'Twelve Years' Forum: 'Show Up for the Horror, Stay for the Politics'

Michael Ralph, center at table, and Wahneema Lubiano lead a discussion of
Michael Ralph, center at table, and Wahneema Lubiano lead a discussion of "!2 Years a Slave." Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography

Based on an 1855 slave narrative, the movie "Twelve Years a Slave" has stirred up national controversy, and the disagreements about its portrayal of slavery came out in a lively faculty panel discussion Thursday.

The Forum for Scholars and Publics sponsored the discussion of the film about Northrup, a free black man who was kidnapped into slavery and escaped. The movie has received critical acclaim but also raised questions about Northrup's narrative voice, his questionable politics, to the historical accuracy in translating the book into a film and its generous use of violence to convey the horror of enslavement.

Nearly two dozen members of the Duke and Durham community attended the 90-minute discussion in the Old Chemistry building on Duke's West Campus. The forum made the book available for free so attendees could familiarize themselves with the material.

Panel co-presenter Wahneema Lubiano, Duke professor of literature, reviewed the pre-Civil War slave narrative genre and how they were written and read by the public.

She said the narratives were often written from memory and incorporated popular elements that audiences were familiar with such as campfire and suspense stories, she said.

Co-presenter Michael Ralph, an assistant professor at New York University, said the film, directed by Steve McQueen, emerged at a time when police brutality is in the public consciousness and practices like New York City's 'stop and frisk' are being challenged. Ralph said the earthquake in Haiti and the U.S. election of the first black president may have also brought themes of history, slavery and race to the foreground.

"Some say it's the best film about slavery ever made," Ralph said, adding that other slave movies like Amistad and Django Unchained, did not give the subject serious treatment.

"It's an announcement of a new intervention in the cinematic depiction of slavery," he said. "I've heard Hollywood doesn't want two hours of slaves picking cotton. But there are a lot of compelling stories within slavery."

Historian Thavolia Glymph challenged the film and the original book, saying it "made slavery palatable." She cited several historical inaccuracies in the film. For example, enslaved men and women would not have been naked together in pens and jails.

"Everyone thinks this is a great story. Why? Solomon Northrup was derogatory toward the enslaved," Glymph said.

"Yet we cannot discount how the film is creating a constituency of people," Ralph said, adding that much of the film was faithful to the book and it will be studied in film schools for years to come.

"There's impoverished ground for films like this. One hopes that [audiences] show up for the horror but stay for the politics," Lubiano said.

"A New Iran" and "Plotting Internationalism" were topics of previous discussions hosted by the Forum of Scholars and Publics. To learn more, visit sites.duke.edu/scholarsandpublics.