute – not exactly the sort of the experience the average moviegoer is seeking.

As Kevin indicated 12 Years leaves you numb and mute – not exactly the sort of the experience the average moviegoer is seeking.

I think this is just one aspect of the movie that places it in a class of its own and why it defies cataloging with some of the other movies that have been referenced in previous comments.

As you already know, I largely agree with you about all of this. I tend to rejoice when Hollywood delivers a historical film that effectively represents the reality of a particular era or phenomenon, rather that perpetuating myths. This is especially so with 12 Years a Slave, as Hollywood has been routinely soft on slavery. Furthermore, I agree that McQueen goes out of his way to show that most of the slave characters never fully relinquish their humanity and agency. Even Patsy is resisting her master’s authority by proposing that she withdraw the one thing he values most (her body) through death. Furthermore, as with Lincoln, we have to be conscious of the limits of historical screenplays to convey the sorts of complexity we expect from historical monographs. The story and central themes are a screenwriters primary concern, and should be. Nuance is desired but often concise in the interests of economy and narrative structure. I felt 12 Years did an admirable job of conveying many of the complexities of the slave system while still telling an engaging story – no small feat.

A “muted” response does not constitute a sigh of relief or an acknowledgment of anything.

It was a great film, but it was also spectacle and the typical human response to spectacle is to be mute.

There have also already been several films that depict the brutality of slavery (Amistad, Django Unchained, Glory) so I don’t know why you feel that this is the first to challenge lost cause nostalgia.

I will also say that Gone with the Wind is a beautiful film despite it’s flaws and simplified portrayal of slavery. I do not think many people view it for a historical account of that institution, however, and as I already said, we have several Hollywood films that offer a different, more accurate perspective. I am 30 and I can count on one hand the number of people I know that are my age and have seen the film at all – which is unfortunate actually.

I am aware of these films, but none of them explores the master-slave relationship to the degree of 12 Years. GWTW (the film) introduced a large number of Americans to a memory of the antebellum South (slavery) and the war that was already quite popular by 1939. I highly recommend Nina Silber’s book, Romance of Reunion, for further reading on this.

Thanks for your piece. Overall, I thought the film was fantastic artistically and beautiful in its presentation of tragedy in the raw. My one complaint was similar to what you pointed out. What I missed in the film was a representation of the “slave community” — the support network that created a foundation for African American life and culture in the quarters. The film showed little to no interaction between the enslave people once their work was done, beyond sharing a meal. There was almost no conversation, no reflection on the days experience, no sharing of gossip or a joke. Not even so much as eye contact or a smile. The vacuum of sullenness seemed odd to me as I watched the film. While the characters of Solomon, Patsy, and Ellen (as well as Alfre Woodard’s character) were well-developed, most of the other portrayals of enslaved people are wooden and flat. There was an opportunity missed there.

Good grief!

Finally a film to offset GWTW Lost Cause???
What about Glory, Roots, Jango, Lincoln, and Ride With th Devil?

All wonderful movies, but none of them explore the master-slave relationship with the kind of sensitivity found in 12 Years. Roots is perhaps the closest, but it dates to the 1970s.

Should “D’Jango” even be mentioned in serious discussion? I loved the movie, but it’s based on 1970s exploitation films, not real history. I feel the same way about “Inglorious Basterds.” The only ‘history’ in those movies is the history of film.

I tend to see Django as commentary about various tropes related to the history and memory of slavery. It’s an incredibly useful film in that regard.

BTW, Ride With the Devil shows Black Confederate irregulars. Is there any evidence for that?

According to the author of the novel upon which the movie is based, the answer is yes.

More importantly, the character of Holt was an exception, which was obvious from the movie. He was also threatened with death by renegade Rebels, which was also obvious from the movie. In sum, the characterization of African-Americans was light-years different than in Gone With the Wind, which again was obvious.

Many of those expressing comments here remind me of John Birch Society members looking for communists under their beds. It is a witch hunt to find “black Confederate” advocates among present day historians, writers, and Civil War buffs.
It is equally deluded and pathetic.

All of the movies I cited are not within 10,000 miles of being a Lost Cause representation race relations. The fact that Roots dates to the 1970s merely underscores how long Hollywood has abandoned the moonlight and magnolias viewpoint. In short, this website is about 40 years behind the times.

That is why there’s little opinion diversity here. That is why you should not be surprised when you don’t “hear” of any objections to 12-years. Few who would object spend any time here.

