MLK, Jr. Day Reflections: 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen & a Charleston, SC Plantation

charleston plantationTraveling produces potent memories, and one of the most indelible experiences I’ve had on the road took place on the grounds of a former rice plantation outside Charleston, South Carolina called Middleton Place.  I can’t remember exactly why we chose to visit Middleton and not any of the other nearby plantations that had more popular visiting programs. We may have been draw to the “oldest landscaped gardens in America” and indeed, Middleton Place has spectacularly beautiful grounds.

But, neither beauty nor clever marketing can mask the history of Middleton or any of the other plantations that are sprinkled throughout the South.

Middleton Place is set along a lazy bend in The Ashley River, and visitors can see visible remnants of the rice fields in which generations of slaves worked. On a still afternoon during the winter, with barely a tourist around, every corner of the plantation felt haunted, as though the past were still present in each manicured magnolia garden or discarded horseshoe.

Middleton maintains a building called Eliza’s House, the home of the last of the family’s slaves, Eliza, who remained on the plantation after her emancipation, until her death at 94. The rooms are spare, and the single building attempts to represent generations of people brought over from Africa to work the rice fields. It’s a bare-bones, reluctant politically-correct attempt to explain the past.

Walking around the grounds provoked layers and layers of emotions – the plantation was eerily gorgeous, but the history of slavery produces a shame that is impossible to ignore.

Visitors interested in an accurate history of slavery are not going to get straight answers during a visit to the plantations. In fact, a quick perusal of the Charleston plantation websites reveals language explaining slave history that could be fodder for a college thesis, pages riddled with ironic and dated statements that dance around the issue at hand.  (Here is Drayton Hall’s “From Slavery to Freedom” page; it’s a bit harder to find details at Boone Hall Plantation, but there is a Gullah history page; and Magnolia Plantation also has a “Slavery to Freedom” tour.)

No matter the words, being in these spaces is truly haunting for the stories that are not told. And probably will never be.

I was reading Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family while visiting Charleston. The book, which won a National Book Award for Nonfiction in 1998, chronicles the author’s investigation of the slaves owned by his own family in South Carolina. A profound investigation of the commingling of the histories of black and white families over the years, Slaves in the Family is a riveting read, with stories as haunting as the plantation grounds themselves. The two informed the other, providing an indelible narrative for my visit.


Which brings me to 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s film that is nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture. 12 Years a Slave offers a profound look at the true story of a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery for a dozen, devastating years.  Directed with a confident, calm hand, the film takes a measured look at how Solomon Northup, an educated and free black man, survives a horrific descent into the hell that is a series of cotton plantations in New Orleans.  12 Years has been called “the most painful, clear-eyed feature ever made about American slavery.”   (Christopher Orr of The Atlantic). The fact that 12 Years has a fair chance to win several awards this season is a good thing, because more people will be brave enough to watch the movie.

I admit to being wary of seeing 12 Year a Slave because so many reviews foretold the story’s brutality. I did not know McQueen as a director, and thus was unaware of his art-world credentials. McQueen grew up in London and went to a British art school, where at a young age he received the country’s highest honor for artistic achievement – the Turner Prize. McQueen’s unique combination of artistic and political sensibilities gives 12 Years a Slave a purposeful coherence and allows him to tackle a difficult topic with unflinching poise. (His previous films had political subjects, as well).

Indeed, the film contains many images of violence (rape, whippings, beatings, hangings and more). Yet, because the director remains focused on Solomon’s journey to survive, and portrays the preponderance of cruelty in credible fashion, the brutality isn’t played for shock and therefore has a greater impact. What is portrayed breaks the viewers heart, and the film becomes a peeling back to the truth of what happened in this country, on those plantations.

 Steve McqueenSteve McQueen. Photograph: Richard Saker

In a recent interview with The Telegraph, McQueen has this to say about his much-lauded film:

 “This film, for me, more than anything else, is about love. That sounds very crazy and very corny but I will tell you why. It’s all about Solomon holding on to hope and holding on to his soul and getting back with his family. He’s been tested on every single level, he’s been tested by mental violence, he’s been tested by physical violence, and at the end he survives and goes on. A lot of people are talking about the movie not in terms of its violence but about the endurance and love and survival.”

It is also, says McQueen, about beauty: “The plantations where we filmed are beautiful, but some horrible things happened in the most beautiful places. It was a very intense time for the crew and the actors and we created a family and supported each other in order to get through it and make the sort of film we thought we needed to make.”

