In February of this year Variety announced that 12 Years a Slave will now be taught in U.S. high schools. What an achievement. Who knew that this would be the legacy of the film? Who knew that a story about a free Black man who is sold into slavery in the early 1800s in these United States would be a ‘lesson’ for us all?
Films can and do teach us a great deal and here is the evidence.
12 Years a Slave is based on the book of the same name by Solomon Northup. Both detail the true story of Solomon’s enslavement, both detail a psychological journey far worse than the physical torture he endured.
I learned a great deal from the film and am thrilled others will now have the opportunity to know the written form as well as the film version of Solomon Northup’s story.
More importantly, both give a different view of that part of our country’s history. 12 Years a Slave added several new points of view to slavery. I discovered two as I had to think deeply about the film when invited to sit on a panel at the Museum of the Moving Image.
What I discovered was that this “story” included the forces that operated on the women as well, both black and white. As memory serves me, other stories relayed tensions primarily between men and of course men and women. This film gave new meaning and a new level of understanding to the title of the museum’s symposium “Massa’s Gaze” and went more deeply into the dynamics between enslaved women and the wives of slave owners.
Another strong point was the ‘difference’ between Africans vs. African Americans. I wondered and in fact asked the audience at the symposium, during the Q & A to consider how they related or identified with characters based on these classifications.
Did we in fact have more sympathy or empathy for Solomon as an African American than we did for the Africans who were enslaved?
I am not at all saying that the filmmaker showed them as two different “kinds” of people but the film did show us two very different ways of thinking. When encouraged, for example to fully abandon his real identity to “survive” – Solomon replies, “I don’t want to survive – I want to live.”
I am excited to see what our students will make of this history on film.