Posts Tagged ‘12 Years a Slave’


The Enduring Legacies of Slavery in America: Reflections on “12 Years a Slave”

by Lawrence Ware

Two years ago I sat in an almost empty auditorium waiting for 12 Years a Slave to begin. To my right, with an obligatory seat between us per the unspoken yet ubiquitous norm known as ‘man law,’ was my dear friend and brother T. E. Dancy. We arrived prepared to critically engage the film as scholars, but we underestimated the impact the film would have upon us emotionally.

Every year I screen the film on campus. I am consistently surprised by how few have seen it. They have seen movies detailing the horrors of the holocaust. They have watched violent visual narratives about the war on terror. Yet, for some reason, this film remains unseen.

White Americans have a complex relationship with the history of black people in this country. They intellectually assent to the proposition that slavery happened. They admit that it was ‘bad.’ Yet, like attempts to minimize the horror of slavery in Texas textbooks, white folks don’t want to be confronted with the lived experiences of slaves.

Black Americans don’t have that luxury. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argued, even if attempts are made to ignore the past, the shadow of slavery follows black people today. In our language, in our food, in the construction of American social institutions upon the assumption that if you inhabit a black body you possess less personhood than if you inhabited a white body, the history of slavery still shapes black life in America.

As I discussed the film with T. E. Dancy, I began to realize that this visual text powerfully communicates these truths in four ways.

Socioeconomic Status is No Exception From Racial Realities

Solomon Northup was an educated, cultured free black man in the 1840s. His only mistake was thinking that being born free meant he was safe from the ugliest manifestation of white supremacy in American history. Yes, he was educated; yes, he was musically talented; yes, he was petite bourgeoisie; no, that did not matter. One’s black body is always a threatened when living under white, capitalistic hegemony.

This remains true today.



Shot on film, Cooke S4 lenses.  This is truly a great film and deserved its Oscar.


12YAS A4 Payoff Poster_RGB

This was my pick for best of the year, and so I’m happy with the selection (unlike Armond White!).

Haven’t seen Dallas Buyer’s Club yet, but that’s certainly up on the list.   My Blue Jasmine review is here.

Here are our reviews of this year’s Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave:



Steve McQueen is a fantastic director.  This true life story of slavery, kidnapping, torture and the law is one of the more important films to come along in years.

What I couldn’t figure out, until I was halfway through the film, was critic Armond White’s response to it, from several months ago.

“As with his fine-arts background, McQueen’s films resemble museum installations: the stories are always abstracted into a series of shocking, unsettling events.”

But slavery WAS a series of shocking, unsettling events.  This odd review, seemingly out of left field, seems to only make sense if Armond White just cannot bare to look at the plight of someone like himself, a black man, in complete dehumanization and racist powerlessness.

I think that his review is unfair to the film.


This is not a sugar coated slavery story.  This is not a feel good revenge story, as with Django Unchained (also despised by Armond White, for completely different reasons).  This is an historical retelling straight from the man’s own book.  As such, we need to pay attention and accept what he’s said.

I believe McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley, also a black man, have done everything they could to remain faithful to the original story and to show it in honest terms.  The lingering camera and the almost complete lack of background music give dimension to the world.  The southern character of the plantations feels authentic.

It becomes apparent very quickly, as we float through this “war on terror” myth today, that much of the real America was founded on institutionalized terrorism.  The terror employed against Africans and natives far surpasses anything that individual terrorists today can muster.  The white man’s racist terror, centuries long and society wide, was the organizing principle for half the country prior to 1865.  The next generation needs to see this, needs to understand it, needs to talk about it.

The tuned-out, uninterested youth had better keep tabs on what they call “the law” in the halls of power today.  Slavery was simply a legal construct.  As they tap away about nothing the rules of society are being rewritten, whole cloth, right now.

This film is a great vehicle to show people today that significant chunk of history.  I hope it wins multiple Oscars.




John Ridley on 12 Years a Slave and the Power of Cinema



Abominable Horror: Slavery Lingers On in Neo-Confederate Hate for Non-Whites

(Reposted With Permission)

The movie “12 Years a Slave” is described in a Wikipedia entry presumably written by its makers as an “historical drama film.” It is a British-American production based on the book by the same name published in 1853 by the African-American man, Solomon Northrup, who endured this agony.

“There have been a number of movies about slavery as it really was. I have hardly seen them all, but this one is the most powerful one that I have seen…”

It received a limited release in the United States last month, and will be released in Great Britain in January, 2014.

It will be very interesting to see how wide a release it eventually gets in the U.S. It is hardly likely to be shown in very many, if any, theatres in the South, except possibly in those catering almost exclusively to African-American audiences. It would certainly not be well-received by those Southerners (and others) who refer to the First American Civil War as, for example, the “War of Northern Aggression” (a term used by the new President of the National Rifle Association, a man who refers to President Obama as a “fake President” and to Attorney General Holder as “rabidly un-American”), nor to those who refer to it as theWar for Southern Independence.”

