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Is '12 Years a Slave' relevant? Probably

AaronRobertson_FORPRINT
AaronRobertson_FORPRINT

During fall break, I saw Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” in one of the few theaters in the country where it was playing. I had read reviews praising the movie as a modern masterpiece. Many critics and fans regard it as the frontrunner for Best Picture. However, I was most interested in examining the historical relevance of the film. There have been many artistic explorations of slavery (e.g., Alex Haley’s “Roots” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” among others). What would distinguish this film from any of its predecessors?

“12 Years a Slave”is a beautifully crafted movie. McQueen’s third feature length is a skillful adaptation of the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free man from New York who was kidnapped in 1841, sold into slavery and held in bondage for 12 years on Louisiania plantations. While it will please arthouse patrons with its soft color palettes, triumphant score and convincing performances, it is still a fundamentally brutal film that will incite pity, wrath and melancholia.

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I believed the film was worthy of an important discussion, but I could not decide why. After two days of reflection, I still could not articulate the entire range of my reactions. I was both pleased by the film’s masterful execution and discontented with its inability to express new ideas. I tried to understand what, if anything, I had learned from the experience. I concluded that the film’s success is not in its capacity to inform a nation about its shameful past (yes, slavery is bad —we know). Neither does the film explore a rich intellectual landscape that will challenge historical academicians. Indeed, the film emphasizes the familiar experiences of African-American slaves (I do, however, commend screenwriter John Ridley for including two under-represented historically-based character types: the white indentured servant and the black plantation mistress). But, the film’s success is contingent upon its emotive capacity. The fact that the film summons such visceral reactions and encourages the kind of reflectiveness that led me to write this article is a testament to its achievement. By virtue of its excellent craftsmanship, the film invites the audience to revisit it, thereby allowing the viewer to repeatedly experience emotional responses (horror, sympathy, hope) that are distinctly connected to the slavery narrative. In other words, the film is most valuable not because of its intellectual novelty, but because it successfully encourages the recollection of an important, scarred past. With this film, McQueen argues for the endurance of this particular narrative. He reminds us that humanity, though it tends to change its ethical and moral perspectives, is still capable of atrocious actions, just as it is still able to overcome them. There is a sort of timelessness to the slavery narrative because of its exceptional themes of debased repression and impossible persistence.

The consequences of slavery were influential in Princeton’s history as well. In his essay, “Princeton and the Controversies Over Slavery,” University professor Sean Wilentz examines Princeton’s role in the antebellum debates between abolitionists and their opponents. As the intellectual center of the American Presbyterian Church, Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) was, by most standards, conservative in its stance on slavery. Wilentz notes that Princeton “was not so much proslavery as it was opposed to radical antislavery,” which became evident in the creation of the American Colonization Society, founded by Princeton graduate Robert Finley in 1816. The society sought to remove emancipated blacks to Africa, helping found the colony of Liberia. Given the severity of the slavery debate, it is interesting that in the 1850s, approximately one-sixth of Princeton’s population was black. Although racial relations were not always stable, white and black Presbyterians worshiped in the same building well into the nineteenth century. In 1840, however, black members of the First Presbyterian Church were relocated to a separate space. This community of expelled blacks would create Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, which still stands as a symbol of both black solidarity and racial disunity.

The release of “12 Years a Slave”in 2013 is not ill-timed. In our own environment, we can still see vestiges of the most contested debate in American history. I am not a film historian. I do not know the extent to which McQueen’s effort will endure. But even if we have been exposed to slavery narratives before, we have seen few that are as excellently composed as this one. And that, I think, is why McQueen created it. Regardless of the historical facts, this is a film about a real man’s emotional journey. McQueen draws this story from the well of history and reminds us that it is still there and always will be. Like the undeniable effects of slavery on current racial relations, we cannot ignore it. Nor should we. The act of remembrance is justifiable in itself because it validates our past and confirms the ethical transformations that have guided us to our present.

Aaron Robertson is a freshman from Detroit, Mich. He can be reached at aaroncr@princeton.edu.

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