Suffragette Cinema

a feminist look at films and the media surrounding them

12 Years a Slave; a white narrative?

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12 Years a Slave is not an easy movie to swallow through its brutal honesty in the depiction of slavery. It is memorable because of it’s candid view of what you would imagine it was like in the US during slavery. It is a movie that makes you think, that warrants silence after seeing it, and a lot of reflection.

Something that specifically stuck out to me, however, was the seemingly random and rushed ending. Within the last twenty minutes, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) approaches Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt) and has him agree to send a letter to the north, hoping to finally be released and to rightfully return home. And, a few scenes later, Northup’s wish has come true- he is proved a free man and taken back to New York. While there is nothing exactly wrong with this ending, as Daniel Jose Older stated, “Did we really need yet another white savior narrative?”

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup.

I recognize that 12 Years a Slave is based on a true story, where this type of scenario did play out, however, an article from The Atlantic explains, “when every major film representation of slavery hinges on venerating the noble sacrifices of honorable whites- well, let’s just say that as a challenge to white supremacy, it leaves something to be desired.”

A movie poster for 12 Years a Slave in Italy.

A movie poster for 12 Years a Slave in Italy.

This type of narrative is not uncommon in movies that have come out in the last few years about race. When a movie comes out that is about race and racial issues, there is almost always a white savior counterpart. For instance, some notable titles that have come out in the last few years that exhibit this include Lincoln, The Help, The Blind Side, Hairspray, and Freedom Writers. These are some of the movies where the white majority is somehow oppressing communities of color and in the end; it is other white characters that solve the issue at hand. This ultimately takes away a lot of the spotlight from the people of color and places it on the white characters. It takes a story that is about racial struggles and makes it about white triumph and heroics. This is displayed in the image above, where in Italy movie posters of 12 Years a Slave display Bass as the main image, with Northup, the true main character, in the bottom corner.

Ultimately, it is interesting to see which narratives show up within movies and whose stories we decide to value- and at what cost.

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