SLC talks back: 12 Years a Slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor and other actors from Fox Searchlight Picture's 12 Years A Slave in a still from the film.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and other actors from Fox Searchlight Picture's 12 Years A Slave in a still from the film.

Adapted from Solomon Northrup’s memoir, 12 Years a Slave chronicles the life of Northrup, a New York free-born black man who was kidnapped in 1841, in Washington D.C., and sold into slavery.  For twelve years, he would work on plantations in Louisiana before he was eventually freed.  The film was released to universal acclaim from critics and audiences alike.  In addition to several awards garnered including the Academy Award for Best Picture, various movie critics named it as one of the best films of 2013.

The film most certainly gathered a great deal of support from the Sarah Lawrence community. Matthew Picus ’16, film critic for the Phoenix, deems the film to be quite an important one, although much of his praise is for the actors’ performance.

“It is difficult if not impossible for the average American to imagine or even understand what slaves went through,” Picus says, “but [Chiwetel] Ejiofor delivers a performance that gives us a pretty good idea of what it must have been like to be a slave.”

Much of this support prompted Sarah Lawrence professor Alwin Jones to host a “12 Years a Slave – Talkback” regarding the film on Thursday, April 3 at Common Ground.  With approximately 10 students in attendance, all were seated around Professor Jones as he encouraged them to speak on issues that they deemed important,

One major talking point of the evening was about criticism that the film had received about its portrayal of violence.  Specifically, New York film critic, Armond White, had labeled 12 Years a Slave as “torture porn.”  In fact, the film does contain quite a few violent scenes including Solomon being beaten with a paddle when he is first taken, Patsey being beaten and then subsequently raped, and of course, the infamous noose scene.

An illustration from the 1853 edition of Twelve Years A Slave, by Solomon Northrup via Wikimedia Commons

An illustration from the 1853 edition of Twelve Years A Slave, by Solomon Northrup via Wikimedia Commons

Students seemed quite alarmed to learn of the criticism.

One girl brought up Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 western about an African-American man who agrees to help a German bounty hunter capture three outlaws in exchange for his wife’s rescue from her plantation owner.

“That’s surprising because, to me, Django had much more violence than this movie,” she said.

“That is Quentin Tarantino’s style – violence,” concurred another female student. “But, yeah, I agree.”

The professor returned students to the idea of the noose. The shot of the noose is held for a long time – 3 minutes.  There is no soundtrack music, just background noise such as the echo of children playing, insects, and a gurgling sound coming from the man hanging in the noose.  Professor Jones then asked students about how they felt watching the scene. The replies:

“Disgusted.”

“Discomfort.”

“Helplessness.”

“That is the idea,” Professor Jones said. 

He went on to explain that the violence has become naturalized.  The slave is hanging in the noose and the other slaves have to walk by and see the slave in the noose.  Hanging onto this shot creates the feeling for the audience that there is nothing the viewer can do but watch, just like it was for the other slaves.

Professor Jones also touched on another point – the portrayal of black women in the film.  One talking point was the possibility of black women being used to make the white men appear nobler.  He referred to a scene on a ship where a white man is stabbed trying to rescue a black female slave.  In Northrup’s original memoir, that man did not die trying to rescue the woman, but rather from tuberculosis – so why were the scene changed?  Professor Jones also said that the discussion can turn into a discussion about the women’s right movement as black men got the vote before black women.

Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in a still from Fox Searchlight Pictures' 12 Years a Slave.

Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in a still from Fox Searchlight Pictures' 12 Years a Slave.

The talkback did not just focus on themes and characterization but also cinematography.  Professor Jones discussed how the film was shot with a single and camera and with wide angles to give the viewer a panoramic view – both because the film is a period piece and, according to the film’s primary camera operator, Sean Bobbit, “Widescreen means a big film, an epic tale – in this case an epic tale of human endurance.”

One of the last things discussed was a shot of the Capitol Building.  Professor Jones elaborated the importance of this shot.

“In heart of the ‘land of the free,’ there is all this terror and corruption,” he said. 

In addition, Professor Jones gave some historical backstory that if a black person was caught without their papers in Washington D.C., they would be held in a ‘Negro pen’ until they had papers that could prove they were free. If papers could not be provided, they would be sent to Louisiana – which is pretty much what Solomon’s story is.

Many topics were touched upon that would unfortunately make this article much too long, but Professor Jones’ talkback revealed something very important about 12 Years a Slave.  It is more than just a period piece to bridge the gap between American slavery and the modern viewer, but it revealed to the audience a man many had never heard of – Solomon Northrup – and it is unflinching and honest portrayal of racism, sexism, violence, and corruption does what many films cannot do.  It leaves an impact with the viewer that provides the setting for talkbacks such as Sarah Lawrence College’s very own

by Mary Kekatos '15
mkekatos@gm.slc.edu

Stills from the film are property of Fox Searchlight Pictures and appear via http://www.darkhorizons.com/news/27505/first-photos-twelve-years-a-slave.

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The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.