- Film Roundtable12 Years a Slave
Shortly after he was kidnapped and taken into slavery, Solomon Northup told a fellow slave who had just offered him advice on how to survive the institution of slavery, “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” Thus begins the harrowing journey of a free man’s transition to slavery and his own personal quest to regain the freedom he so rightfully deserved. The trials and tribulations of his extraordinary life were chronicled in 12 Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana, published in 1853. In 2013, Northup’s book was adapted into a Hollywood movie, which has received numerous critical accolades, including Academy Awards for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Supporting Actress. To commemorate its release, book review editor Brian Craig Miller (BCM) gathered five prominent historians to snack on some popcorn and Junior Mints and reflect on the film and the memory of slavery in American history, popular culture, and our academic classrooms.
• Natalie Zemon Davis (NZD) is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University and currently associated with the University of Toronto. Her publications include The Return of Martin Guerre (1983) and Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision (2000). Davis also served as historical consultant to the 1982 French film Le Retour de Martin [End Page 310] Guerre. She is now completing a book on four generations of a slave family in the Dutch colony of Suriname.
• Jim Downs (JD) teaches history at Connecticut College and is a nineteenth-century historian, focusing on the Civil War and Reconstruction and slavery and emancipation. He is the author of Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction (2012).
• Scott Nelson (SN) is Legum Professor of History at the College of William and Mary. He has written five books and many articles on nineteenth-century history, including A People at War: Civilians and Soldiers in America’s Civil War (2007), which he coauthored with Carol Sheriff.
• Susan Eva O’Donovan (SEO) is associate professor of history at the University of Memphis and a distinguished lecturer with the Organization of American Historians. She spent a number of years as an editor at the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on the work performed by men and women in slavery and the political lives of slaves. She is the author of Becoming Free in the Cotton South (2007) and is currently investigating the political lives of slaves.
• Margaret Washington (MW) is professor of history and American studies at Cornell University. Her research and teaching examines African American culture, both among women in the antebellum North and within slavery and religion across the South. Her publications include “A Peculiar People”: Slave Religion and Community Culture among the Gullahs and Sojourner Truth’s America. She also serves on the editorial board of the Journal of American History, and she has consulted on numerous documentaries and films, including Africans in America, Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided, When the Lion Wrote History: The Life of Frederick Douglass, Cheating the Stillness: The World of Julia Peterkin, and Daughters of the Dust.
I want to begin with your overall impressions of the film. What did you think? How does the film compare to the book?
As a cinematic depiction of the “horrors” (a noun found in many reviews) and terrible cruelty of slavery in the American South and of the agony of the individual person deprived of freedom, 12 Years a Slave is a resounding success. The 12 Years expanded on themes that interested director Steve McQueen in earlier films, such as Hunger, where the focus was on the [End Page 311] individual experience of the Irish independence fighter and the destiny of the human body in his struggle. The London-born McQueen had wanted to do a film about slavery, which, among other things, was part of his West Indian parents’ ancestry. (I have wondered, too, whether the recent Dutch public attention—a...