6 Reasons 12 Years a Slave Mattered

Whether or not this groundbreaking film wins an Oscar, it has already had a lasting influence on our culture.

Lupita Nyong'o, Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
Lupita Nyong'o, Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave Fox Searchlight

When 12 Years a Slave opened nationally last November, it launched endless conversations about the legacy of slavery and race in America.

Director Steve McQueen’s hauntingly graphic depiction of slavery even made some people declare they were sitting this one out because they couldn’t bear to watch. This may have included some Oscar voters, which has led to talk that the film may be doomed at Sunday’s Academy Awards.

Whether or not it wins the best picture Oscar, the film has seeped into America culture. The long-term effects may never be fully measured, but the recent announcement that both the movie and the memoir on which it is based will be used in high school curricula ensures that people will be discussing it for years to come.

Here are six ways the film has been influential.

1. It introduced the world to Solomon Northup and the slave-narrative genre. Most people probably never heard the story of Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. But as pointed out by The Root’s editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr., McQueen’s stunning depiction of Northup’s vividly detailed memoir helped revive interest in the book, which landed on the New York Times best-sellers list 160 years after it was first published. In its day, the book was also a best-seller and an important testament to the dangers free blacks faced while slavery continued in the South, something white abolitionists believed but couldn’t prove until Northup’s book came along.

2. It made (white) people talk about slavery. From the moment the film first screened at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado last August, critics and culture writers were calling 12 Years the first movie to truly capture the horror and devastation of “America’s original sin.” Indiewire’s Eric Kohn called the film “a slavery movie for the ages.” New York magazine Vulture blogger Kyle Buchanan went Kohn one better, declaring in September—months before the Oscar nominations were even announced—that “Your Best Picture Winner Will Be 12 Years a Slave.” New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, in a smartly written piece, hypothesized how Northup’s quiet dignity might explain the disdain some people feel for President Obama.

And even though Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen was (correctly) derided for not knowing how horrible slavery truly was, the one kernel of truth he did get right was that schools have done a pretty crappy job of teaching slavery. Now that the memoir and the film will be available to high school teachers, perhaps that will change.

3. It announced the arrival of a new Steve McQueen to Hollywood. For people of a certain age, hearing the name “Steve McQueen” evoked memories of the tough-guy actor known as “the King of Cool,” who generally gave bad dudes a hard time and drove fast cars in movies and real life.

But with just three feature films to his name, British director Steve McQueen has proved himself to be an artist completely in control of his craft, who possesses the skill to tell gut-wrenchingly difficult stories about complex characters—his 2011 film Shame offers a look into the life of a man in the throes of sex addiction, while 2008’s Hunger tells the harrowing true story of Irish hunger strike leader Bobby Sands (like 12 Years a Slave, both films featured Brit actor Michael Fassbender).