’12 Years a Slave’: Breaking Silences About Slavery

By Jeremy Stoddard

“I apologize for my appearance. . . . I have had a difficult time these past several years.” This quote is uttered very near the end of 12 Years a Slave, the award-winning 2013 film that tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped in 1841 and enslaved for a dozen years before his escape. It is a major understatement.

Based on Northup’s autobiography of the same name, 12 Years a Slave charts Northup’s experiences from his happy life in Saratoga Springs, New York, with his wife and children, to his kidnapping in Washington, D.C., and transport to New Orleans. There he is sold and enslaved in Louisiana by multiple plantation owners over the next decade. Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is finally reunited with his family after escaping from bondage with the help of white friends from New York. In between are almost two hours of powerful scenes of violence—physical, psychological, and sexual; endurance; and resistance on the part of Northup and those enslaved with him.

David Thomson’s review in the New Republic praised 12 Years a Slave as “a film that necessity and education demand seeing.” This is not the first film that has garnered praise in its attempts to portray slavery. Roots, the groundbreaking television miniseries that tells the story of historian Alex Haley’s ancestors, was described in the New York Times as “a sociological phenomenon of major significance” even while it was critiqued for its many historical inaccuracies. Glory (1989) and Amistad (1997) were similarly lavished with praise for their cinematic depictions of marginalized or silenced aspects of the history of slavery.

When my colleague Alan Marcus and I surveyed high school teachers recently, Glory and Amistad were among the most widely used films in secondary history classes, particularly in suburban schools. However, we found that many teachers used the films as a way to teach a part of the history they were not as familiar with or comfortable teaching, and they did little beyond having students view the film.

This approach to using media in the classroom has serious consequences. Slavery is a particularly heavy topic in U.S. history, and students need clear, supportive leadership to be able to think, write, and discuss the issues. Also, simply showing a movie can serve to reinforce the representations in the film and thus perpetuate ongoing myths about slavery. Despite their strengths, Edward Zwick’s Glory and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad avoid many of the most troubling and silenced aspects of the history of slavery and the antebellum (pre-Civil War) period in U.S. history—as do most history textbooks and high school history courses in the United States.

They also fall into an almost universal trap for films portraying marginalized historical groups or events: Both are told from the perspective of a white male protagonist. This is an unfortunate narrative decision. There are ample first-person accounts and historical evidence to tell the stories from African American or African perspectives. For example, two of Frederick Douglass’ sons fought with the 54th Massachusetts, the all-black regiment depicted in Glory. Both films also consign representations of slavery to flashbacks or innuendo—the scarred back of Denzel Washington’s character in Glory or the flashback to the Middle Passage in Amistad. Both films raise issues about racism in the North and the economic benefits of slavery for the whole country, but with little depth or detail.

This does not mean that these two films are not important. As film critic Roger Ebert noted: “What is most valuable about Amistad is the way it provides faces and names for its African characters, whom the movies so often make into faceless victims.” Amistad’s scenes of the Middle Passage do depict the horrors of the slave trade as rarely seen in a major film, and also show the resistance of captured Africans to their white captors. Of the more than 400 Civil War movies produced to that point, Glory was the first to tell the story of African American soldiers.

When Making a Blockbuster Isn’t the Goal

12 Years a Slave was directed by Steve McQueen, a British director of Grenadian descent, who is well known for taking on controversial historical events and issues. He was not intent on making a Hollywood blockbuster or box office success, which led to some of the weaknesses of Glory and Amistad. Instead, McQueen decided to use the largely unknown story of Northup to challenge many of the misrepresentations of slavery in popular history, which have their roots not just in schools and textbooks but also in films such as Gone with the Wind (1939).

Northup is not only the protagonist and narrator. His is the perspective through which the audience experiences the horrors of captivity, and witnesses slavery as an institution and economic system in antebellum society. We follow Northup as he accompanies two men on their way to Washington, D.C. He has been promised high wages in return for performing with them along the way. Once in the nation’s capital, however, they get Northup drunk and sell him to a slave trader who quickly sneaks his captives out of the capital.

The transaction between the two kidnappers and the slave trader is not shown. Instead, we go from an image of Northup thanking his two companions for their generosity as they pour him large glasses of wine to his awakening in chains in a dark room—disoriented and hungover.

