Slavery, History, and Film

9 Nov

I finally viewed 12 Years a Slave today. (It is in Sioux City at the Promenade.) I offer a few initial reactions:

1. I have not read Northup’s book, so I do not know how well the film reflects the book.

2. However, I have read and taught enough U.S. history to have a fair sense of the antebellum and Civil War era in general, and of slavery in particular. (I do use Frederick Douglass’ Narrative in classes, and I am quite familiar with Albert Raboteau’s Slave Religion and other material on religion in the South, black and white.

3. I see 12 Years a Slave as the third of three films worth using in courses.

  • Amistad, the 1997 Spielberg film on the 1839-1841 case of enslaved Africans who took over the Spanish slave ship they were on and were picked by the U.S. Coast Guard.
  • Lincoln, the 2012 Spielberg film on the push by the reelected president in early 1865 to get the 13th Amendment through the U.S. House of Representatives and then out to the states for ratification.
  • 12 Years a Slave.

Amistad makes vivid the slave trade, albeit in its waning days. Lincoln opens up some of the nitty-gritty politics needed to abolish slavery legally in the U.S. What 12 Years a Slave does is provide an intense gaze into slavery itself.

Others have already detailed much of the plot and significance of 12 Years a Slave. All that I would add here is that the film helps viewers see slavery as a system–a system that marginalized and dehumanized black men and women and that also corrupted those who did the marginalizing and dehumanizing.

12 Years a Slave draws the viewer in; by the film’s end, one is shell-shocked. One has witnessed kidnapping, cheapened human life, beatings, lynchings, tortured theology, rape–and human fortitude and resilience. It is historical in the arc of its story and its representation of the slave South, and it is compellingly acted. It is part of our nation’s past that must be faced. I highly recommend the film.

One Response to “Slavery, History, and Film”

  1. Michael & Carolyn Yoder November 11, 2013 at 9:50 am #

    Thanks for your posting and professional opinion, Doug. I want to see this movie, and your post ups my resolve. Have a blessed Thanksgiving. Trust you and Joan are well. We miss OC friends. Mike

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