OK. Perhaps my assessment is completely off.

Do the rest of you agree that “Hollywood has abandoned the moonlight and magnolias viewpoint”?

In fairness, Scarlett was a b*tch to her slaves, hitting that one and breaking dishes in a temper tantrum. I’ve never read the book, but the movie GWTW wasn’t a Lost Cause movie to me. The slaves’ perspective wasn’t explored, granted. But the movie was about Scarlett and Rhett — Mammy and Prissy were supporting characters.

Ashley and Melanie were wimps, Rhett was a scoundrel (in the book, he slept with prostitutes) and Scarlett is an absolute JERK. They don’t really idealize the old South at all when you think about it.

I took the opening text of the movie to be almost satirical … “a land of master and slave, a society GONE WITH THE WIND,” as the very next scene shows the Southern men to be a bunch of naive, war-mongering idiots.

I saw it when I was 15, and when I told my grandmother I had watched it, she said, “Did you see where the slaves were in there fanning the white girls? No wonder they still hate us.”

At least in my grandmother’s case, the movie had an anti-racist message.

Let me refine my earlier comment. Hollywood has traditionally been hard on the concept of slavery (Lincoln, Glory, Amistad) but has rarely been willing to engage with the reality of slave life – especially its brutality. Roots is the obvious exception but its continued resonance proves my point. I’m on record praising Django for addressing slavery’s brutality directly, but Tarantino had to smuggle in this depiction under the guise of a Spaghetti Western. Nevertheless, I do see a corner having been turned and 12 Years marks the apex of it. The film forces viewers to confront the horrors of slavery directly and doesn’t pull a single punch. Film critics have noted this too. As my favorite reviewer, Peter Travers, noted:
McQueen’s “cinematic gut punch looms like a colossus over the Mandingo-Mammy-fixated drivel that passes as muckraking in Hollywood. Working with African-American screenwriter John Ridley, McQueen makes it impossible to regard slavery from the safe remove of TV screens (Roots), Hollywood sugarcoating (Gone With the Wind) and Tarantino satire (Django Unchained). This prickly renegade restores your faith in the harsh power of movies. You don’t just watch 12 Years a Slave. You bleed with it, share its immediacy and feel the wounds that may be beyond healing.”

Comment from GD Brasher

There are many things I want to respond and comment on here, so this may come across as disjointed. But let me jump in:

1) Tameka Hobbs says exactly what I was trying to say in my review, but she says it better. Her comments about a support network are dead on. You guys are right, there are subtle signs of resistance in the movie, but they are overwhelmed by the larger interpretive point of the film. I did not have the word count in my review to point out two significant moments that do exactly what I am calling for . . . Alfre Woodward’s character, and her discussion of how the master class would one day pay for it sins, was pitch perfect. Also, the scene in which the community comforts itself singing a spiritual around the grave of a recently deceased comrade (and the temporary comfort and release it gives to Solomon) nails it absolutely beautifully. When I write in the review that there are “few and fleeting” glimpses of slave resistance, these were the two scenes I was referring to. My point was that there is not enough of it, and this is largely because, as Tameka points out, most of the slaves around Northup are seen standing around being compliant and hardly ever communicating with each other, encouraging one another, uplifting each other’s spirits, and etc (The moment when a slave women brings water to Solomon while he is dangling by his neck was brilliantly staged, but again, there is not enough of this). For the most part they seem like passive drones, and I must say this was the primary problem I also had with Django Unchained. I can’t agree that McQueen could not have done more in this regard, and could have done so relatively easily (as the aforementioned scenes attests). The result would have been an even more compelling depiction of slavery.

My big concern here is that people have a tendency to view slaves as weak and totally degraded, and the institution as the ultimate example of one group’s total domination of another (in my classroom I have learned from many African American students that this is a major reason that they themselves have shied away from studying or caring about slavery). But there is another side of slavery that we are rarely exposed to or comprehend, and that is how powerful and resilient slaves were in their ability to not only survive, but (to borrow language from the film) also to LIVE. Any depiction of slavery is not complete unless both sides are shown.

