Topics in History: History through Film

A Southport student review of the 2013 movie 12 Years a Slave

Topics is a course at Southport High School, taught by Kevin Sanders, that analyzes major events from United States and world history through Hollywood films that attempt to portray those events. Students investigate historical documents and other sources to determine if a film is historically accurate.

The goal is for students to develop deeper understandings of the historical discipline while generating questions about the way the world is around them, along with watching classical films that have graced American and international screens. This week, student Miguel Santiago reviews the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave.

By Miguel Santiago

12 Years A Slave is one of the best and most important films of African American history ever made. Its vivid portrayal of slavery is very important for all Americans to experience to understand our horrifically gruesome past. This film does a fantastic job of immersing the viewer into a perspective of what it was like to be an African American slave, stripped of all human freedom and comfort. The film uses camera focus to capture the emotions of each character, music and sound effects to replicate what slave life may have sounded like and tells the story of Solomon Northup’s unjust kidnapping into slavery.

Solomon Northup was an African American free man who lived in Saratoga Springs, New York, with a wife and three children. He was known as an excellent violinist and was treated almost as an equal to the white Americans. In 1841, Solomon was discussing business with two white men that supposedly wanted him to play violin for their circus; he agreed to travel with them to Washington D.C. where he was drugged and woke up in a dark prison cell, shackled. The next 12 brutal years of his life were spent as a southern slave named Platt Hamilton.

From the beginning of the film, the viewer can easily empathize with Solomon. He was as comfortable and free as people are today and yet had all of it unjustly stolen. The film does a good job of showing his life as a free man using wide shot camera angles to show the peace of his hometown. Solomon carries himself proudly and has a joyful countenance about him; but when he travels with the men, the scene starts to darken, putting the viewer in a perspective of feeling unsafe. His prison cell is dark with one light coming from the roof, acting almost as a symbol that his old life is gone, and he can only move forward as Platt.

Throughout his life as a slave, Solomon’s countenance changed drastically; his high posture has been replaced with slouching and his face has a traumatized and hardened look. The film does a great job of using audio to show the deeper meaning and to put the viewer into a slave’s perspective. Multiple times throughout the film, Solomon’s violin plays in the background, symbolizing the past and past identity he still holds onto; despite all he has been through, his identity still remains. When there is singing from the workers or owners, it travels into the next scene replicating the feeling of a tune replaying through a slave’s head while he/she works. During most scenes, the viewer can only hear outdoor sounds like insects and birds chirping replicating the sounds of a plantation.

Overall, this film does a great job of showing a lifestyle by telling a story. The viewer can see how much trauma Solomon has been through by his ability to keep to himself. Situations that would make him react at first no longer affect him on the outside. The film also shows the work the slaves put in: using jump cuts, the film shows the basic foundation of a project during the day and the finished product by night. I was so impressed with the cinematographic choices that made this film so realistic. The characters and environment of this movie brought it to life and put into perspective the darkness of American History. I would highly recommend this film to anyone interested in the history of slaves in America.