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'12 Years a Slave' and the Difficulty of Dramatizing Slavery in Film

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Historian Annette Gordon-Reed often describes slavery studies as the “crown jewel of American historiography.” For Gordon-Reed and others, the historical scholarship on slavery that has emerged over the past sixty years has provided a far more nuanced and complex understanding of America’s “peculiar institution” and of American history as a whole. Much of what we now understand about slavery and its central characters has largely resulted from the diligence, resourcefulness, and dedication of historiansdetermined to demystify perhaps the central episode in this nation’s history. Yet, historians have not labored alone.

The challenge of informing an inquisitive American public about the nation’s own two-hundred year old tragedy—slavery—has not fallen squarely on the shoulders of historians and other scholars.  Artists, and particularly filmmakers, have played a central role in helping the larger public grapple with the horrors and indeed, aftershocks of human bondage. The Blaxpoitation-tinged slavery films of the early and mid-1970s unquestionably paved the way for the groundbreaking 1977 television mini-series Roots: The Saga of an American Family and a handful of subsequent slavery dramas. Roots author, Alex Haley, treated millions of American television viewers to a seven-day run of an emotionally raw and mostly well-researched dramatization of one family’s experience in slavery and freedom. It was through Roots that many Americans of all races first confronted slavery in a meaningful way. As a testament to its growing power, television, and not books, history classrooms, or even scholarly conferences, then served as the most effective medium for educating Americans about slavery. Undoubtedly, the Roots miniseries and subsequent television spinoffs not only whetted the appetites of curious publics, but these visual, dramatic renderings of slavery also generated much needed conversations about race and inequality in America. Those conversations were central to the embrace of multiculturalism in the 1970s-80s.  And at the same time, the public’s response to these slavery dramas compelled many trained historians to ask even bolder and more sophisticated questions about the institution of slavery in their own work.  By the 1980s, a flurry of influential and field-defining slavery studies emerged. Jacqueline Jones and Deborah Gray White, for example, exposed slavery’s sweeping impact on black women, their families, and their labor in their respective works Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow (1985) and Ar’n’t I a Woman (1985). Explorations of so-called slave culture, questions about slave agency, and even interrogations of slavery’s connections to other age-old American institutions and values soon filled library bookshelves. The rush to know could not be stopped, and again, media was there to assist.

Visit the newly redesigned Not Even Past website to read the full story.