2) Christian’s argument that Patsy’s desire to take away her body from her master by having Solomon kill her is not the type of resistance that I’m looking for, and there is one main reason why: it isn’t about survival or “living.” Slave suicide was rare, and this was largely because of the community’s exceptional ability to resist complete domination of their lives and to instill themselves with hope that one day things would be better and that justice would be served. Her desire to control the situation by dying is not slave resistance that promotes surviving, and more importantly, “living.” When they only solution is death, all hope has been destroyed. And in fact, it seems to me that this is the point of the scene (which is fictionalized).

3) I wanted to see more of what we saw in Roots. Honestly, even though it is dated, I still think the series gets closer to the reality of slave survival than anything else we have yet seen filmed. Sadly however, its cultural impact has waned considerably. 12 Years depicts the brutality of slavery more powerfully than Roots did, and Roots does a better job of developing the slave community than 12 Years did. I’m longing for a movie that successfully weds both angles, and the result, I believe, would be the most accurate depiction we have had so far. I wanted this from 12 Years and as Tameka says there was a missed opprotunity here.

4) Which brings me to those here who say that 12 Years is hardly a watershed and that we have had plenty of movies that depart from the Lost Cause depiction of slavery. This is somewhat true, but with the exception of Django Unchained (hardly historical accurate), their lens into the world of slavery is the white perspective (Amistad is centered on the white lawyers, Lincoln is about white politicians, even Glory’s perspective is from the white officer). 12 Years lets us experience the institution from the slave point of view, and that is rare and far more revealing about the true nature of slavery. Further, anyone who says that those other movies have already taken us far enough away from “moonlight and magnolias” has simply not seen 12 Years a Slave yet. It far and away surpasses anything that has yet been put on film in making the audience feel the brutality of slavery. It is a watershed, and you simply must see the film to understand how it does much more than the other movies named in this thread so far have done (and yes, that even includes Roots). Furthermore, and most importantly, those other films simply did not have the cultural impact that Gone with the Wind had and still has (even for people who have not seen it, which sadly is becoming more and more numerous).

5) As for the smaller audience for this movie: the “limited release” tactic is one that Hollywood uses when they know they have a superior product, but one that probably first needs to generate “word of mouth” before it will appeal to mass audiences. The cost of placing it in wide release before it generates “buzz” is too great to risk. While you guys might be right that this release tactic has thus far hurt its box office numbers, I believe that its momentum is only just now starting to grow, and Oscar season will only push it further. Additionally, I feel that the thus far low audience numbers are because white people by and large simply do not want to confront the horrors of slavery. It is far more comfortable for them to say “that was in the past. It was bad, but it is over. Let’s move on. Stop blaming white people today for the injustices of the past.” It is the same mindset that causes people to think that we do not still have a race problem in this country. Furthermore, many people do not like to spend money on movies as an educational experience. They want to be uplifted and/or thrilled, not “stunned into numbness” after going to the local multiplex. Thus the movie simply has not yet developed enough broad appeal.

6) Which leads me to my last point . . . EVERYONE should see this film. It is an amazing film from many different cinematic perspectives (acting, cinematography, editing, storytelling), but it is far more than just a great piece of art, it is an IMPORTANT film that I think all Americans need to see. I think all of us that have seen it are in totally agreement on that point.

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Glenn.

Which brings me to those here who say that 12 Years is hardly a watershed and that we have had plenty of movies that depart from the Lost Cause depiction of slavery. This is somewhat true, but with the exception of Django Unchained (hardly historical accurate), their lens into the world of slavery is the white perspective (Amistad is centered on the white lawyers, Lincoln is about white politicians, even Glory’s perspective is from the white officer).

This is an important point and one that I should have made more clearly. It’s not simply a matter of whether we’ve moved away from the Lost Cause, but the extent to which we’ve engaged and explored the perspective of slaves themselves.

Glenn, we certainly agree for more than we disagree about this movie and you’ve made a couple of points here that I want to highlight. You are absolutely right that the slave perspective is one of the most importantly origin aspects of the film. After I saw it, I told my friend that even a decade ago, Brad Pitt’s character would have had far more screen time and been the undisputed hero of the film. The movie we got rightfully keeps its focus squarely on Northrup.
I also agree with you that we need a film that better portrays the slave community. You are 100% right that Roots covered this better but I think 12 Years would have been a much different movie if McQueen had included more of that kind of content. The thesis of this movie is, to be completely reductionist: “slavery was very very bad” and that doesn’t leave much room for the kind of subject-matter you want. I do think such a film is possible but I wonder if 12 Years had to happen first to establish just how horrible slavery was/is before a subsequent film could begin to delve deeper into how people within the system actually cope with it.

