After I saw “12 Years a Slave” late last year, I wrote that it was a film that mature high school students could and should see to help understand the realities of the horrors of slavery in the United States. The movie, based on an 1853 memoir of the same name by Solomon Northrup, tells with great power the story of how an educated and accomplished free black man was kidnapped, sold into slavery and held for a dozen years.
Others had the same idea. Now, the National School Boards Association, partnering with the filmmakers, Penguin Books and New Regency, are planning to distribute copies of the film, the memoir and a study guide to public high schools across the country.
The distribution initiative is being coordinated by Montel Williams, who is a celebrity spokesman for the school boards association’s new Stand Up 4 Public Schools, and will start this fall. The film was the 2014 Golden Globe for Best film in drama as well as the BAFTA Award for best film. It is nominated for nine Academy Awards, including best picture. The film was unfortunately rated “R” for “violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality” — though more violent movies have been rated “PG.” Schools will receive edited versions of the film.
A news release about the initiative quoted “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen as saying:
“Since first reading 12 Years a Slave, it has been my dream that this book be taught in schools. I am immensely grateful to Montel Williams and the National School Boards Association for making this dream a reality and for sharing Solomon Northup’s story with today’s generation.”
Williams was quoted as saying:
“When Hollywood is at its best, the power of the movies can be harnessed into a powerful educational tool. This film uniquely highlights a shameful period in American history, and in doing so will evoke in students a desire to not repeat the evils of the past while inspiring them to dream big of a better and brighter future, and I’m proud to be a part of that.”
Students in U.S. public schools learn about slavery and its legacy at different stages of their education — but too many still don’t learn about it accurately or fully. In many parts of the South, for example, many still learn that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights, freedom, and political/economic power rather than slavery, the cause over which it was really fought.
No film can make up for bad curriculum and lessons, but a great one can help add important depth to the learning experience. Here’s part of a description of watching the film by a college student, Jake Walters, at Amherst College, taken from his piece in The Amherst Student:
As a history major at Amherst, I’ve taken numerous classes specializing in slavery in the US. I thought I could understand something of the history, the pain, the suffering, the anguish. I thought, to whatever extent it was possible for a white kid in the early 21st century to know, I knew. I was wrong. Sitting in the theater watching “12 Years a Slave,” I felt the inescapable grasp of history around my neck and I couldn’t do anything about it. Never before have I felt so clearly and achingly the tragedies upon which America is built. I felt helpless, my face contorting in anguish. My reaction was visceral; I gritted my teeth, I began to shake uncontrollably.