12 Years A Slave Wins Best Picture

Check out Mary Niall Mitchell’s Common-place essay on the backstory of 12 Years.

As many of you now know, last night 12 Years A Slave won Oscars for Best Picture, Actress in a Supporting Role, and Adapted Screenplay. Congratulations to Steve McQueen, John Ridley, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, and the rest of the cast and crew for making this important movie.

“Everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live. This is the most important legacy of Solomon Northup,” – Steve McQueen

“Cruel, unjust, exploitative, oppressive, slavery bound two peoples together in bitter antagonism…” – Eugene Genovese

There are plans to bring this movie to classrooms across the country. Stay tuned.

17 comments… add one
  • Lee Mar 10, 2014 @ 7:41

    I finally saw the film on March 1st, the day before it won best picture. EXTREMELY powerful, to say the least. I had scenes from it in my mind constantly for days afterward, and to a lesser extent still do. My immediate thought after seeing it was that if I had experienced what Solomon Northup did and later fought in the Civil War, I wouldn’t have taken Confederate prisoners.

    Aside from Northup winning his freedom, the only real consolation is that we know slavery ended twelve years after the movie ends, so the slaves that are still alive then will be emancipated. Of course, one wonders what happened to Patsey in particular, and the possibility of her eventually knowing freedom is very uplifting. Given her hellish circumstances, however, for Patsey twelve more years would be like twelve hundred.

    The irony is that by being an extremely damning indictment of the “peculiar institution,” paradoxically the movie also gives credibility to the fear among white Southerners before the war that if slavery were abolished, bloodshed would follow. If I were a white person in the South, I would be afraid of slave vengeance if the slaves were freed precisely because I’d know there was an enormous amount TO avenge.

    This film seems to me to be basically an African-American slavery counterpart to “The Pianist,” Roman Polanski’s outstanding 2002 film dealing with the Holocaust. There are a number of close parallels between the two movies. Among them: both examine their subject from the perspective of one person (the title “The Pianist” refers to pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman). Both are based on memoirs the protagonists wrote right after their experiences, and follow those memoirs very closely. Both Szpilman and Northup were musicians. In both films, there is a scene where people are force to dance for the amusement of their tormentors. Both also have bittersweet endings in that while the protagonists manage to escape and return to normal life, we know that most of their fellow victims do not.

  • Bryce Hartranft Mar 5, 2014 @ 12:50

    Finally watched 12 Years a Slave (had been waiting to buy it as a DVD) and thoroughly enjoyed its honesty.

    I also enjoyed the common place essay that you posted. It was neat to see the area where this took place and read the civil war soldier’s accounts of it becoming almost a tourist attraction – but for something terrible (kind of like Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest).

    Another thing from the essay that struck home for me was the comparison of Northup’s account to Frederick Douglass’. Stampp said “Northup’s narrative is more valuable [than Douglass’] to the historian.’ Because he had been born a free man, Northup (perhaps more so than Douglass) ‘tasted the bitterness of slavery.’ This “bitterness” and dichotomy of quality of life really made the movie for me.

    As for use in class, I’m thinking about using the clip from when Northup first gets off the boat (in New Orleans I think?) and the next 5-10 minutes. It touches on slave trade, slave auctioneering, splitting up of slave families, Ford’s apathy and aspects of routine slave life like overseers.

    The other clip I thought of, but am a bit unsure of, was the whipping seen with Patsy where the viewer is shown the flesh being taken off. What do you all think? Is it too harsh for high school? I tend to think it is ok with the proper introduction and setting, but it does make me think twice about it.

    Past that it seemed to me to be the type of movie that can only have its full impact when viewed in its epic entirety. The last scene as he cried with his family was especially touching – but only because I had seen the rest of the movie. The feeling of this man losing 12 years of his life was really brought home at the end.

  • Lyle Smith Mar 3, 2014 @ 20:05

    The narrative should be required reading in high school, I think. It was on our summer reading list the summer before my senior year of high school.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 4, 2014 @ 1:57

      I used a couple of excerpts this year.

