Culture & Entertainment

Exposing kids to "12 Years a Slave"

By: Guest Blogger
Canadian Living
Culture & Entertainment

Exposing kids to "12 Years a Slave"

By: Guest Blogger

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave You’ve probably been hearing all the awards buzz surrounding  12 Years a Slave, the new film staring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free black man who, in the 1840s, was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Awards buzz, of course, is a horrible and highly dubious measure of quality, but in this case it holds up:  12 Years a Slave is a great film, probably the greatest film ever made about slavery in America. Instead of simply making us feel bad, it makes us feel deeply. Throughout, the emphasis isn’t so much on the physical punishments Northup endured—it’s on the seemingly infinite variation of insults to his humanity. The devil here is in the details: in the way Northup is systematically denied the most rudimentary forms of self-expression, even when in the presence of sympathetic whites or fellow slaves. In order to survive, he has to bury who he is—his intelligence, his dignity, his soul. And Ejiofor, with his hugely expressive eyes, makes you feel every wound. It’s not an easy movie to watch, but it’s enormously compelling. If you have kids over the age of 12, you should absolutely bring them with you to see it. If your kids are younger than that, however, the movie could prove a little too intense. An excellent backup option, if you want your kids to learn more about the subject, is the 2006 National Book Award–winning YA novel by M.T. Anderson,  The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation (Candlewick Press). It’s about a young black man in 18 th-century Boston who finds himself an unwitting participant in a deeply racist experiment: from birth, he is raised within the confines of the illustrious Novanglian College of Lucidity, where a group of scientists observe and record as he receives a proper classical education, the kind usually reserved for white nobility. The aim of the experiment: to see if members of the African race are inherently inferior to Europeans. Though written for teens/tweens,  Octavian Nothing—which was published in two volumes,  The Pox Party and  The Kingdom on the Waves—rivals the best adult fiction, both in style and smarts. Like  12 Years a Slave, it contains its share of harrowing moments, but it also has an enormously entertaining adventure plot, in which Octavian escapes the college, passes from trial to trial, and ends up embroiled in the Revolutionary War against Britain. Be advised, though, that the book makes fairly high demands on young readers: Anderson employs fancy 18 th-century diction throughout (Opening line: “The men who raised me were lords of matter, and in the dim chambers I watched as they traced the spinning of bodies celestial in vast, iron courses, and bid sparks to dance upon their hands”) and the two volumes add up to 1,000 or so pages. But if your kid is up to it, they’ll be engrossed for days.
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Exposing kids to "12 Years a Slave"

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