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12 Years a Slave and the Questioning of Race

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By Raymond Codrington

Given that it is awards season, the spotlight is on the Oscars. Best picture nominated, 12 Years a Slave, created a large amount of buzz from movie goers and critics alike with its framing of capitalism, its director's lens on slavery, and the long standing tensions around the entertainment industry's representation of race. By now most people are familiar with the film's premise which focuses on Solomon Northrup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a free African American man from New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana and his eventual return home.

During a recent press conference for 12 Years at the Toronto International Film Festival, a reporter asked Steve McQueen, the film's director, a well thought out question focusing on whether he felt that the movie would have been different if he was an African American. In response, McQueen, who is black British of Grenadian descent, noted "it's complex ... it's not so simple... America, West Indian, British, it's about slavery. Referring to the film's main characters of African descent McQueen continues, "We got Chiwetel who is British Nigerian, Lupita (Nyong'o), Mexican Kenyan. It's about that triangle as such. It's not about me being British. It's about me being part of that history." His response suggests that slavery is a story that is familiar to people of African descent in the black or African diaspora. In short, this was not solely an American story and given the sense of shared history, it is story that he feels comfortable telling.

The presence of Black Britons in American film and television is nothing new. Many are familiar with the work of Idris Elba (The Wire, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), Thandi Newton (Beloved) and David Harewood (Homeland). However, in the case of 12 Years, there is added scrutiny on the nationality of the star and director given that the movie focuses on slavery in the U.S.. While the film begins in New York and is based mostly in the Louisiana, Ejiofor and McQueen would be more readily identified with the south of England rather than the American South in real life. Would the film be different if an African American had been cast as Northrup? Is there a legitimate critique that suggests that an African American filmmaker has to make the film in order for it to be a legitimate story about slavery in the U.S.?

As a black anthropologist of both British and West Indian descent who grew up in the U.S., I felt that this conversation around identity and race hit home in terms of thinking about how fixed are our ideas about race. Anthropologists who study race have given consistent critiques of static ideas about race that frame it as a biological concept rather than a social construct that assigns hierarchical value to certain racial groups. Here, anthropology reminds us that there is no biological basis for racial distinction but we understand that race and racism continue to exert an enduring and powerful force on outcomes for historically racialized minorities.

At the same time, the idea of race is constantly being challenged or at least questioned in numerous ways. For example, cultural and artistic spaces such as Hip-Hop have encouraged ways to question race and racism in the U.S. and abroad. These spaces attempt to move past or side step fixed notions of race to focus more on the culture of Hip-Hop or at minimum the ability to places oneself in Hip-Hop's cultural, artistic and cultural continuum. This may not lead to permanent racial transformation, but it is a space that demonstrates moments for reflection on the production of culture and race and the influence of privilege. My own research with youth in the UK looked at how Hip-Hop was seen as a cultural practice that was able to act in a trans-racial and ethnic manner to create alliances and relationships that questioned dominant forms of race. But this is never a linear "one size fits all" process and the racial stakes are high and all constantly being negotiated. So to echo McQueen, race and identity are complex.

Can and should we employ popular culture in a broader strategy to talk about race? While often considered ephemeral, popular culture has implications beyond entertainment. What 12 Years and popular culture like Hip-Hop provide are opportunities to discuss race in ways that are not rooted or routed through biology, but through broader histories that link people of African descent that move beyond national borders. As the racial tectonics move beneath us to continue to create a country that increasingly reflects changing demographics we need to be aware of the ways in which all of our racial and ethnic identities are changing and becoming increasingly expressed through local and global markers.

Raymond Codrington holds substantive experience in research, policy analysis, and program development and management. He is currently an instructor at the New York Hall of Science's Innovation Institute. He held the position of senior research associate with the Aspen Institute's Roundtable on Community Change. In addition, Codrington served as an independent curator and consultant with the Department of Cultural Affairs, City of Los Angeles. His work with museums includes positions as the founding director of the Julian C. Dixon Institute for Cultural Studies and curator in the Department of Anthropology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the Sandy Boyd Postdoctoral Fellow at the Field Museum's Center for Cultural Understanding and Change.