Texas Tech Professor Discusses Continuing Impact of '12 Years a Slave'

Has the historic, award-winning film left a permanent impression on Hollywood... and beyond?

With the buzz from the Oscars starting to dwindle, one might wonder if "12 Years a Slave" will stand the test of time.

At the 86th Academy Awards on Sunday night, "12 Years a Slave" made history when it was named best picture as it was the first movie from a black director to win the award.

Other Academy Awards won for "12 Years a Slave" include best adapted screenplay and best actress in a supporting role (Lupita Nyong’o).

Karlos Hill, director of the African-American History Month Lecture Series and assistant professor in Texas Tech University’s Department of History, discusses how the film will continue to be significant in years to come.

How important is it in today’s society for a film of this subject to receive the top movie honor?

It is a rare achievement for a film about slavery to win the Oscar for best picture. It is an even rarer occurrence that a black director is rewarded for writing and directing such a film. However, the achievement should not be overstated. The success of “12 Years a Slave” underscores a central fact: Americans have increasingly become comfortable with acknowledging the horrors of slavery. That said, most Americans still are uncomfortable with and hostile to discussions of reparations for slavery and other contemporary issues connected to 250 years of chattel slavery in America.

How well does the film depict the true story of Solomon Northup?

Steve McQueen’s screenplay for "12 Years a Slave" was based upon Solomon Northup’s slave narrative. Given the constraints of filmmaking, McQueen did a masterful job of accurately reconstructing the most important elements of Solomon Northup’s capture, enslavement and eventual escape. While McQueen should be praised for the care taken in accurately reconstructing Solomon Northup’s story, he should be equally praised for transforming Northup’s story into an emotionally sophisticated film.

How well does the film depict the truth about slavery?

The film does not hide from the realities of slavery. The film portrays slavery as a brutal, demeaning system that ripped families a part and sanctioned the rape of black women and girls. Beyond this, the film does a great job of illustrating the differences in how enslaved people coped with and responded to their enslavement. Very few films on slavery have dealt with the inner life of the enslaved and for this “12 Years a Slave” deserves high marks.

Can this be film be used as a teaching tool in high school and/or college?

"12 Years a Slave" already is being used as a teaching tool in college and high school classrooms. While obvious themes such as the horrors of slavery will be emphasized in lesson plans, college and high school teachers could use the film to discuss the complex relationships that developed between “master” and slave, the slave mistress and female slaves, as well as, how enslaved people built community.

CONTACT: Karlos Hill, assistant professor, Department of History, College of Arts and Sciences, Texas Tech University, (806) 742-3744, or karlos.hill@ttu.edu.