Director Steve McQueen’s acclaimed new film, 12 Years a Slave, is a Hollywood watershed. The movie offers an unflinching portrayal of slavery in the United States and sets a new standard for narrating such stories on the silver screen.
Like many slavery films before it, 12 Years a Slave unfolds in the sweltering heat of southern plantations. But unlike its predecessors, McQueen’s film focuses on a free man from the north who was kidnapped and sold into slavery.
His name was Solomon Northup. And it's a true account.
“The reason I took this angle is I wanted that person to be everyone in the audience," McQueen said. "Someone who can take you, the audience, in this unfortunate conveyor belt of slavery.”
Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor offers a tour de force performance as Northup.
“This is a story about one of the harshest structures that’s ever been created in the history of the world," he said. "And it is somebody trying to survive that with their mind intact, and they do.”
Film historian Dexter Gabriel says the movie breaks new ground.
“The movie does a very good job in exposing slavery, almost, in a sense, exposing the old films on slavery, the old plantation epics, exposing them for frauds," he said.
Gabriel says movies like Gone with the Wind, in 1939, did a disservice because they painted a portrait of slaves living in harmony with their owners.
Nostalgic tributes faded after the U.S. civil rights movement.
In 1977, the TV miniseries Roots became the first attempt to reveal the brutality of slavery. But Gabriel says slavery was a small part of the story that looked at the African American experience as a whole.
"In its attempt to create slavery as an immigrant story, it attempts to make slavery under this heading in order to make African Americans like everyone else,” he said.
Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, in 1997, was about a slave mutiny aboard the slave ship Amistad. Gabriel calls it a missed opportunity.
“Rather than privilege the slave mutiny, Spielberg makes it about this courtroom drama starring founding fathers and interesting abolitionist lawyers,” he said.
Fifteen years later, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained empowered the black slave in a tongue-in-cheek vigilante story. But Gabriel calls it an unrealistic tale of one black man against plantation masters.
“It is in the end a wonderful absurdist fairytale of slavery,” he said.
In 12 Years a Slave, the mood darkens. Many say its portrayal of slavery is too harsh.
“Slavery has been a part of this country longer than it hasn’t been," Gabriel said. "I think everyone, in some way, has to come to terms with.”
After almost a century of slavery in movies, 12 Years a Slave offers an opportunity for reflection.