In February of 2014 I read in Variety that Steve McQueen’s 2013 film 12 Years a Slave was going to be taught in U.S. high schools. Well, it came to pass. The film, book and study guide will indeed be distributed in American public high schools. What an achievement.
During my own education, I learned that “… there is no just way in which the past can be quarantined from the present. Past and present inform each other, each implies the other…” I learned this from Edward W. Said. These words appeared in his book Culture and Imperialism and the idea made such good sense to me, it still does. Who could imagine that the real life tragedies of Solomon Northup, as recounted in his book, which was made into a television movie directed by Gordon Parks Sr. in 1984, then transformed into a commercial feature film, could reform our national educational system’s teaching of US history? Who could ever imagine that a film could bring this shameful facet of our American past into modern-day high school classes? I’m thrilled, because how we educate new generations of Americans is a critical step towards the success or our nation. Because Solomon Northup had the education to produce written evidence of his experience, the audacity to memorialize the “recording” of these events in a published book, it was available for the repeated telling of this story over the last 163 years. Because of all that, we are now teaching a more complete history of these United States of America.
And, here we are again, just over two years after 12 Years a Slave‘s release, and I find myself wondering if we are at a moment where we are seeing a trend, a trend where Black American history is being written into American history with the help of feature films. That is not to say that the work of writing Black Americans into history has not been on-going these past two hundred years or to overlook the work of the scholars and historians that have educated and continue to inspire me. Pamela Newkirk, for example, in her book Spectacle is doing just this kind of work and I have had the privilege of hearing her speak and have been honored to be in the room to watch her bear witness to our history.
On October 7, 2016, a film called The Birth of a Nation opened in theaters and on that day placed number 4 at the box office. This new film (with an old name) details the story of Nat Turner who is credited with leading the single most effective slave rebellion in 1831. There was much fanfare surrounding the film as it made the festival rounds and much anticipation about the treatment of the subject. There was also, and still is, a great deal of controversy about the film’s star and director Nate Parker. It turns out that he was accused of rape in a 1999 case, which has now become part of The Birth of a Nation story. Although he was already tried and acquitted in the courts, he is clearly now being tried in the court of public opinion. Concurrently, the conversations about the film’s main character Nat Turner, have brought a great deal of positive attention to the seldom mentioned American. Once again, because of a film, we see history being expanded to include Black Americans in more significant ways. One educator, Professor Sarah Roth has created an on-line resource called the Nat Turner Project that will make a great deal more information available to the public.
Films can and do educate us, I call them “cultural artifacts” because I see how they can facilitate broader cultural conversations. They can at times be more effective than some books, most articles, and even college classes. The 2013 film, 12 Years a Slave is based on the book by Solomon Northup and details the true story of his enslavement after establishing his life as a free Black man. I learned a great deal from seeing this story and am thrilled that now young Americans will have the opportunity to engage with the written form as well as the cinematic rendering. Both texts offer vivid portrayals of a critical part of our country’s history. This film added several new facets to the slave narrative and I was encouraged to think deeply about the film when invited to sit on a panel at the Museum of the Moving Image that discussed depictions of slavery in film and television.
What was new about this rendition of American slavery was its depiction of how these palpable forces engulfed the women, both black and white. As memory serves me, other stories relayed relations 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 than I had ever encountered. I was reminded of Bell Hooks’ chapter on “The Oppositional Gaze” from her book Black Looks, where she stated that: “spaces of agency exist for black people, wherein we can both interrogate the gaze of the Other but also look back…” Both the film and the written text relay the details of a psychological journey far more devastating than the physical torture endured by this free Black man in the early 1800s in these United States. Never before have I witnessed – on the screen – a more vivid personification of what W. E. B DuBois called double consciousness– an idea explained in his work, The Souls of Black Folk.
Another striking visual and emotional display was the juxtaposition of Africans versus African Americans in the film. I wondered about that 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. Did we “evaluate” one person’s pain over another even though they were both thrust into the very same physical and emotional shackles of slavery? I am not saying that each was portrayed as two different “kinds” of people but the film did differentiate by presenting 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.”
Apparently, the current slavery conversation does not end with the release of The Birth of a Nation, Ava DuVernay’s film 13th which is a documentary about the effects of the 13th Amendment, is said to be about modern day slavery. Is there a revised version of slavery, constructed by our laws and playing out in the prison system across America? The 13th Amendment actually prohibits slavery or “involuntary servitude” EXCEPT as punishment for crime. This brings me back to Said – who also writes that “appeals to the past are among the commonest of strategies in interpretation of the present. What animates such appeals is not only disagreement about what happened in the past and what the past was, but uncertainty about whether the past is really past, over and concluded, or whether it continues, albeit in different forms, perhaps.”
Yes, indeed, in different forms, perhaps…