Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Can a Feature Film Be a Work of History?: The Pietist Schoolman on "12 Years a Slave"

I am sure that this will not be our last post on 12 Years a Slave.  The movie is getting positive reviews, both from film critics and the historical community.  Over at the Pietist Schoolman, Chris Gehrz suggests that 12 Years a Slave "seems to have surpassed the standard of being a great movie, or even being essential art, and instead become a work of history."  Here is a taste of Gerhz's post:

We were having this debate last year because of another movie set in mid-19th century America. But while Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln received criticism from some historians for keeping African Americans largely on the sidelines of a film about the abolition of slavery, 12 Years immerses viewers in the experience of slavery itself.
The notion of the film as history is aided in part by regularly invoked contrasts to other kinds of movies about slavery that don’t achieve, or strive for, historical authenticity: “McQueen makes it impossible to regard slavery from the safe remove of TV screens (Roots), Hollywood sugarcoating (Gone With the Wind) and Tarantino satire (Django Unchained). This prickly renegade restores your faith in the harsh power of movies. You don’t just watch 12 Years a Slave. You bleed with it, share its immediacy and feel the wounds that may be beyond healing” (Peter TraversRolling Stone).
Indeed, some have wondered if the film isn’t too successful at evoking this particular chapter in American history. Richard Brody (in a New Yorker essay that also considers films about the Holocaust) frames the problem, “The question is whether the director Steve McQueen has trivialized or exploited Solomon Northup’s and other slaves’ sufferings by the very act of treating slavery as a collection of dramatic incidents no less ripe for naturalistic cinematic depiction than any novel or latter-day true-crime story.”
So what do you think?  Should we consider 12 Years a Slave a work of history?