|Left to right: Sarah Paulson and Lupita Nyong'o|
It may not actually be a marketing scheme, but for those placing money on director Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave having some significant legacy, it already has begun. Lead by Montel Williams, a campaign to get the film as well as the memoir by Solomon Northup into the high school education system has hit a milestone. As of this upcoming September, 13,809 local school districts serving over 50 million public school students will be equipped with everything associated with Northup's story thanks to a joint deal with the filmmakers, Penguin Books, and New Regency.
The film has been endlessly praised since its premiere late last year. Williams in particular was moved by it, calling the film "one of the most impactful films in recent memory." With this in mind, he set out to integrate it into the school system: a move that he also attempted to do with the 1989 film Glory. In negotiations with National School Boards Association and Fox Searchlight, he has made it his goal to have the story of a shameful period in American history become a strong educational tool. Upon reading the memoir, McQueen's goal was to make the story known to the general public, which he has done rather effectively.
As with most people, the film ranked high on my Top 10 list for 2013 and I continue to preach of its importance not only in the Oscar race, but also in its cultural significance. Despite being a dark, depressing film, its images will haunt you. The film's overall quest for humanity in hellish landscapes is where it succeeds in escaping the sense of this just being another slavery story. With great performances, this film more than defines its significance boldly with a sense of purpose and desire for change.
I would even agree that the memoir is an effective study piece as well. Despite being a very dense 150 pages, it chronicles the story in even more graphic and disturbing detail. Much like McQueen, I do feel like it is essential in helping to understand slavery more effectively. In my high school experience, it was the books such as "Night" by Eli Wiesel and "The Diary of Anne Frank" that helped me to better understand the Holocaust. By personalizing the journey beyond actors on a screen and putting it in print, it allowed for a sense of intimacy to form and let the events sink in. While I am many years removed from high school, I would equate my experience with Wiesel and Frank to that of this initiative. Had 12 Years a Slave been integral to the study of American history, there is a chance that I would feel as sympathetic as I do towards the World War II literature.
My only detractor to the whole initiative is the potential of the film backfiring. While the love has been strong, it should be noted that McQueen is a challenging filmmaker. He has static shots that linger on discomfort and the pacing could be really slow. Even if the film does its job well, what is to keep students from either being too repulsed to watch or grow bored from the slowness? It is interesting to see what happens with the film going forward, as time will tell if the students respond to it. The film will be timeless, but maybe the merit of the film will be lost in the redundancy of watching every year much like Dead Poets Society does to English classes. Its intentions are great, but there's limits.
Either way, this is an accomplishment that once again only 12 Years a Slave could really get from this year's Oscar nominees. It symbolizes the film's importance and for the time being suggests that maybe it will be integral in the future more than people would assume. It may even help racism in an inadvertent way. Still, there is no guarantee that this will work, as the film's challenging nature is likely to upset someone and raise more conflicts against the film's motives. The literature is less problematic, as while it can be graphic, it is likely to create more of an intimate relationship with the reader provided that they read it.