Professors discuss violence in “12 Years a Slave”


Miriam Rousseau

UT professors Daina Berry, left, and Shirley Thompson discusses the movie "12 Years a Slave" on Thursday. The roundtable included perspectives on race and gender portrayed in the movie.

Kate Dannenmaier

Although it’s impossible to truly capture the experience of slavery on film, professors at a discussion Thursday said “12 Years a Slave” came closer than any movie yet.

The discussion, organized by the University’s Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies in collaboration with the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, was part of a yearlong, interdisciplinary program focused on “Reading Race in Literature and Film.” A panel of professors from UT and Austin Community College led the discussion of “12 Years a Slave,” the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black American who was kidnapped and enslaved for 12 years in the 19th century.

Mark Cunningham, a radio-television-film professor at ACC, said that the amount of violence shown in this film was insignificant compared to the reality of slavery.

“You know that visually, no matter how difficult it is or how hard it is to watch this film, that this is nothing,” Cunningham said.

Shirley Thompson, an American studies associate professor, said the film made the violence inflicted on slaves especially glaring in scenes where it seemingly erupted out of nowhere.

“The way to get at a truth about slavery and violence is to juxtapose violence, or put violence up against the mundane,” Thompson said.

Eddie Chambers, UT associate professor of art and art history, said he didn’t think the amount of violence was excessive, but that violence shouldn’t be necessary for slavery and the struggles of African-Americans to be taken seriously.

“We always have to prove that our experiences and our historical trauma — and indeed our present day challenges — are genuine, and are tangible and are tactile,” Chambers said. 

Cunningham said while some complain that there aren’t enough stories being told about African-Americans that aren’t about slavery, the stories that are told don’t get enough attention.

“There are other stories to tell, but you didn’t go see those movies,” Cunningham said. “‘Fruitvale Station’ made $16.1 million. What’s the excuse for that?”

“Fruitvale Station” is a 2013 film about Oscar Grant, an African-American man killed by police in Oakland, Calif., in 2009.

Jordan Metoyer, economics and urban studies senior, said the discussion inspired her to learn more about slavery.

“I thought the talk was informative,” Metoyer said. “[It had] the right amount of nuance and a real acceptance of the panelists’ own unsure feelings about the film.”

Clarification: This article has been updated from its original version to reflect the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies' role in planning the event.