‘Twelve Years A Slave’ and the Importance of History
Last week my wife and I attended a showing of 12 Years A Slave. Hype notwithstanding this movie is one of the best I have seen in quite some time. It represents a masterful telling of a story that can only be described as horrific. The film will get a lot more discussion in the next couple of months as it picks up momentum towards an inevitable Oscar nomination. In the short term many people are trying to figure out just what the story means in the context of modern America.
We have had many discussions of race and racism here at Ordinary Times and the internet has hosted thousands more. One topic that (unfortunately) comes up with a cyclical regularity is trying to rate just how awful slavery was. This rests on the premise that our modern minds and life experiences can even allow us to empathize in this way. As a historian by training my academic side says that while we can never perfectly understand those institutions which no longer exists we can sometimes get very close. Other times we must admit that our best understanding will be far from perfect. With slavery it seems the latter of the two is most accurate.
12 Years A Slave is a product of Hollywood and I have not read anything which suggests that it is being promoted as a perfect retelling of events. Prominent bloggers have already pointed out that the filmmakers have taken creative liberties with the story of Solomon Northup. They have also pointed out that none of those liberties really detract from the overall narrative. Because we have his autobiography to draw on, Northup’s story was less vulnerable to the kind of abuses that other stories have suffered from. I also think the filmmakers simply made a conscious effort to be more responsible with his story.
It seems we have reached a good point in our national history where we are having more honest dialogues about slavery in general and I hope this film is not the last effort by Hollywood to get it right. Of course we know that films like Gone With the Wind present a terribly skewed vision of antebellum life, but this phenomenon is not unique to film. There was a time, not very long ago, when many people, most of them white, tried their best to soften the image of slavery for the masses.
When I was working as an archaeologist and later as a site manager for a historic home here in Louisville, we constantly came into contact with the Old Guard of historic interpretation. More often than not these were well-mannered Southern belles of the DAR variety. In their words, which I heard as fingernails on a chalkboard, slavery in Kentucky was a ‘kinder, gentler’ form of slavery. The truth is that it may have been most brutal in the Bluegrass State as Kentucky served as a major slave trading center. The term ‘sold down the river’ is thought to have originated here as families were broken up to be sent to plantations further south. We had many talks with our docent staff about presenting slavery in a more historically-accurate way and yet I still caught them telling their version to visitors whenever they thought they could get away with it.
The truth is that those little old ladies didn’t really want to talk about slavery at all. They didn’t believe it had a place in polite conversation. They wanted to talk about all the important people who visited the home at the height of its glory and about dances and the more quaint aspects of plantation life. The tension there was perhaps symbolic of the larger cultural realities in America. Thankfully historical interpretation has moved beyond any pretense of old manners and has embraced a factually-accurate telling of the story of slavery. Visit any number of historic sites throughout the South and you will see this taking place.
To bring this full circle, I ask the question, does this film bring us any closer to an understanding of American slavery? Perhaps. It is such a foreign concept to the modern mind that it may be impossible to bridge that gap but 12 Years A Slave is important because it tries to do just that. To draw a parallel, Hollywood has been extremely helpful in telling the story of the Holocaust. With their help and the help of other cultural institutions, they have the opportunity to paint a more complete picture for future generations. In that sense, this film has an opportunity to do very great things.
Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. He is also active on Facebook and Twitter. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.