Screening Slavery: Robert Brent Toplin on 12 Years a Slave

Now available at Perspectives on History online, Robert Brent Toplin, longtime editor of Perspectives’ popular Masters at the Movies series, offers his take on 12 Years a Slave, which will likely be an Oscar contender in February. Toplin was movie review editor for the Journal of American History for two decades, and was project director and a principal creator of American Playhouse’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s book 12YARSSlave1Twelve Years a Slave. Toplin notes that Steve McQueen, the director of this latest version of Northup’s autobiography, appears to have made every effort to remain true to the book, but also chose to downplay the respites from slavery’s horrors described by Northrup.

As it was last year, historically oriented films will likely make a strong showing among the Oscar contenders, and 12 Years a Slave will almost certainly be among them. This is a clear opportunity for historians. As James Grossman wrote about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln last fall, “This is what a film like this should do: stimulate discussion about history. I encourage colleagues to engage the film in the public realm—in newspapers and blogs and on the radio—in language that is accessible, and in a voice that speaks especially to people who might not readily accept concepts and perspectives taken for granted within the academy.”

Toplin argues that there’s plenty for historians to say about McQueen’s version of Northup’s story. This year’s crop of historical films should be the start of much more than just Oscar buzz.

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