Brenda E. Stevenson is professor of history at UCLA. She is the past chair of the history department and past chair of Afro-American Studies. Her books include the award-winning "Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South" and "The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the L.A. Riots." This piece appeared on Pure Movies on Jan. 8.
The ordeal of Solomon Northup, a literate, skilled free man of color from New York who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C., and sold as a slave in the deep south state of Louisiana, is the focus of the 2013 film "12 Years a Slave," directed by Steve McQueen and based on Northup’s 1853 published autobiographical account. The film, which actually is a remake of Gordon Park’s 1984 television movie, "Solomon Northrop’s Odyssey," is a masterful depiction of antebellum southern slave life and, like Haile Gerima’s 1993 brilliant "Sankofa," Stan Lathan’s 1982 "A House Divided: Denmark Vesey’s Rebellion" and his 1987 "Uncle Tom’s Cabin," along with the indomitable classic TV miniseries "Roots" of 1977, and Jonathan Demme’s "Beloved" (1998), "12 Years a Slave" represents a decided evolution of African American slave narration presented on celluloid.
McQueen’s contribution to slave filmography through "12 Years a Slave" is not due to a singular step, or leap, forward in screen depictions of enslaved black life, thematically or in characterization. His version of Solomon Northrup’s story, for example, is not notable because it is the first to render its audience an unsympathetic view of America’s most notorious, if not peculiar, institution from the perch of a free black person thrown into its harrowing depths. That was, after all, the entire point of Gerima’s "Sankofa."
Neither is "12 Years a Slave" destined to become a film classic, as some commentators have noted, because of the appropriately lauded, heart-wrenching depiction of Patsey, the brutalized sex slave of an equally realistically illustrated sadistic slave master, Edwin Epps. These characterisations already have been graphically demonstrated in Demme’s "Beloved" and Alex Haley’s "Roots." Likewise, crucial character elements of "12 Years a Slave"’s desperate ex-concubine, Eliza, and her counter image, Mistress Shaw, both are found in Diahann Carroll’s persuasive portrayal of Pouponne in Kari Skoland’s 2000 film "The Courage to Love." And while many were stunned to view the accurate portrayal of frustration, violence and cruelty of slave mistresses, particularly those jealous of their husbands’ concubines, as exposed in "12 Years A Slave"’s Mistress Eppes, this reality was more than adequately rendered by Susan George as Blanche Maxwell in Richard Fleischer’s 1975 "Mandingo."
All of these important elements of black slave life and slavery, in other words, have been part of TV and big screen movies since at least the 1970s. Still McQueen’s "12 Years a Slave" is a stunning contribution to slave filmography because it probably is the first to incorporate all of these truths of New World slavery in one beautifully written, filmed and acted masterwork. Of course "12 Years a Slave" does not give a comprehensive view of the black slave experience in the Americas. No film could. Such a cinematic accomplishment as McQueen’s, however, produced in a major Hollywood studio that has earned a respectable box office net drawn from a diverse audience, is indeed suggestive that "slavery" finally has arrived as a “safe” subject for major motion picture production. If so, why now?
Many believe that the critical and popular acclaim of "12 Years a Slave" marks a turning point in the viewing public’s acceptance of more realistic interpretations of the harsh, violent, exploitative nature of black chattel slavery, as it was experienced by African-descended men, women and children in the United States as well as in the Caribbean, and Central and South America.
While the popularity of Quentin Tarantino’s award-winning 2012 slavery spoof "Django Unchained" might have suggested that movie audiences, even as late as year ago, and film critics alike, were not ready for a strong dose of reality such as served up in "12 Years a Slave," a growing global investment in black history, at least in its more palatable form as cultural production, suggests otherwise.
Black history, after all, contextualizes the current political and economic marginalization of an African-descended diaspora that has fueled frightening episodes of unrest in much of the western world. This history also is foundational to indigenous (and industry packaged) cultural productions of music, dance, clothing, linguistic expression, graffiti/tagging, etc., that are admired, particularly among youth, across the continents. To admire these other forms of artistic expression is to at least acknowledge some of the history from which they are drawn from and, more than occasionally, reference. These important historical references bound in art, of course, have a historical trajectory of their own.
This history includes anthropologists who have pioneered black cultural histories, historians who have employed revolutionary methodologies, literary scholars who have exhumed and exposed a substantial body of slave narratives, and artists of various genres, particularly the pioneering filmmakers of previous generations, who have taken on the black historical experience in both innovative and enlightening fashion. Steve McQueen’s "12 Years a Slave" is successful today in part, for example, because Yale historian John Blassingame, of "Slave Community" and "Slave Testimony" fame, spearheaded an entire generation of revisionist historians and literary scholars of the 1970s and ‘80s to interpret slavery from the vantage point of the enslaved. Their impact on film was immediate and longlasting.
Five years after Blassingame’s first publication, Haley’s docudrama "Roots" inspired 51 percent of U.S. households to watch a week-long miniseries on slavery that exposed similar themes and story lines. These same themes, promoted even before the 1970s by literary artists such as Langston Hughes, choreographers like Katherine Dunham, and folklorists such as Zora Neale Hurston, to name a few, are taken up not only by McQueen in 2013, but by such other important internationally acclaimed contemporary artists as, for example, Kanye West in his recently celebrated rap song "New Slaves;" Kara Walker in her award-winning black paper-cut silhouette exhibition "Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love;" and the moving dance concert by the Moore Dance Project "Sacred Stories of Slaves."
Black slavery as a subject of film today is possible because it has, historically, been such an important part of past cultural and intellectual productions, particularly those researched, authored, danced, painted, sung and rapped by persons of African descent and students of the African diaspora experience.
An equally important reason why slavery has become a more accepted topic to discuss openly, and reveal in film and other art genres, is that the institution continues to be a thriving one. Indeed, there are more persons enslaved in the world today than in our past — somewhere between 20 and 30 million people are in bondage.
As it was in the past, slavery is a lucrative business that exists in almost every society, destroying the lives of the most economically, politically and socially marginalized, many of them women and children. Stories portrayed in film of black enslavement continue to awaken our sense of the plight of persons in our own societies who are not in control of their bodies, their families or their destinies. If the spectacle of realistic depictions of slavery on film have indeed become more commonplace, and that remains to be seen, the great hope is that this art form will help to inspire a universal moral act of finally ending a barbaric institution that has existed since the beginning of "civilization."