What Will '12 Years A Slave' Teach the U.S.?

I read in Variety that 12 Years a Slave will now be taught in U.S. high schools. What an achievement. While it is indeed true what Edward W. Said says -- in his book Culture and Imperialism: "... there is no just way in which the past can be quarantined from the present. Past and present inform each other, each implies the other..." -- who knew that the legacy of the film would honor the past this way -- in our present?

Films can and do teach us a great deal, they can facilitate larger cultural conversations than books, articles and even some college classes. The film, 12 Years a Slave is based on the book by Solomon Northup and details the true story of his enslavement. Both texts relay the details of a psychological journey far more devastating than the physical torture endured by this free Black man in the early 1800s in these United States. Never before have I witnessed -- on the screen -- a more vivid personification of what W. E. B DuBois called double consciousness.

I learned a great deal from the film and am thrilled others will have the opportunity to engage in both the written form as well as the cinematic portrayal of Solomon Northup's story and that part of our country's history. 12 Years a Slave added several new facets to the slave narrative and I was encouraged to think deeply about the film when invited to sit on a panel at the Museum of the Moving Image.

What I discovered was that this rendition of slavery included the palpable forces that engulfed the women as well, both black and white. As memory serves me, other stories relayed relations primarily between men and of course men and women. This film gave new meaning and a new level of understanding to the title of the museum's symposium "Massa's Gaze" and went more deeply into the dynamics between enslaved women and the wives of slave owners. I was reminded of Bell Hooks' chapter on "The Oppositional Gaze" from her book Black Looks, where she stated that: "spaces of agency exist for black people, wherein we can both interrogate the gaze of the Other but also look back..."

Another striking visual and emotional display was the juxtaposition of Africans vs. African Americans. I wondered and in fact asked the audience at the symposium, during the Q & A, to consider how they related or identified with characters based on these classifications. Did we in fact have more sympathy or empathy for Solomon as an African American than we did for the Africans who were enslaved. Did we "value" one person's pain over another even though they were both thrust into the very same physical and emotional shackles of slavery? I am not at all saying that each was displayed as two different "kinds" of people but the film did differentiate two very different ways of thinking. When encouraged, for example to fully abandon his real identity to "survive" -- Solomon replies "I don't want to survive -- I want to live."

I am excited to see what our students will make of this "history" on film.