1. Published originally in "The Birth of a Nation: The Cinematic Past in the Present," ed. Michael T. Martin (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 2019). This essay developed out of a paper at the conference, “From Cinematic Past to Fast Forward Present: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation—A Centennial Symposium,” Nov. 12-13, 2015, Indiana University. I was on a panel, Birth of a Nation: Cinematic Iterations in the Present.
I want to acknowledg the wonderful work of Michael Martin is putting on this conference and publishing this work. A crucial film in media history and black activism is very hard to show because of its racism. The conference on the film inspired me to think of ways to make it more approachable.
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2. Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave, as told to and edited by David Wilson, Auburn NY: Derby and Miller, 1853.
3. Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson . Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2001.
4. I will describe the Southern rape complex in more detail later when analyzing The Birth of a Nation. See Deborah E. Barker, Reconstructing Violence: The Southern Rape Complex in Film and Literature, Baton Rouge: Louisana State University Press, 2005. Also dealing with the topic of the Southern rape complex extensively is Diane Sommerville’s Rape and Race in the Nineteenth Century South (Durham: UNC Press, 2004), especially useful is Sommerville’s appendix: “Rape, Race, and Rhetoric: The Rape Myth in Historical Perspective,” pp. 223-261.
5. David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristen Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, London: Routledge, 1985.
6. See my essay, “S/Z and Rules of the Game,” for a more detailed analysis of this process, drawing upon the work of Roland Barthes. Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 55 (2013). http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc55.2013/LesageRulesOfGame/index.htm . Original publication, nos. 12-13 (winter 1976-77) pp. 45-51.
7. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. The film’s plotline also illustrates Mary Douglas’ argument in Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge, 1896) that societies that want to control social hierarchies and boundaries often do so through metaphors of sexual threat.
8. Roland Barthes, “The Reality Effect,” The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. 141-148.
9. John L. Fell, Film and the Narrative Tradition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
10. I am indebted to my argument in this essay about historical difference between regional concepts of the self in the United States to the writings of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, in particular Fox-Genovese’s Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 1988).
11. Captivity narratives were a common genre in the 18th and 19th centuries, written usually by white colonists captured by indigenous natives. Typically the captive would write about his/her captors as crude and alien.
12. Sam Worley, “Solomon Northup and the Sly Philosophy of the Slave Pen,” Callaloo, vol. 20, no. 91 (1997) 243-259. Here, p. 246.
13. Terri Francis writes of the complexities of spectatorship for Black independent cinema. See Terri Simone Francis, “Flickers of the Spirit: ‘Black Independent Film,’ Reflexive Reception, and a Blues Cinema Sublime, “Black Camera, vol. 1, no. 2 (Summer 2010), pp. 7-24.
14. McQueen’s previous films Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011) have many moments which provoke audience anxiety and discomfort.
15. The Internet Movie Data Base indicates that the film won 233 critical awards and 305 nominations. In 2013, it won Oscars for best motion picture, best adapted screenplay, best supporting actress—Lupita Nyong’o, best actor, and best supporting actor—Michael Fassbender. In addition, it won best costume design—Patricia Norris. http://www.imdb.com/title/
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16. Henry Louis Gates Jr. “Steve McQueen and Henrey Louis Gates Jr. Talk 12 Years a Slave,” three-part interview, Dec. 24, 25, 26, 2013. http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2013/12/_12_years_a_slave
17. McQueen talks about Ejiofor’s spontaneous crying in this scene to Dan P. Lee, “Where It Hurts: Steve McQueen on Why 12 Years a Slave Isn’t Just About Slavery,” Vulture, Dec. 8, 2013. Visited Feb. 17, 2016. http://www.vulture.com/2013/12/steve-mcqueen-talks-12-years-a-slave.html
18. Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, trans. James Strachey, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1960 (1916), p. 163.
19. Julia Lesage, “The Rape Threat Scene in Narrative Cinema,” paper given at the Society for Cinema Studies Conference, New Orleans, 1993. http://pages.uoregon.edu/jlesage/Juliafolder/RAPETHREAT.HTML
Lesage, “Torture documentaries,” Jump Cut, no. 51 (2009), http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc51.2009/TortureDocumentaries/
20. Jasmine Nichole Cobb, “Directed by Himself: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave,” American Literary History, vol. 26, no. 2, p. 343.
21. Miriam Petty, “Refusing the Happy Ending: 12 Years a Slave. The Huffington Post, Oct. 21, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/miriam-petty/refusing-the-12-years-a-slave_b_4869602.html (last consulted Feb. 14, 2016)
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22. Jasmine Nichole Cobb, “Directed by Himself: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave,” American Literary History, vol. 26, no. 2, 2014. p. 341.
23. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen, vol. 16, no, 3, 1975, pp. 6-18.
24. Bertolt Brecht, “Notes to the Opera Mahagonny (1930),” trans. John Willett as “The Modern Theater is the Epic Theater” in Brecht on Theater, ed. Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 33-42.
25. Julia Lesage, “Broken Blossoms: Artful Racism, Artful Rape,” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 21 (1986); updated in 2014 http://www.ejumpcut.org/currentissue/lesageBknBlossoms/
[NOTE URL WILL CHANGE]
26. In the Jim Crow South a black man acting as a white man’s equal would be punished. Martin Luther King developed a strategy of passive resistance partially in acknowledgement of this pattern.
27. Julia Lesage, “The Rape Threat Scene in Narrative Cinema,” paper given at the Society for Cinema Studies Conference, New Orleans, 1993. http://pages.uoregon.edu/jlesage/Juliafolder/RAPETHREAT.HTML
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28. Deborah E. Barker, “Moonshine and Magnolias: The Story of Temple Drake and The Birth of a Nation,” Faulkner Journal, vol. 22, nos. 1-2 (Fall 2006/Spring 2007), p. 142.
29. In a panel discussion on C-Span 2 about Katherine Franke’s book Wedlocked, legal scholar Patricia J. Williams said this kind of rape was the story of her slave ancestors, who were bred to be fair-skinned house slaves. http://www.c-span.org/video/?400857-1/book-discussion-wedlocked
30. In response to systemic abuses of rape and fragmenting of families, after Emancipation one of the legal rights most frequently claimed by freed slaves was marriage, a public assertion of both marital and parental rights. Katherine Franke in Wedlocked: The Perils of Marriage Equality (New York: NYU Press, 2015) has studied marriages in the postbellum South as a parallel to gay marriages today. She finds that in addition to its many legal advantages, the state marriage contract imposes strict gender constrictions on marginalized communities that formerly have had many innovative, unlegislated ways to arrange sexual and familial households and affective bonds.
31. Robyn Wiegman, “The Anatomy of Lynching,” Journal of the History of Sexuality vol. 3, no. 3, Special Issue: African American Culture and Sexuality (Jan., 1993), pp. 445-467. [return to page 6]
31b. Valerie Smith,"Black Life in the Balance: 12 Years a Slave," American Literary History, vol. 26, no. 3 (2004), 365.
32. Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003, p. 29.