Soon Northup and the other captives are aboard a ship en route to New Orleans to be sold at auction. During this voyage we are introduced to aspects of the history of slavery often left in the silences of history and classroom discussion. One man tries to talk Northup and others into a revolt on the boat—he is murdered when he tries to stop a member of the crew from raping a mother who was captured along with Northup. This woman is later separated from her children at auction, and eventually is whisked away from the plantation, so psychologically distraught by the separation from her family and the sexual violence she endured under her former master that she is disturbing the wife of the plantation owner.

Tight shots throughout the film reveal the psychological impact of enslavement. McQueen shows us up close the sweat and heartache of a man who went from living the relatively privileged life of a musician and well-respected member of society to being called a “dog” and “property,” and seen as livestock. McQueen uses these images not to show the black characters as victims, but to illustrate the system of dehumanization that accompanies bondage. We see Northup being slowly broken over the years, from a man with only limited experience with the institution of slavery, to one who is driven to whip a fellow slave almost to death in order to save the lives of everyone else enslaved by their pathological master. This scene, the breaking point for Northup, is one of the most powerful in the film.

McQueen uses episodes from Northup’s experience to challenge many of the misrepresentations and silences in film portrayals of slavery. He presents a slave market, not in a city square but in a fashionable New Orleans home. He portrays the complex and integrated lives of the slaves, plantation families, and white workers. The plantations where Northup lives and works are not large estates, and Northup himself is not owned by the plantation owners but is mortgaged on credit, and thus regarded as both property and a debt to be paid. He works not only in steamy cotton fields but also clearing timber, cutting sugar cane, and on tasks such as construction, sometimes for his owners and sometimes contracted out to other plantations. Instead of the textbook image of wealthy Southern society, we see the often isolated lives of plantation existence.

The plantation owners range from empathetic to insanely cruel. McQueen holds nothing back in portraying one owner’s rape and obsession with one of his female slaves, and the tension and violence this relationship causes.

We witness through Northup’s eyes the many psychological and social pressures that kept slaves from attempting to escape, including hanging and the threat of punishing family members. Northup’s experiences illustrate the extreme torment experienced by slaves and how it affected their beliefs about themselves and caused them to become mistrustful of others.

By no means are those enslaved portrayed as powerless victims. From the opening scene we know this is a different portrayal of slavery. Multiple forms of resistance are shown. In one of the first scenes, Northup is shown trying to write a letter on stolen parchment with a stick pen and blackberry ink. He and others physically resist and even assault overseers, and contemplate escape.

One More White Savior

Although 12 Years a Slave goes to great lengths to more accurately represent slavery and challenge common perceptions, it should still be viewed critically. There is still a white savior, a poorly cast Brad Pitt. Pitt’s character, a Canadian carpenter, is Northup’s channel of communication to friends and family back in New York—who eventually come to help get him home. There is little illustration of the complicity of Northern institutions in slavery or the economic benefits of slavery for the entire United States and the global economy.

12 Years a Slave makes major concessions to a traditional Hollywood ending. Audience members may believe that this was a common outcome when free men and women were kidnapped and enslaved; on the contrary, most cases did not end in freedom. The ending simplifies the complexity of the events leading to Northup’s release and diminishes the significance of what he accomplished afterward. The impact of his book, on which the film is based, and his abolitionist work, are well documented historically but not in the film, which ignores the powerful work of black abolitionists in general. Instead, the film ends with an apology and a family reunion.

Age-Appropriate for High School Classrooms?

This article arose from a conversation I had with my own students, all of whom were social studies teachers in training. Many had powerful reactions to the film, so I invited those who had seen the film to participate in a discussion about the film itself and whether or not it should be used in the classroom.

A couple of the students had studied the antebellum South and slavery while undergraduates and focused on what they saw as a more accurate portrayal of the institution. They felt that clips of the film could be used to illustrate these ideas and the complex economic and societal role of slavery—or as a case study for how slave traders and owners attempted to dehumanize those who were enslaved. Others questioned the violence in the film and their own discomfort watching it. One summed it by saying, “It was a hard film to get through.”

With the National School Board Association now involved in distributing an edited version of the film, a copy of Northup’s book, and curriculum to schools across the country, I have no doubts that it will be shown in classes. I hope that teachers who choose to use the film watch it carefully beforehand and work with colleagues to reflect on its strengths and weaknesses, the questions it raises, and those that remain silenced. Especially important to take into account are the potential emotional responses of students pushed by McQueen to imagine the experiences of those in bondage.