The University of Texas at Austin
  • Slavery on Screen: Scholars’ Impressions and Interpretations

    By Cory Leahy
    Published: Feb. 19

    Panelists at the Public Roundtable and Discussion of 'Twelve Years a Slave,' hosted by the Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies.

    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 & 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.

    • Quote 2
      Susu said on March 10 at 6:28 p.m.
      One of the things that have been thrown around for months now is the notion that awards season voting bodies won't respond to it because it's too "difficult" to sit through. Let's define difficult, shall we? Is it difficult to see the first openly gay politician gunned down by his closeted colleague? Is it difficult to see a reformed convict put to death by our country for his crimes? Is it difficult to see a mother choose which one of her children dies during the Holocaust? I'd argue that these answers add up to a resounding yes. Yet, no one threw those phrases of "too difficult" around. I've watched hundreds of films throughout my short 29-year history and I've seen some difficult cinema. Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" can make anyone quiver in shame as it shows the despicable reality of the Holocaust. Paul Greengrass' "United 93", which is almost an emotional biopic of America's darkest hour, makes me want to crawl up into a ball and cry. And finally, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ", one of the highest grossing films of all-time, shows the labor of our sins fleshed out into the beaten skin of an honest man. And still, no one threw these hyperbolic terms out saying, "it's too hard watch." Is it because this is an American tragedy, done by Americans? Is it the guilt of someone's ancestors manifesting it in your tear ducts? I can't answer that. Only the person who says it can. The structure of this country is built on the backs and blood of slaves. But slavery didn't just exist in America, it was everywhere. It was horrifying what occurred for over 200 years and believe it or not, still exists in some parts of the world TODAY. Now when approaching the powerful film by McQueen and distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, there is a resounding honesty that McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley inhabit. There are no tricks or gimmicks, no cheap takes on a side story or character that is put there for time filling or a life-lesson for Solomon to learn. Everything is genuine. Is the film heartbreaking? Oh my God yes. Did I cry for several minutes after the screening? Embarrassingly so. I was enamored the entire time, head to toe, moment to moment. I have long admired the talent that's been evident in the works of Chiwetel Ejiofor. I've known he was capable of what he has accomplished as Solomon Northup and he hits it out of the park. He has the urgency, worry, and drive to get home to his family and executes every emotion flawlessly even when all hope seems to be lost. Where he shines incredibly are the small nuances that he takes as the story slows down, you notice aspects of Solomon that make him even more believable. As Edwin Epps, Solomon's last owner, Michael Fassbender digs down deep into some evil territory. Acts as the "Amon Goeth" of our tale, he is exactly what you'd expect a person who believes this should be a way of life to behave. He's vile and strikes fear into not only the people he interacts with but with the viewers who watch. As Mrs. Epps, Sarah Paulson is just as wretched. Abusive, conniving, entitled, and I loved every second of her. Mark my words; Lupita Nyong'o is the emotional epicenter of the entire film. The heartache, tears, and anger that will grow inside during the feature will have our beautiful "Patsey" at the core. She is the great find of our film year and will surely go on to more dynamic and passionate projects in the future. You're watching the birth of a star. Hans Zimmer puts forth a very pronounced score, enriched with all the subtle ticks that strike the chords of tone. One thing that cannot be denied is the exquisite camera work of Sean Bobbit. Weaving through the parts of boat and then through the grassroots of a cotton field, he puts himself in the leagues of Roger Deakins and Seamus McGarvey as one of the most innovative and exciting DP's in the business. Especially following his work in "The Place Beyond the Pines" earlier this year. Simply marvelous. Oscar chances, since I know many of you are wondering. Put the Oscar's in my hands, you have a dozen nominations reap for the taking. Best Picture, Director, Lead Actor, Supporting Actor, dual Supporting Actresses, Adapted Screenplay, Production Design, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, Original Score. There's also a strong and rich sound scope that is present. The sounds of nature as the slaves walk or as Solomon approaches his master's house is noticed. The big question is, can it win? I haven't seen everything yet so I cannot yet if it deserves it or not. I can say, if critics and audiences can get off this "difficult" watch nonsense and accept the cinematic endeavor as a look into our own history as told from a great auteur, there's no reason it can't top the night. I'm very aware that seeing this film along with Steve McQueen crowned by Oscar is nearly erasing 85 years of history in the Academy. Are they willing and ready to begin looking into new realms and allowing someone not necessarily in their inner circles to make a bold statement as McQueen and Ridley take in "12 Years a Slave?" I remain hopeful.
    • Quote 2
      David Kingori said on March 3 at 2:18 p.m.
      In relation to 12 Years a Slave. I'm probably going to catch a lot of grief for this but here goes. This movie isn't about a black agenda or an anti-white agenda, it's about the negative effects of slavery, both to white and to blacks. For blacks the negativity is obvious, for whites, it was a bit more subtle. It was not only the shame but the very division it caused amongst yourselves. Thousands of whites killed each other to reach the resolution that slavery was wrong and that was the gravest consequence one could attain, to kill your own brother for the sake of cheap labour. The actors in this movie, the lead ones that is, are of African decent, not Black American, so how could they have an agenda. Most Africans, take no identity in the colour black. Luckily for us, we grew up knowing who we are and that's why we could careless about being called a n-word and so forth. As for Black Americans here, that identity was stripped from them. The only identity they could find is what was imposed on them, hence the reason why there is an identity in being black here in the states. The reason why the n-word is seen as a term of endearment, because an identity was taken from the negativity cast on them. Black Americans have done great things here but until they let go of they identity the find in the colour of their skin it will always hold them back. As for whites, the fear is unbecoming. Let it go as well, for to live in fear and ignorance is to be dead already. This story of Solomon Northup is the story of a great american, period. Greater than any posting on this forum. And this doesn't apply to every white or black, but each one of us here knows which white and which black needs to hear this the most. I am kenyan, and I never knew I was black till visiting Lousiana. I was like really? Laughable too be honest, because at the end of the day it's doesn't matter. That ignorance never did
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