Our cinematic amnesia about slavery has also come with a huge cost: The most popular films feature white characters who always outsize slave characters, like the sympathetic slave owner (Scarlett O’Hara), an antislavery statesman (Amistad‘s John Quincy Adams) or a charismatic sidekick (Dr. King Schultz of Django).
This preoccupation with white protagonists, which also dominates Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans (think Dances With Wolves), does so by softening the reality of slavery and purposely denying the lives and opinions of those who endured it the most.
Twelve Years a Slave, on the other hand, begins to do for contemporary Americans what the slave narratives did on behalf of the abolitionists. It rips the veil off the horrors of slavery, while humanizing the enslaved African Americans. It does not portray Northup (brilliantly played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) as either an accomplice to or the sole avenger of slavery. Rather, it zooms in on the ordinary violence of his life, making him a three-dimensional character who simultaneously accommodates and resists his subjugation in order to simply remain alive.
It also shows slavery as America’s ultimate irony. It was both a mundane and menacing institution that produced pathological slaveholders (intensely played by Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson) who derived their pleasure and wealth from the psychological and physical torture of slaves. In response, the majority of enslaved African Americans had few options: a slow acceptance of their fate, small forms of resistance, rare escape or death.
Through the characters Eliza (a passionate Adepero Oduye) and Patsey (a poignant Lupita Nyong’o), we are also reminded of Harriet Jacobs’ famous words in the slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: “Slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women.”
And while 12 Years a Slave clearly builds on the work of a preceding generation of artists and historians, it has also cleared a space of its own. By privileging the testimonies and voices of the slaves themselves, it gives us a new cinematic story of slavery as exceptionally violent and quintessentially American.
Salamishah Tillet is an associate professor of English and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship, Racial Democracy, and the Post-Civil Rights Imagination and the co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit organization that uses art to end violence against girls and women.