12 Years A Slave: Steve McQueen’s Film Goes From Silver Screen To The Schoolroom
By James Kariuki, Counsellor and Head of Politics, Economics and Communications Group at the British Embassy in Washington
“I know who Anne Frank is, but I didn’t know who Solomon Northrup was.” The Oscar-winning film, 12 Years a Slave, was inspired by British Director Steve McQueen’s determination to bring the true story of a free-man, tricked into slavery, to a global audience. Having succeeded at the box office, McQueen dreamt of bringing Northrup’s story to schools across America: it “needs to be shared and remembered for generations to come.”
McQueen’s dream came one step closer yesterday when he launched a project with the US National School Boards Association to make 12 Years a Slave available to American students. Public high schools will have access to educational toolkits, including a DVD of the film (edited for teen audiences), a Penguin paperback of the book and a study guide.
Speaking at Howard University – in Washington D.C.’s historically black Shaw district – McQueen told those of us privileged to be there that this goal was more important than Academy Awards. We had to remember not just the brutality of slavery but the spirit of those who confronted it. Northrup descendent Vera Williams reminded a mostly young, black audience that “in the 1800s, there were African Americans who were free, prosperous and living the American Dream. This story needs to be told.” For McQueen’s collaborator, TV personality Montel Williams, the project had contemporary relevance: “more people are living in slavery today than there were during the 19th century slave trade.”
Some US commentators were surprised that it took a black British Director to bring this most brutally compelling depiction of slavery to the big screen. But it is not the first time that British and American debates on emancipation and equality have informed each other.
Last year, representing the British Embassy at the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, I wrote about transatlantic connections in the history of race relations. The early anti-slavery campaigns of British politician William Wilberforce. The liberating experience of black GIs stationed in Britain during the Second World War. The civil rights campaigner Claudia Jones, deported to London in the 1950s to became a founder of our Notting Hill Carnival. The bus boycott in Bristol, England - inspired by action in Montgomery, Alabama - which paved the way for the landmark UK Race Relations Act of 1965. Recent events in the US – from the election of a black President to the traumas of Florida and Ferguson - are followed as avidly in Britain as they are around the world.