This class was the first I’ve ever taken that focused exclusively on popular politics rather than the more commonly studied history of the country’s elites. Someone in class summed it up well when they said that this class was all about the kinds of topics that usually have one or two class periods devoted to them in a normal class, or take up one section of a textbook. I definitely think it is a good thing that there seems to be a shift today in academia toward doing more popular history. The elite figures we typically hear about are the ones generally making decisions and holding power, and so obviously they will always be important to study. However, it is difficult as a historian to claim to truly know an era if you do not have some idea of how non-elites such as minorities, women, and the working class expressed themselves politically.
What is also exciting about the field of popular history is how much it will be able to grow in the coming years due to advances in technology. People attempting to study popular politics today are quite limited in their access to firsthand accounts from non-elites. However, imagine somebody studying our current time period fifty years from now. They will likely have access to huge archives of social media and Internet activity. Imagine the use of looking back on old facebook and twitter posts (a thought that admittedly I’m sure scares a lot of us now) as a historian. On these sites, users from all walks of life frequently post about their political views and feelings on current events. With that in mind, it seems that the field of popular history has nowhere to go but up.
I will do my best to not divulge too much of the plot of the movie. I simply plan on explaining what the movie adds to the historical representation of slavery, and what it might tell about how slaves contributed to political speech in the mid-nineteenth century.
12 Years a Slave is not a cathartic film. Those who attend expecting a sense of closure on their feelings towards slavery or its history in the United States will be disappointed. There is no allegory to modern America, nor is it a Marxist critique of capitalism. Its goal is to move today’s depictions of slavery away from the “feel-good” category of movies, such as Lincoln, Amistad, or Glory (and arguably Django Unchained), and make us reflect critically and realistically on the facets of slavery. Interestingly, it is largely a British film, with British actors (including Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup) in leading roles and a British director (Steve McQueen- and no, not “The Cooler King”). While the British themselves have a unique history with slavery and abolition, this film falls squarely within the American realm.
The script, in contrast to the dramatizations of many nineteenth-century stories, clings closely to Northup’s memoir released in 1855. Fourteen years earlier, he was kidnapped in a deceptive business deal in New York and was sold under the name ‘Platt’ in New Orleans. Northup’s peculiar situation in his enslavement gave him unique advantages compared to other slaves, such as literacy, musical talents, and a knowledge of the outside world. Despite these advantages, he still faced a brutal enslavement in Louisiana for twelve years. Any attempt he made to write a letter, let alone send it northward, could have fatal consequences if he was caught. His main weapon, however, was his intelligence. Northup knew how to utilize potential advocates who would give him a chance at freedom; his strongest political speech spoke through their actions. However, very few other enslaved peoples had the ability to appeal for outside assistance in their plight. Northup was an exceptional case in this system.
12 Years a Slave is not a popcorn flick. There’s no traditional chronological structure, or really a climax, to mark the progress of the film. Despite the remarkable dialogue and cinematography, my movie-going self was dissatisfied. However, I later realized that that was the point. The film is supposed to alter how slavery is depicted modernly. While the slavery debate in Congress may have had drama, excitement, and a palpable climax (note Lincoln), the lives of most enslaved people did not. McQueen aims not to entertain, but to provide a re-education of what slavery really was in the cotton fields of the Deep South. He removes its representation from the halls of power and puts it at the ground level- an idea that the members of this class have learned to appreciate.