Whichever film wins the Oscar tomorrow, 12 Years a Slave is the film we’ll remember

Steve McQueen’s film is a triumph not only as a piece of cinema but also as an account of slavery

So it looks like 12 years a slave will pick up the Best Picture Oscar. And so it should. The best way to explain how good a film this is, is not to point out how easy it is to praise. Rather it is to observe how difficult it is to criticise. It is that close to perfect.

In the video above the Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw explains elegantly not only why this is such a good film but also an important one: it is the story of black slaves rather than white abolitionists.

I’d add that it is also a film with real historical integrity. It follows closely the real life memoir on which it is based. This earns it an A+ from the Reel History column, where Alex Von Tunzelmann weighs up how accurate films are. She writes of the violence in the film:

Since this film first previewed, there has been some murmuring that Northup’s memoir itself may have been creatively enhanced in certain ways (it was co-written by a white man, David Wilson). Writer Imogen Robertson, who has been researching the Atlantic slave trade for her next book, disagrees: “Northup’s experience is corroborated by other memoirs of the period, by ex-slaves and even by masters.” For example, she cites Thomas Thistlewood, a Briton who ran a plantation in Jamaica from 1750-86 and kept a daily diary – “presumably not intended for publication,” says Robertson – recording the sadistic punishments he inflicted, and his thousands of sexual encounters with slave women. (Since the women had no choice but to consent, these may be considered rape.) “He spent time thinking about things he could put on whipping wounds to make the pain worse,” says Robertson, “like pepper, lime or salts.”

Thistlewood’s diary is horrific, but demonstrates that men like Edwin Epps [MM: Northup’s second owner played in the film by Michael Fassbender] did exist and were not necessarily exceptional in slaveholding societies of that period. As historian Trevor Burnard has pointed out, “Nothing in [Thistlewood’s] diaries signifies that he was at odds with his neighbours in his behaviour, personality, or values.” Robertson adds: “If anything, the film underplays what went on in slave plantations, because that was often so grotesque that it would be impossible to show.”

The film correctly highlights that slavery was not only about economic but also sexual exploitation. This was a grotesque reality that persisted even after Emancipation. Writing in the New Yorker about the memoirs Essie Mae Washington-Williams (the illegitimate* child of segrationist senator Strom Thurmond and his 16 year old servant), the historian William Jelani Cobb observes that:

James Baldwin once remarked that segregationists weren’t truly driven by the cliché concern of preventing black men from marrying their daughters. Rather, he said, “You don’t want us to marry your wives’ daughters—we’ve been marrying your daughters since the days of slavery.” This is a truth that is forgotten among whites and rarely spoken among blacks. Revelations of the type Washington-Williams made in 2003 were shocking only to those privileged enough to not have this knowledge inflicted upon them personally or etched into their lineage and shaded—literally—into their family history.

In 2003, when the hazy borders between current events and reality TV were still intact, we processed Washington-Williams story as a political scandal, albeit a posthumous one. But in truth this was an affair of an altogether different genus than the family-values pol caught in a brothel or the homophobic pastor found to be conducting a same-sex affair. Hypocrisy may be the price we pay for having our biases catered to in public, but Thurmond’s actions weren’t so much hypocritical as they were surreptitious: not uncommon, just unspoken.

The historian Darlene Clark Hine has written that a key if seldom-discussed factor in the Great Migration was the desire of black women to escape the sexual exploitation implicit in domestic work—a concern that had also driven enslaved women to run away.

[In] Black women’s migration across time, from the flights of runaway slaves in the antebellum period to the great migrations of the first half of the twentieth century…the most compelling motive for running, fleeing, migrating was a desire to retain or claim some control and ownership of their own sexual beings and the children they bore.

In the midst of Essie Washington-Williams’s unburdening it seemed callous to reflect upon the ways in which her story pointed to the sexual vulnerability of women domestic workers, how her mother’s story was something closer to a rule than an exception.

As well as the egregious and extreme cruelty, McQueen also highlights the smaller more insidious injustices slaves had to contend with. Whites are allowed to inspect slaves naked if they are considering buying them, they can steal from slaves safe in the knowledge they have no recourse and they can demand deference from people wiser and more intelligent than themselves. These are precisely the kind of facets of historical reality that are easier to grasp in a piece of fiction than a monograph or textbook.

Bradshaw observes that 12 years already feels like a classic. For decades to come it is likely to be the definitive cinematic depiction of slavery. When teachers want a film that will help their students grasp the experience of being a slave, this is the one they will chose.

I don’t know if 12 years deserves to win best picture. There are many other films which have been released this year and one of them might be better. But somehow I doubt it.


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