RH—Visual Rhetoric

May 30

Essay: 12 Years a Slave

Due midnight the evening of Sunday, May 30.

Purpose: develop a vocabulary for analyzing the argument and rhetorical impact of a non-verbal text.

Prompt: Solomon Northrup’s 1853 narrative Twelve Years a Slave had an avowedly rhetorical purpose: to persuade its nineteenth century readers to join the abolitionist cause. Northup accomplished this aim by detailing the brutality of slavery as he simultaneously testified to the intelligence, dignity, and humanity of enslaved Americans. Northup also dramatized the fragility of the American ideal of “freedom,” challenging northerners to imagine themselves suddenly enslaved. Finally, he exposed how slavery tore apart Black families, enslaved and free alike. We encourage but do not require you to read at least a portion of Northrup’s narrative .

More than a century later, the British filmmaker Steve McQueen (b. 1969) had a similar motive in choosing to adapt Northup’s memoir into the major motion picture, the Academy Award-winning 12 Years a Slave (2013), in which he confronted modern-day audiences with a historical reality too often sugarcoated, as slavery was whitewashed in the 1939 film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s racist novel, Gone with the Wind. “People think they know slavery,” McQueen remarked in a 2013 Vulture interview. “Often it’s the case they don’t.” But though the movie depicts the past, he insists its message aims squarely at the present: “It’s a narrative about today…. It’s not a black movie. It’s an American movie.” Yet some critics have called 12 Years a Slave a “white savior” film, a genre meant more for white audiences than for audiences of color. See, for instance, educator and activist Kermit O’s essay, “12 Years a Slave: Black Suffering for White Consumption.” If that link doesn’t work, you can read his essay as a .pdf here.

Read both the interview with McQueen and Kermit O’s essay. Next, watch the film—look for it in the Film section of the Humanities Blackboard site—or watch it on Hulu if you like. (Trigger Warning: the movie contains graphic and painful-to-watch scenes exposing the extreme violence of slavery. If you prefer, you may watch a different movie set in the 19th century and dramatizing historical material we are studying this summer. We can supply you with a list of alternative films or approve a film you suggest.) As you watch 12 Years a Slave, think about your responses to the following questions: What arguments does the film make? What did McQueen mean by calling it “an American movie”? Do you agree with McQueen? Do you agree with Kermit O’s claim that “12 Years a Slave is a film for white people”?

Now to write your essay – but this is an essay that will call upon your ability to explicate visual rhetoric. “Show, don’t tell.” Movies take that maxim a step further, minimizing or eliminating the voice of the narrator, displacing recollection with of concrete visual representation. What argument does the film make – and how does McQueen use visual details to flesh out that argument? In an essay of 750 words, answer the aforementioned questions and explore McQueen’s visual rhetoric through close analysis of McQueen’s film. Focus on ONE scene: although you will need to discuss, in your introduction and conclusion, what you see as the film’s audience and purpose, the body of your essay should identify the specific argument in the scene, its dramatic features and (in particular) the role of visual details in bringing that message to life. In doing so, make use of the handout on mise-en-scene analysis we covered in class.

Source Citation: Chicago style footnotes.

Turn your essay in via email to your Rhetoric professor.

Comments are closed.