The 2014 Oscars Show

Published: February 11, 2014

Sketch of Solomon Northup from 12 Years A Slave (1855) Source: Wikicommons

The Academy Awards are right around the corner, and so we’re heading to the movies. We’re devoting an hour to the way history is portrayed in this year’s Oscar nominees, including 12 Years A Slave, American Hustle, Dallas Buyer’s Club & Captain Phillips. We’ll look at the political context of the original Solomon Northup slave narrative, and consider the way Hollywood represents “average” people’s experience by portraying extraordinary people’s stories. We’ll also reflect on some of the larger challenges involved in turning the messiness of real-life into a neatly-packaged cinematic experience.

Help shape this episode! What do you think of the history in past year’s movies? Can Hollywood ever get it right? Were you involved in any of the stories portrayed in these movies, and if so, what’s your perspective on those films? Share your questions, stories and ideas below. 



Comments (16)

{Discussion is closed
  1. David Boyles

    I’d be interested to hear you guys revisit your conversation about Django Unchained and Lincoln from last year in the light of 12 Years a Slave. You (rightly, I think) chided Django for being too over-the-top when dealing with the issue of slavery and Lincoln for being too reserved. It was an interesting conversation that highlighted the difficulty of representing something as huge and difficult as slavery on film. So where does 12 Years fall on that spectrum and do you, from your perspective as historians, agree with many film critics that 12 Years is the first film to really succeed in representing the horrors of slavery on screen?

  2. Jeremy Owen

    I really enjoyed 12 Years a Slave, but wondered how common it was to have the “good master” as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch? Aside from Jefferson (who engaged in the horrible actions that go hand in hand with owning humans), what would a “good master” really look like? Was it possible to be lenient or display any humanity on a large plantation, or did the brutal economics of the system make this portrayal in the movie pure fiction?

  3. Relling Westfall

    In both 12 Years a Slave as well as Harriet Jacobs’ narrative, the narrators describe a master as being kind and easy to work for. The problem is always that there is no security in remaining with that person. The volatile economy and the mortality of people create a the insecure situations which both narratives demonstrate.

    I do wonder if the white collaborators encouraged the former slaves narrators to include a good master in their narratives.

  4. Barbara Carney

    12 Years a Slave makes us feel the physical and emotional horror more directly than other reality-based movies about slavery, and shows us a range of owners and slaves. It was especially moving to see the comparison of the mindset and depth of resources carried within an educated, cultured person who had been free from birth compared to those born into slavery, and to the owner class. The movie points to what Solomon Northrup said explicitly in the book about how cruel the culture of most owners had to become to exist as owners. He noted how their children were trained and encouraged in cruelty from an early age, and that even among themselves they were doomed to be less kind and loving because that horrific side of human nature was cultivated, so it was at the surface and colored life overall. Which throws into relief the fact that the “kind” masters could not have been slaveholders at all if they did not have neighbors who were cruel, who made it impossible for a slave to flee bondage. The overtly kindly owner was still benefiting by proxy from the violence of individuals that made up the rest of the whole system, society and culture of slave-owning.

    • Emily@BackStory

      Thanks Barbara, we’re hoping to have a conversation about this on the show, and your thoughts are really helpful.

  5. Relling Westfall

    ” He pointed upwards, and with benign and cheering words addressed us as his fellow-mortals, accountalbe, like himself , to the Maker of us all. I think of him (Master Ford) with affection, and had my family been with me, could have borne his gentle servitude, without murmuring, all my days.” Chapter Seven.

  6. Jill

    I’m curious about the trends in historical movies, specifically the adherence to historical accuracy. Movie-goers and filmmakers seem to have cycles in which they are more or less interested in historical movies and also more or less interested in how accurate those movies are to the historical record. Has there been a time where this interest peaked, or are we now the most interested in facts than we’ve ever been before?

  7. Samuel Ulmschneider

    Since you already covered some of this ground about movies, race, etc in “History at the Movies”, I would love to see you cover some of the following questions more specific to awards shows, performing arts, and public perceptions of mass entertainment:

    1) What kind of “national awards” were there in the past? How have the public understandings of ‘award winning’ or the use of that appellation changed over time and why? (examples might include awards given by the American Philosophical Society, early newspaper publishers, etc)

    2) When public entertainment was live theater, music, etc, were there any ways people formally recognized the most prominent singers, actors, performers, and so on? Were these ways, too, subject to the whims of contemporary culture and politics (British opera singers and Irish immigrants in the 1830s and so on)

    3) We know well and have seen how movies reflect patterns in popular culture, from racism to racial reconciliation to red scares (and so do the movies which win awards, of course). I’d like to see how popular, live mass entertainment in earlier era did the same – were the most popular plays of the 1760s ones which made fun of regional cultural differences between colonies? Did everyone in the 1880s go to dramatic and somewhat fictionalized lyceum speeches about the problems of new immigration?

    I think this is a cool idea for a show, and hope you can take it in some neat new directions from your earlier history of the cinema show.

  8. Samuel Ulmschneider

    On second thought, if you want to keep the focus much more squarely on the Oscars and the process of packaging history into movies, here are some other ideas:

    1) A comparative look at the types of difficulties older narratives (Solomon Northrup) create in adaptation versus the kinds of difficulties created by more recent ones (American Hustle). And exploration of how politicization works differently when it originates in different periods, might be great.

    2) A look at the history of slave narratives themselves, from Oludah Equiano to the WPA interviews. This could be super-productive! It might include looks at how and why ex-slaves published their memoirs – what public purposes and what personal purposes did it serve? It might also examine the different receptions of different types of slave stories – from religion to outrage to justification of the system.

  9. Relling Westfall

    I like Samuel U.s idea about a comparison of slave narratives. Having read some of the WPA interviews, I think those would best be served in a different, 20th century show.

    It might be interesting to compare those slave narratives which were published in the 19th century with those that have been discovered more recenty (that were written in the 19th century) but not published.

    Well, it is a fascinating topic. Just about anything you do on it would be a good idea.

  10. Kaitlin

    I absolutely love period pieces, but they can be 2hrs worth of non-stop facepalm-ing, be it historical details in costume, sets, scenery, or just a general lack of anyone doing their homework.

    Do youguys have a list of Favs/Failures? Say a top three of the best and the worst of historical films.

  11. Denis Sugrue

    How about the change in Hollywood cinema regarding the War of Rebellion? The “lost cause” to the “emancipation cause”: Birth of a Nation and GWTW to Glory, Lincoln, and I’d even add 12 Years A Slave (though it is an antebellum movie).

    I don’t think you would have far to go to find someone for the show either.