Terrible but True: On Realist Film

Last night I watched the film adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave. I had avoided watching the film because as an African American and southern literary scholar I’m familiar with the horrors that I would probably see. However, after many encounters with avid film goers who raved about it as a seminal film, I decided to rent it so that I could cry at will (or just turn it off if need-be).

northup.book.imageI was impressed by the acting, cinematography, and score of the film. Director Steve McQueen did an excellent job of showing the realities of slave life, especially how each experience was markedly different from the next. I did cry (several times), but I take that as a sign that despite my familiarity with Northup and other figures in our history’s reprehensible treatment  of African Americans they have not become so familiar as to lack emotional appeal. We should cry when we watch this film and read other slave narratives; indeed, it’s when we stop that we should be worried.

Recently I have argued that if film is entertainment, scenes of torture and rape have no place on-screen. What I remembered/realized last night is that film is also profoundly educational. I would not be surprised if the larger viewing audience had been unacquainted with Northup and his bondage, and while they may have known that slavery was indeed terrible, they had not seen the realities of slave life and especially the instruments and punishments designed to exact submission. Without seeing the whippings, beatings, metal masks, lynchings, kicking, rape, castration, and other forms of brutality inflicted on slaves, one might be able to dismiss Northup and experiences of others as facts of history rather than truly understanding their suffering. Films like 12 Years a Slave take us closer to that understanding and, I hope, keep us far from ever engaging in similar treatment of our brothers and sisters again.

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