Witnessing History: 12 Years A Slave

Hollywood is adept at providing escape when we’re exhausted or bored with reality, offering movies so we can laugh and fall in love. So we can go on road trips or war, save the world and destroy it all at the same time. Hollywood makes us horny, terrified and warms our hearts with sentiment, though usually uses history for its own purposes. When historians discuss film, they are almost always incredulous, skeptical, or flat-out upset with the way facts have been manipulated. And yet, how we learn about the past often comes from motion pictures. Almost all of the time, Hollywood gives us what we think we want and covers up what they aren’t sure we can handle, especially in historical terms—Amistad and Schindler’s List are exceptions.

Fox Searchlight, which has built up an impressive resume of experimental and risky films over the last several years, recently released a film by British director Steve McQueen based on Solomon Northrup’s book 12 Years A Slave, published in 1853.

12 Years a Slave is a powerful exception to the Hollywood rule that enables us to avoid the visceral realities found in the gut and heart and not the mind, those truths that might take a psychological toll on us. The film demands that you witness history, that is, the peculiarly American history of slavery, through the lens of one man.

To read my thoughts on the film, click here: http://www.splicetoday.com/moving-pictures/experiencing-brutal-truths

Splice Today is a site to bookmark, by the way.  Great writing and unique commentary.



Wesley Morris‘ exploration of the film (from Grantland):

It is a grim sight, the man hanging from a tree. His neck is noosed. His arms are tied behind him. The toes of two booted feet tap, tap, tap in the mud, neither foot firmly on the earth. Each skates a bit. But all that planting the entire foot guarantees is more drudgery. He continues to tap and struggle just the same — for hours and possibly days. The cicadas keep changing their tune. From a distance, we watch him. And from a distance, he is watched. Men and women leave their shacks and go about their duties as if the hanging man were a natural botanical product. They know him, and they know better than to help. He was bad, insurgently so. Now he hangs as an advertisement against insurrection. From a different angle, a finely dressed woman watches the man briefly from her balcony, turns around and heads inside. Children are playing. From the left, a woman, less finely dressed, sneaks him something to drink, and you feel the risk. She bets her safety to water this strange piece of fruit.

I’ve never seen a sequence that so elegantly uses duration to lay out an ecosystem of power and powerlessness, one that ripples across time, from the 1840s to the 21st century.12 Years a Slave manages to do that again and again. It coolly clarifies the United States’ lasting social underpinnings: the seeds of black anger, black self-doubt, black resilience, white supremacy, and white guilt. The director is Steve McQueen, a 44-year-old Englishman. The screenwriter is the American entertainment-industry veteran John Ridley. Both men are black, and the movie they’ve made radically shifts the perspective of the American racial historical drama from the allegorical uplift to the explanatory wallop.


The Atlantic‘s Noah Berlatsky articulates the underlying reality that the survival of slaves was not about asserting masculinity, as depicted in Glory and, more recently in Django Unchained.


A discussion about slavery in American film with critic Wesley Morris, historian Brenda Stevenson, and radio host Tom Ashbrook, from On Point with Tom Ashbrook.


Film critic and commentator Elvis Mitchell interviews director Steve McQueen


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