Film Series Leads Discussion of “12 Years a Slave”

Jamari Hysaw

A part of the Friday Night Film Series, members of the Colgate Community gathered in Golden Auditorium to view a screening of Steve McQueen’s Academy Award-winning film “12 Years a Slave” and participate in the following panel discussion. The event was sponsored by the Writing and Rhetoric Department and the Division of University Studies. A diverse range of faculty, staff and students from various backgrounds across the disciplines attended the film screening and participated in the engaging public

conversation following the panel.

“12 Years a Slave,” based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 narrative account, tells the difficult story of the kidnapping and enslavement of Solomon Northup, a free man living in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and his rough and brutal encounter with the institution of American chattel slavery. Following the viewing, professors participated in a panel that provided a variety of very interesting interpretations of the film, based on each professor’s background. Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric and chair of The Writing and Rhetoric Department Kermit Campbell moderated the panel, opening with an excerpt from the 1853 narrative.

The first speaker on the panel was Assistant Professor of English Lenora Warren, placing the story within a literary-historical context. She explains that the brutality of Northup’s narrative, which was dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” functioned as a confirmation of the picture of slavery painted in Stowe’s novel.

“One of the things slave narratives were meant to do was to document the atrocities,” Professor Warren explained in her opening.

Warren described truth-telling as part of the appeal of slave narratives within the context of the abolition movement. While the narrative was able to reach an earlier audience through literary means, the movie, which Professor Warren said very closely mirrors the original story, employs shock and awe to reach a contemporary audience. Thus, Professor Warren explained, in a sense the character of Solomon Northup in the film provides an interesting foil to our own feelings.

The next speaker on the panel, Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies and Women’s Studies Mary Simonson, gave her opinion of how the film visually and aurally creates an effect.

Professor Simonson reflected on the contrast of a visually stunning film with such a horrific story. She argued that the visual beauty of the film forces the audience to confront subject matter that is uncomfortable. In making the film beautiful, McQueen invites us to look at what actually happens. Additionally, Professor Simonson gave her take on the aural effect of the film, questioning if there could have been more done with the score, or if the aural effect was more about flatness, numbness, constraint and cruelty. Furthermore, Professor Simonson discussed the theme of music representing freedom and oppression, the diegetic and non-diegetic music and the possible missed opportunity to use the score to align the audience with the characters.

“It is important for Americans to grapple with the history of slavery,” Assistant Professor in Writing and Rhetoric Ryan Solomon said.

Concluding the speakers on the panel, Professor Solomon gave his reading of the film as a rhetorician interested in intervention. He discussed the strength of the film as it articulated the complexities of slavery and invited the audience to engage with the problem as well. Quoting Frederick Douglass’s famous Fourth of July speech, Professor Solomon posed the question: what can a film like this do to compel us to change our systems? Additionally, Professor Solomon discussed engaging with such a difficult film, instead of distancing ourselves from it, using “12 Years a Slave” to examine the residual power systems of America.

Following the panel, the panelists took audience questions, creating a lively and engaging discussion. Clearly the viewing and interdisciplinary opinions in the panel were beneficial to the multitude of students, faculty and staff in attendance.