Association Gives “12 Years a Slave” a Place in the Classroom

Thanks to a deal brokered by Montel Williams with the National School Boards Association, the Oscar-nominated film will be offered as an educational tool to help teach high school students about the horrors of slavery.

It’s official 12 Years a Slave won the Academy Award for Best Picture—beating out some stiff competition in the process.

But prior to the Oscars, director Steve McQueen’s epic about a free African-American man who was sold into slavery may have won an even bigger distinction: A role in shaping the thinking of high school students.

When Hollywood is at its best, the power of the movies can be harnessed into a powerful educational tool.

The film’s producers have launched an initiative with the National School Boards Association (NSBA) to bring it—and the 1853 book upon which it was based, along with study materials—to classrooms nationwide starting in September. It could be an honor that McQueen might prize more than his movie’s British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for Best Picture; the director noted that it was a dream of his “that this book be taught in schools.”

The film, which traces the kidnapping and captivity of Solomon Northup in excruciating detail, received much praise from reviewers for its historical accuracy.

It was that attention to detail that led former talk show host Montel Williams to help broker the deal between the association, the producers, and Penguin Books.

“When Hollywood is at its best, the power of the movies can be harnessed into a powerful educational tool,” Williams, a spokesman for NBSA’s Stand Up 4 Public Schools initiative, said in a press release. “This film uniquely highlights a shameful period in American history, and in doing so will evoke in students a desire to not repeat the evils of the past while inspiring them to dream big of a better and brighter future, and I’m proud to be a part of that.”

From the association’s standpoint, the move provides an opportunity to help teach students about an important period through the lens of popular culture. The film’s critical and commercial success—it has grossed more than $140 million worldwide through March 2, according to BoxOfficeMojo—helped bring one of the few memoirs about slavery written by someone who had experienced it firsthand to prominence. Northup’s story had languished in obscurity for nearly two centuries.

“We believe that providing America’s public high school students the opportunity to bear witness to such an unrelenting view of the evils of slavery is essential toward ensuring that this history is never forgotten and must never be repeated,” NSBA President David A. Pickler said in a statement.

(Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect the film’s success at the Academy Awards.)

"12 Years a Slave" star Chiwetel Ejiofor, a Best Actor nominee at this year's Academy Awards. (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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