Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave is an artistic and educational triumph

12 Years a Slave is to be mandatory viewing in all state-run US high schools. Francois Duhamel

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave walked away with the coveted prize of Best Picture at the Oscars last night. It faced fierce competition from contenders such as American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, and Philomena to name but a few, but, quite rightly in my view, it scooped the prize accolade.

Historians of slavery in the Americas, myself included, are usually loudest in our condemnation of films that try and tackle this particularly thorny problem, primarily because they just don’t do it well. The small number of Hollywood films which have previously attempted to depict American slavery have either raised historian’s ire because of the historical inaccuracies and lack of authenticity, or else have skirted around the vicious realities of the system in favour of representing a moonlight and magnolias tale of gracious masters and happy slaves.

And, as Manohla Dargis commented in the New York Times just before the scheduled US release of the film, one of the shocks of the film was its reminder at just how infrequently stories of slavery have even been told on the big screen.

I was incredibly struck by my emotional response to the film. Having read countless slave narratives over the years, I credited myself with being able to distance myself from Hollywood depictions of the “peculiar institution”. Yet the poignancy of the scenes in the film where the startling and shocking are narrated as the mundane and everyday left me weeping.

The deadness of the slaves’ eyes, waiting in the New Orleans’ auction house, as Solomon passes them in the steam ship, the enslaved parents parted from their children, husbands separated from wives, networks of kinship decimated, as families were torn apart, and the struggle – often in vain – to retain a sense of self amid the inhumanity of the system, were just a number of details that rang through the film with force and clarity.

But what makes the film truly exceptional is its sincere, albeit brutal, authenticity. It pulls no punches with sadistic violence from almost the very outset. And this was what many (if not all) enslaved people experienced and witnessed on the plantations, farms, urban and industrial environments in which they lived. Historian Eric Foner commented on this aspect of the film, noting that the capricious nature of violence depicted in McQueen’s movie was a grave reflection of reality for the enslaved in the American South, the master friendly one moment, and whipping his slaves the next.

Enslaved life was characterised by this sense of instability, never knowing if you’d be sold away, separated from spouses, children, and a wider network of support. One of the most important – and this film is important – aspects of the movie is the way in which the horror of this uncertainty is laid bare.

The film’s subtlety transforms today’s dangerously standardised image of slavery. McQueen breaks the mould in terms of accepted historical representations. Many people are used to understanding American slavery as a relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor, where the southern master is always the epitome of evilness, and the slave is the pitiful victim. 12 Years A Slave cleverly challenges this one-dimensional image by exposing the complexities of the slave system and revealing the ways in which various historical actors managed their relationship to that regime.

So, for example, we are presented with two extremes of mastery. Ford (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is the more benign, almost reluctant, slaveholder who seems to view his slave labour force as something more than human chattel. He is placed in contrast with Edwin Epps (played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender) the almost caricatured vicious and malignant master who indulges his violent and perverse pleasures on his enslaved workforce, most particularly Patsey.

McQueen’s subtlety in dealing with the subject manner is evident in other aspects of the film. Carol Boyce Davis has argued that 12 Years A Slave fails to represent black resistance to slavery, but I’d argue that the opposite is true. No insurrections are mounted nor attempted or actual murders of their masters are plotted, so no outright “resistance” is actually achieved.

But enslaved people are depicted as dealing with the harder struggle of attempting to retain a sense of dignity and personhood beyond that of the one-dimensional image of “slave”. In this way, McQueen confronts the deeper issues at stake, shunning the easy option of presenting slaves fighting back.

Chiwetel Ejiofor lost out to Matthew McConaughey for the Best Actor award. Jaap Buitendijk

Examples of this are fewer in the film than many would have hoped, perhaps. But these small touches are perhaps more true to history. For example, when Solomon is given a violin by Ford in order to entertain his white guests, we see the consolation music afforded the enslaved. The audience also catches a glimpse of the power of religion in the slave quarters: the hope of a better day coming. We also see enslaved peoples’ deliberations over the rights and wrongs of slaveholding, most particularly focusing around Ford as the benevolent master.

When Solomon defends Ford against Eliza’s remonstrations, she reminds him that even if Ford is a more benevolent slaveholder he still chooses to own both her and Solomon as slaves, destroying their blessed kinship ties in the process, having seen both her small children, Randall and Emily, sold away from her at the auction house.

When reflecting on the experiences of the enslaved under the pernicious rules of Southern racial slavery, it’s particularly important to broaden our concept of what resistance is. We should move away from envisaging grand gestures of political overhaul, and understand acts of everyday survival that enabled the enslaved to at least live under the harshest of adversity. This is, in part, what McQueen does so well.

It was announced last week that the film is to be used as a teaching tool in classrooms across America. This only serves to heighten the impact that this film is making. It is entirely appropriate that such a film should take on an educational aspect, as it is the only one to face slavery square on. It is centrally important for widening understanding regarding slavery and its effects on the history of the United States. McQueen has expressed his desire that one day Solomon Northup will be a national and international hero like Anne Frank, a lightning rod for engagement with the issues involved. It is just a shame that no such figure already existed.

Solomon’s story is part of a wider genre of African-American writing in the 19th century emanating from the formerly enslaved. They all articulated stories of extreme suffering and brutality at the hands of a white slaveholder’s class. Yet they also narrated tales of survival and the possibility of living under the extremities of a system that denied one personhood.

It is fabulous that McQueen has brought Solomon’s narrative to the big screen – and that now the film has received such a tremendous show of support in winning of Best Picture. It is an opportune moment to restart a conversation about African-American history and experience, a conversation that until now has been marginalised throughout the United States.

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