I knew we would probably come around to agreeing more than disagreeing, and your point about Brad Pitt’s character is spot on. In the past the movie would have been about him and the risk that he took, as well as the white lawyers and other legal officials that came to pull him out.

Just thought I would mention that AMC is running Gone With the Wind back-to-back today. :-)

You know, even before this discussion of 12 Years, I have actually been thinking about one particular scene in GWTW that might possibly reveal the type of slave resistance that I am talking about, although it is probably unintentional. When Prissy says she knows how to deliver babies, it winds up putting Scarlett in a pretty rough situation when it turns out that she doesn’t know “nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies.” This is all played for comedic effect, but might it be that Prissy shrewdly engineered the whole situation in order to discomfit the white folks? Ironically, I think 12 Years could have benefitted from a similar scene.

Good point. You may remember that when Scarlett orders Prissy to fetch the doctor she leaves and returns in a very casual manner. With the Union army outside Atlanta it’s as if you are watching slavery unravel, but I am not sure that was intentional.

Glenn, as you know I’ll stick up for GWTW at least in its treatment of secession. Everyone we’re supposed to care about thinks the Confederacy is a bad idea and I think that’s telling. However, the business with Prissy and the baby has less to do with slave resistance than with standard minstrel joke structure.

I’m teaching a semester of American History on Film next semester. In my work in preparing the course I’ve developed several things that students need to consider when looking at a film for historical purposes. One is to consider the time period the film is set in and another is the time period in which it is made in. Often the interpretation of the film is guided by the time period it was made in. Gone with the Wind is without a doubt a romanticized version of the Old South in regards to most of its content. To say that it minimized slavery is putting it mildly. Yet, that was the leading interpretation of the American public at that time.

Today we are looking at 12 Years a Slave and in the process bringing up other movies. This movie could not have been made ten years ago or any earlier. Would the American public have accepted it earlier? Take the case of the miniseries Roots in the 1970s. It broke a lot of ground in its depiction of slavery and it raised a stir with certain segments of the population who objected to the portrayal of black and white relationships. I watched it then and I recently watched it again this year. What I thought was daring in the 70s was tame and mild compared to how I know slavery actually existed when I watched it again. Roots was part of the process of changing our interpretation from a fictitious benign institution into the brutal and dehumanizing reality it actually was.

12 Years a Slave is part of that process. Years from now people will look back at this movie and see how we interpreted slavery through it.

The best part about 12 YAS for me is that it’s a different story than the stereotypical movie/tv slavery narrative, which goes like this: Blacks were brought here from Africa in chains to pick cotton on southern plantations until slavery ended in 1865. In 12 YAS, we see a free Black family man living in the North; a man of education and talent; kidnapped WITHIN the United States and “sold down the river.” He is put to work on a sugar plantation as well as a cotton plantation. I point all of this out because many people still have no idea there were free Blacks in this country before the Civil War and that they did all kinds of things other than pick cotton in the fields. And I like that the movie was about someone most people have never heard about. Someone lamented that the film should have been made about Frederick Douglass. Of course, his story would certainly make a great film… but please! Frederick Douglass is not the only story out there. Some other, lesser known stories that would make great movies would be William and Ellen Craft’s escape; or the Henry “Box” Brown story.

One last thing (and please don’t read this if you haven’t seen the film)- In the scene where Solomon is rescued, I really liked it that, even after a dozen years, he could clearly say who he really was- as opposed to being liberated like an emaciated, malnourished, concentration camp victim who could barely speak or stand. “I’ve never forgotten who I really am” is what the scene says to me. If you remember the Kunta Kinte/Toby whipping scene (and how could you forget it), it’s great vindication.

What ever happened to the Avery Brooks version of the Solomon Northrup story? I have shown that to my classes for years as I have taught Louisiana history. I will not show this “NEW” version due to words, actions, and actions. I have not even seen it yet but I know the story, seen the story sets (mostly WRONG) etc., read about the actors.

Thanks for the comment, Greg. I’ve never seen Brooks’s version, but I did see McQueen’s. Yes, the language and some of the scenes will no doubt be problematic for some teachers. No movie version is going to be perfect, but I’ve also read the book and it seems to me it strives to reflect as much of the story as possible. Perhaps you could provide some additional detail as to what you find problematic.

Join the Conversation