It is fascinating that the first reference cited in the latter document is: “How Should 12st [emphasis added, and yes, that is exactly how it appears in that document] Century Americans Think about the War for Southern Independence?” In that particular article, the author, a Professor of History appropriately enough at the University of the First Secessionist state, South Carolina, entitles the First Civil War “Lincoln’s War to Prevent Southern Independence.”  Of course, regardless of what it is called, at the War’s center was the struggle by the Slave Power to preserve slavery in the states in which it already existed and to expand the “peculiar institution” to all of the then-remaining Western Territories.  This is a movie that shows the full horror of slavery. Horror, that is, to those who view what was done to one group of human beings by another as a horror. Presumably those who characterize the war as one for “Southern Independence” or whatever, don’t see it that way.


There have been a number of movies about slavery as it really was. I have hardly seen them all, but this one is the most powerful one that I have seen, and other viewers have described it in the same way. In a way, in fact, it is more like a retro-documentary about slavery than it is simply a drama about the subject. Why do I say that? Because first, most viewers are likely to see the film with some foreknowledge of its origin, a true story with a true beginning (Mr. Northrup’s kidnapping), middle (Mr. Northrup’s 12 years in captivity), and conclusion (Mr. Northrup’s return to freedom). And second, because of the way the film is constructed it can easily be seen as a documentary showing slavery in all of its major horrors, consecutively.

Perhaps the most important point of the film is that it clearly illustrates the Southern justification for slavery, that “blacks” were inferior people, not really human you know. (This has always struck me as quite odd. By the 19th century, after end of slave-importation in 1807, there were very few pure African blacks in the United States. Virtually all slaves were thus of “mixed blood.” Did that mean, therefore, that there was something inherently inferior about the white men who fathered all of those mixed African/North American children too?)

The Southern justification for slavery was well-summarized by Alexander Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederate States of America, who, after the death of John C. Calhoun in 1850 had become the principal theoretician of slavery:

“Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race. Such were, and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s law. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the Negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Cain, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. Our new government is founded on the opposite idea of the equality of the races. Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the Negro is not equal to the White man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural condition [emphasis added].”

And so, serially, the movie illustrates the major features of, to quote Stephens, the “system [that] commits no such violation of nature’s law (sic).” Among them are: the kidnapping of free African-Americans in the North to be sold into slavery; the selling of such people, as property; the separation, by sale, of family members; the constant threat and use of violence against slaves, on any pretext, real or imagined; the practice of lynching, that is extra-judicial execution (even though it meant loss of “property”) of recaptured escaped slaves, primarily to set an example for anyone who thought of trying to escape (lynching of blacks, even in the absence of legalized slavery of course being practiced on a regular basis throughout the South into the 1960s); the use of torture short of lynching; the dreadful working and living conditions; the constant humiliation practiced by the slave-masters; the repetitive rape of female slaves by the slave-masters; the creation of a sub-class of especially docile African-Americans who served on some plantations as intermediaries between the owners and the rest of the slaves; and, until in Mr. Northrup’s case what happens to regain him his freedom, the total lack of any system of justice for any slave.  One wonderful irony of the film is that Paul Giamatti, who plays the slave-seller in “12 Years a Slave”, in Tim Burton’s 2001 version of Planet of the Apes,” itself in part a movie about slavery and the struggle for freedom, played the role of an ape slave-seller in a society in which intelligent apes were the owners, and humans, of any color, were considered an “inferior race” and were the slaves.

As the Confederate Navy Jack, (not the “Confederate Battle Flag,” as we are told by those who are in the know) is waved in front of the White House in an anti-“Obama Care” demonstration; as the former governor of Virginia declares a holiday to celebrate the Civil War but the first time around forgets to mention slavery; as a white woman sends her son out on Halloween in a Ku Klux Klan outfit, saying “it’s supposed to be white with white, black with black, man with woman and all of that; that’s what the KKK stands for;” as Republican candidates and office-holders claim that President Obama was born in Kenya; as Tea Party propaganda is full of racist attacks on the President; as a Republican Congressman in their leadership allegedly tells the President, to his face, “I can’t stand to even look at you:” but most importantly, as the modern Republican Party, all around the nation, is instituting laws designed to take away the vote from African-Americans (and certain of its leadership is saying this more-and-more openly), which happened to be the first self-announced task of the Ku Klux Klan when it was formed in late 1865; it is very important for all of us to understand what slavery, the central focus of secession, the Confederate States of America, and the First Civil War, was all about. In that regard, do see “12 Years a Slave” if it is available where you live.


Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor/co-editor of over 30 books. In addition to being a columnist for BuzzFlash@Truthout he is the Editorial Director of and a Contributing Author to The Political Junkies for Progressive Democracy. Dr. Jonas’ latest book is The 15% Solution: How the Republican Religious Right Took Control of the U.S., 1981-2022: A futuristic Novel, Brewster, NY, Trepper & Katz Impact Books, Punto Press Publishing, 2013, and available on Amazon.