12 Years a Slave – A landmark in United States Cultural History

12 Years a Slave follows the life of Solomon Northup, an African American who lived in the North and who was not enslaved, from directly before he was kidnapped and sold as a runaway until he was reunited with his family.

Films based on true events have to be analyzed or approach in a slightly different way than (more overtly) fictional films. In the case of 12 Years a Slave, we have over a decade of time condensed into slightly more than two hours. As a result, everything is highly selective. Rather than looking at what is actually true, we have to examine what we are shown and why.

Two, somewhat overlapping, key questions, then, should guide our initial analysis.

First, does the film speak to historical truths, as supported by evidence? Are scenes realistic based on the film’s time and place?

Second, does the film legitimately force viewers to think differently and critically, and does it, even if briefly, increase their understanding and interest in the topics covered?

For 12 Years a Slave the answer to both of these questions is yes. 12 Years a Slave speaks to the realities of beatings, rapes, lynchings, slave markets, fieldwork, extreme racism and absolute power, religion to reinforce the enslaver’s powers, methods enslavers used to humiliate the enslaved, and resistance by enslaved individuals, for example. People who see it are forced to think about the horrors of enslavement and of the United States’s past. I would be comfortable using it in a history class to give students a visual understanding of the violence and emotions involved in “slave societies.”

The film is not without a few concerns. 12 Years a Slave shows enslaved individuals picking cotton without a cotton gin and gives unrealistic numbers as to the amount they picked. As enslavement developed in the post-American Revolution South, the cotton gin was the number one factor in its exponential growth. A single enslaved person operating a small gin could clean 10 pounds of cotton a day. A large machine powered by horse, on the other hand, could process 50 pounds of cotton a day. In the film, they discuss enslaved individuals picking 100+ pounds a day. It also does not truly emphasize or really even address that enslaved individuals worked extremely long days and were given the most minimal food. Near the film’s conclusion, the sheriff aids in securing Northup’s freedom. This is the only appearance of the de jure law in the South, and the law is represented as a positive force. This representation would also tend to inaccurate.

12 Years a Slave is a must see film; indeed, it is a landmark film for its overall very honest, direct exploration of enslavement. I’ll likely do a more in depth analysis at some point in the future, but for now I want to get the word out that people need to see it and talk about it. This is a film that I will have to see several times to do a full analysis justice. The narrative structure of the film is a bit confusing, but it only adds to 12 Years a Slave’s power and mystery. I also don’t understand why it has had such a slow release and is not showing at all theaters. The nearest theater showing 12 Years a Slave is an hour from where I live!

So, please go see the movie – it’s VERY POWERFUL – and then come back here and leave your thoughts about it! 🙂

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