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Slavery on Screen: Scholars’ Impressions and Interpretations

“Twelve Years a Slave,” one of this year’s most lauded films, has sparked discussions about the institution it tackles. A panel of UT scholars offer their views.

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Panelists at the Public Roundtable and Discussion of

Panelists (from left) Daina Ramey Berry, Shirley Thompson, Mark Cunningham and Eddie Chambers are introduced by moderator Helena Woodard at the Public Roundtable and Discussion of “Twelve Years a Slave,” co-hosted by the Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies and the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies on Feb. 6. [Photo by Thomas Humphreys] 

During every Hollywood awards season, a handful of films spark conversations about the quality of the acting or the ingenuity of the plot. But one of this year’s most lauded films, “Twelve Years a Slave,” has generated articles and discussions about the institution it tackles: American Slavery in the 19th century. “Twelve Years a Slave” was directed by British filmmaker Steve McQueen and is based on the personal narrative of Solomon Northup, a free-born African-American from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery before finding freedom again more than a decade later.

Four scholars from a variety of disciplines came together earlier this month to discuss the film and offer their perspectives. We’ve excerpted some of their remarks below.

Eddie Chambers, Department of Art and Art History

On depicting the “reality” of slavery in film.

Steve McQueen is an extraordinary artist and filmmaker. Having said that, I’m not sure that slavery is a good topic for film. The common sentiment is that the film expresses slavery as it happened, or the film gets close to this notion that it’s a realistic portrayal of slavery. I would argue that there’s a profound and possibly frustrating impossibility of accurately depicting the awfulness of slavery. And if we think we’re getting close to it by looking at a film even a film as powerful as “Twelve Years a Slave” I think we are some way off the mark.

Within the film the biggest crime isn’t so much slavery itself or the ways in which Northup is dragged into slavery. It’s being torn away from his family. This is the way the crime takes place. He’s removed from his family and he endures 12 years of hell. The moment of salvation, the moment the film reaches its climax in ways in which the audience is satisfied, is the point at which he is reunited with his family. Of course, we have all these other people who are still trapped in the torment of slavery. But there’s an uncomfortable hierarchy at the end of the film in which they are left in their torment and he’s reunited with his family, and so in some ways all’s well with the world. There’s a troubling cultural force at play in the way in which this film is constructed.

Mark Cunningham, Department of Radio, Television, Film, Austin Community College

On audience reception to the film.

I want to talk about audience reception of this film I’m thinking of the level of vitriol that [Steve McQueen] has received, a black filmmaker making this film I’ve read numerous things [by] black journalists who said, “I’m tired of seeing these movies about black people downtrodden,” and I’m thinking, how many movies about slavery have there been? There haven’t been that many.

But this film is important and it is integral because of what it will teach young people and teach people who don’t know. We have gotten to this point where we look at slavery, where we look at domestics, and we say, “That is an embarrassment, that is nothing we want to talk about. That is nothing we want to focus on.” And then I look at the contrast of Jewish people who embrace that struggle, who embrace the Holocaust. Who recognize the importance of that in their history, in who they are as people now, and wonder why we cannot do the same.

Shirley Thompson, Departments of American Studies and African and African Diaspora Studies

On the monetary value of human life.

I’m interested in the experiences of people who were owned as property and how their legacies complicate and challenge our assumptions about the property relation. Solomon Northup tracks his own journey, from being a priceless self-possessed person, laboring on his own property in upstate New York, to an article of merchandise eventually sold for $1,000 in the New Orleans slave market. He went from $0 to $1,000 or in the buying power of today’s currency, from $0 to $27,000 in the time it took him to travel south. In Northup we see not only the inequities of life under capitalism that we all take for granted today, but the serious absurdity of life as a fluctuating price.

About a third of the way through the narrative Northup is sold to Master Ford. One of Ford’s debts in to John Tibeats, the poor white carpenter who aspires to join the slaveholding class. But Northup’s price, his market value, is worth more than the debt Ford owed Tibeats, $400 more. So Ford took out the chattel mortgage of $400 and retained that percentage of ownership in Northup. So here’s Northup, a whole person, 100 percent of a person, stretched between the property rights of two owners.

We found out in the housing crisis of 2008 what strange, sometimes wondrous, sometimes disastrous, things happen when the mortgage of a home, for example, is chopped up and divided among many owners, stretched thin across a volatile market. But Northup allows us to experience what happens when it’s a human being, human flesh that’s distributed in this way. This was a truly bizarre kind of limbo that was run of the mill in slave society for enslaved people. These arrangements greased the wheels of the slave market and facilitated all kinds of circulation with the U.S. and global economies of the era. And since none of this currency was ever demonetized, the value still circulates to this day.

Daina Ramey Berry, Departments of History and African and African Diaspora Studies

On the sensory experience of watching the film.

I wanted to talk about a teaching philosophy that I’ve used for more than 10 years, and it really came to a climax this semester for me: teaching about slavery through the senses.

I’ve talked about slavery, I’ve talked about chains, I’ve touched chains, I’ve touched whips that were used during slavery. But there was something about the sound and the heaviness of the chains in that opening scene [after he was kidnapped], where you actually felt [Northup] struggling to get up. And the way they clanged down was loud, ear-piercingly loud. Hearing that and watching him get up reminded me of when a baby cow is born, when a calf comes out and they’re trying to stand up, or a horse, they’re trying to walk for the first time: they get up, they fall down, they get up, they fall down. That was, to me, a rebirthing scene for him, of being born into slavery.

I took two classes this semester to see the film, [and] I ask the students, how do you feel, what can you see? We look at images, we listen to music, we listen to spirituals, we listen to work songs, we touch cotton, we touch rice, we husk corn. We think about what songs were they singing when they were husking corn? What is the rhythm, what is the cadence of that? What kind of space does that bring you to? But there was something about witnessing the whipping from a visual angle that I had not imagined. You’re watching from an angle where the whip is almost coming to you. You’re seeing the person that’s giving the whipping. You’re seeing the sweat flying off his face. And I think you realize at this moment how being whipped or whipping someone wears you out. Literally, physically. You saw people having shortness of breath, taking turns, being exhausted from that. That is something you can’t really capture in the [book].

You might also like:

15 Minute History: The Senses of Slavery

Not Even Past: Twelve Years a Slave and the Difficulty of Dramatizing the “Peculiar Institution”

The Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies (TILTS) is an annual, multidisciplinary initiative that showcases dynamic scholarship in literary and textual studies. The 2013-2014 edition of TILTS, “Reading Race in Literature and Film,” convenes scholars, artists, filmmakers, and writers for conversations about the degree to which categories of race and ethnicity are both more fungible and more fixed than ever before. TILTS is sponsored by the Office of the President, the Vice-Provost, the College of Liberal Arts, and the Department of English of The University of Texas at Austin. The co-sponsor for this event is the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies.

Home page image: still from the film “Twelve Years a Slave” used under Fair Use Guidelines.