“I apologize for my appearance. . . . I have had a difficult time these past several years.” This quote is uttered very near the end of 12 Years a Slave, the award-winning 2013 film that tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped in 1841 and enslaved for a dozen years before his escape. It is a major understatement.
Based on Northup’s autobiography of the same name, 12 Years a Slave charts Northup’s experiences from his happy life in Saratoga Springs, New York, with his wife and children, to his kidnapping in Washington, D.C., and transport to New Orleans. There he is sold and enslaved in Louisiana by multiple plantation owners over the next decade. Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is finally reunited with his family after escaping from bondage with the help of white friends from New York. In between are almost two hours of powerful scenes of violence—physical, psychological, and sexual; endurance; and resistance on the part of Northup and those enslaved with him.
David Thomson’s review in the New Republic praised 12 Years a Slave as “a film that necessity and education demand seeing.” This is not the first film that has garnered praise in its attempts to portray slavery. Roots, the groundbreaking television miniseries that tells the story of historian Alex Haley’s ancestors, was described in the New York Times as “a sociological phenomenon of major significance” even while it was critiqued for its many historical inaccuracies. Glory (1989) and Amistad (1997) were similarly lavished with praise for their cinematic depictions of marginalized or silenced aspects of the history of slavery.
When my colleague Alan Marcus and I surveyed high school teachers recently, Glory and Amistad were among the most widely used films in secondary history classes, particularly in suburban schools. However, we found that many teachers used the films as a way to teach a part of the history they were not as familiar with or comfortable teaching, and they did little beyond having students view the film.
This approach to using media in the classroom has serious consequences. Slavery is a particularly heavy topic in U.S. history, and students need clear, supportive leadership to be able to think, write, and discuss the issues. Also, simply showing a movie can serve to reinforce the representations in the film and thus perpetuate ongoing myths about slavery. Despite their strengths, Edward Zwick’s Glory and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad avoid many of the most troubling and silenced aspects of the history of slavery and the antebellum (pre-Civil War) period in U.S. history—as do most history textbooks and high school history courses in the United States.
They also fall into an almost universal trap for films portraying marginalized historical groups or events: Both are told from the perspective of a white male protagonist. This is an unfortunate narrative decision. There are ample first-person accounts and historical evidence to tell the stories from African American or African perspectives. For example, two of Frederick Douglass’ sons fought with the 54th Massachusetts, the all-black regiment depicted in Glory. Both films also consign representations of slavery to flashbacks or innuendo—the scarred back of Denzel Washington’s character in Glory or the flashback to the Middle Passage in Amistad. Both films raise issues about racism in the North and the economic benefits of slavery for the whole country, but with little depth or detail.
This does not mean that these two films are not important. As film critic Roger Ebert noted: “What is most valuable about Amistad is the way it provides faces and names for its African characters, whom the movies so often make into faceless victims.” Amistad’s scenes of the Middle Passage do depict the horrors of the slave trade as rarely seen in a major film, and also show the resistance of captured Africans to their white captors. Of the more than 400 Civil War movies produced to that point, Glory was the first to tell the story of African American soldiers.