    • Brendan Bossard Mar 4, 2014 @ 10:33

      Not only the narrative, but it would be very interesting to implement a study of the movie’s screenplay, just like we study William Shakespeare or Arthur Miller. Even in a history class, it could be very illuminating for the students to role-play scenes from the movie. This would have to be done with care in the implementation, of course.

  • Gdbrasher Mar 3, 2014 @ 13:14

    The Oscars have been on a pretty good roll over the last eight years (although Argo last year would not have been my choice…. but I’ve got no complaints about its selection). I think they have been nailing it lately, and I was very happy with 12 Years winning last night. It also comes out on home video today (brilliant marketing), so I will definitely be showing this to my classes in just a few weeks. I am on record as having some problems with the depiction of slave life, but the power and cinematic beauty of this film make it a masterpiece ( I don’t use that word lightly), and I am very excited about its potential as a learning tool.

    And yes, Kevin, I too hope that Hattie McDaniel is looking down with satisfaction, but also Butterfly McQueen (Prissy: “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies”), Oscar Polk (Pork:”askin’ ain’t gettin”), Everett Brown (Big Sam: “Miss Scarlett, don’t worry, we’ll stop dem Yankees”).

    • Kevin Levin Mar 3, 2014 @ 13:17

      Absolutely, Glenn. All of them. What an incredible cast.

  • Patrick Young Mar 3, 2014 @ 5:34

    I was happy that McQueen acknowledged historian Sue Eakin who did so much to bring the book to the public during his acceptance speech.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Mar 3, 2014 @ 5:07

    Seventy-Four years ago, “Gone With the Wind” won Best Picture for 1939. Amazing how much has changed since that time. Of course, back when GWTW won, there were still living former slaves who may have seen the movie and could testify- as they did for the recordings produced by the Works Progress Administration (WPA)- that the film’s depiction of slavery was a falsehood. Thank God last night, their experiences were validated and vindicated and that their real story is no longer invisible.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 3, 2014 @ 5:28

      I would also like to imagine Hattie McDaniel smiling down on the cast of 12 Years for what they accomplished with this film.

      • Ryan Mar 5, 2014 @ 7:04

        I do not understand the fascination and contempt on this site for GWTW. The film is 75 years old. Films that depicted war, sex, disease, poverty, etc. etc. etc. were far less true to reality from this time period and movies in general have gotten more and more realistic in their portrayal as we as a society have become more accepting of these themes. GWTW was a beautiful and groundbreaking work of art for it’s time. Why can’t you appreciate 12 Years for what it is without drawing comparisons and using the success of this film to bash someone else’s work?

        • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2014 @ 8:10

          Wow! Somebody woke up on the wrong side of the bed. You said “contempt” not me. I love GWTW and have used it in class for a number of reasons. Try again.

          • Ryan Mar 5, 2014 @ 9:54

            Come on now Kevin, all one need do is take a few minutes and read through the comments on this blog to know exactly what I’m referring to.

            • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2014 @ 10:44

              I did read them.

              • Ryan Mar 5, 2014 @ 10:55

                Then why the evasive response?

                We do not need a film to correct the false impression left by a separate film released 75 years ago – nor were the experiences of the African American slave invisible before 12 Years was released – in any way. Nor is 12 Years a Slave even entirely accurate… so why pat Bryan Cheeseboro on the back for a cheap shot reference to a 75 year old movie?

                • msb Mar 6, 2014 @ 1:54

                  At the risk of going to the margin with this subthread, we certainly do need films to correct false impressions created by other films. Historical memory lives in many media outside history books, including films. GWTW is a classic and its survival has perpetuated a “depiction of slavery [that] was a falsehood” but remained dominant til recent years. These are facts, not contempt or cheap shots. In an environment where some are complaining that “12 years a slave” doesn’t show any kind masters or contented slaves, a better understanding of slavery in films is very important.

  • Scott A. MacKenzie Mar 3, 2014 @ 4:46

    It was a competitive year too. The top 8 awards – picture, director, the four acting and two writing categories – all split among some superb movies. I was glad to see Steve McQueen finally win one for “The Sand Pebbles” after losing to Paul Scofield’s excellent performance in “A Man For All Seasons.”

    Oh, wait. Wrong guy.

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