The film is exquisitely well made, with moments of lyrical beauty that offer us access to a man’s soul as he battles with the ultimate human degradation. As we honor the birthday of Mr. King, there is no better way to remember his simple, eloquent dream of freedom than to watch this fine film.

For mature teens and adults.

20 Responses to “MLK, Jr. Day Reflections: 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen & a Charleston, SC Plantation”

  1. google plus app for iphone said: March 27, 2014 3:41 pm

    Today, I went to the beach front with my kids.
    I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and
    said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the shell to her ear and screamed.
    There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.
    She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is completely off
    topic but I had to tell someone!


  2. austin roll off dumpsters said: April 19, 2014 12:43 am

    I drop a leave a response when I appreciate a article on a site or I have something
    to contribute to the discussion. It iis a result of the fire communicated
    in the post I read. And after this article Reflections on MLK,
    Jr. Day: 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen and
    a Charleston, SC Plantation | The Family Savvy.
    I was moved enough to leave a leave a responsea response :
    -P I actually do have a few questions for you if you don’t mind.

    Could it be simply me or do some of the comments appear like left by brain dead people?
    :-P And, if you are posting at other online sites, I would like
    to keep up with everything new you have to post.

    Couuld you list all of your public pages like your Facebook page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?


  3. myVEGAS Slots Free Chips said: April 23, 2014 1:46 pm

    We absolutely love your blog and find many of your post’s to be exactly
    I’m looking for. Do you offer guest writers to write content for you?
    I wouldn’t mind composing a post or elaborating on many of the subjects you write
    with regards to here. Again, awesome website!


  4. cellular phone neighbors said: May 01, 2014 11:23 pm

    Pretty section of content. I just stumbled upon your blog and in
    accession capital to assert that I acquire in fact
    enjoyed account your blog posts. Any way Iཿll be subscribing
    to your augment and even I achievement you access consistently rapidly.


  5. construction dumpsters Philadelphia said: May 02, 2014 9:53 am

    Hey There. I discovered your weblog the use of msn.

    Thiss is a really neatly written article. I will be sure
    to bookmark it and return to read more of your helpful information.
    Thanks for the post. I’ll definitely return.


  6. Http://Unforcedhack.Com said: May 09, 2014 8:36 am

    Hi there! I could have sworn I’ve visited this web site before but after looking at a few of
    the articles I realized it’s new to me. Regardless, I’m certainly pleased
    I stumbled upon it and I’ll be book-marking it and
    checking back regularly!


  7. doggie poop bags said: May 14, 2014 2:23 am

    Thanks for a marvelous posting! I actually enjoyed reading it, you
    are a great author.I will make sure to bookmark your blog and will come
    back in the future. I want to encourage that you continue your great writing, have
    a nice evening!


  8. we buy cars fort Lauderdale said: May 21, 2014 12:25 am

    When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now
    each time a comment is added I get four e-mails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove me from that service?
    Bless you!


  9. update driver said: May 22, 2014 6:15 am

    You can compare one by one and phrase out incompetent ones.
    If you’re upgrading your operating system or just need to reinstall windows Smart
    Driver Updater ( ) can backup all the drivers on your PC or laptop, compressing them to a zip file
    that is easy to export and reinstall. Click the Start button, Control Panel, then System then click Device Manager.


  10. cheap doggie poop bags said: May 26, 2014 7:51 am

    I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme.

    Did you make this website yourself or did you hire someone to do it for you?
    Plz answer back as I’m looking to create my own blog and would like to know where u got this from.

    thank you


  11. virtual assistant services for small businesses said: June 04, 2014 7:10 pm

    These classes meet the licensure requirements specified by 29 states and
    the District of Columbia and also fulfill membership anc certification criteria for
    ASHI and NAHI. A long-term plan and researching each investment are the keys to
    making money this way. Our web-based offering software makes this process easy
    and quick.


  12. Penni said: June 06, 2014 11:23 am

    At this time it seems like WordPress is the best blogging platform
    available right now. (from what I’ve read) Is that what you’re using on your blog?


  13. said: June 19, 2014 2:27 pm

    Very helpful information. Lucky me I discovered your web site accidentally, I bookmarked it.


  14. adobe photoshop cs6 keygen said: June 26, 2014 9:05 am

    Thank you a bunch for sharing this with all people you really
    recognise what you are talking about! Bookmarked.

    Please also seek advice from my site =). We may have a hyperlink exchange agreement between us


  15. used car dealerships said: July 04, 2014 2:51 am

    My spouse and i felt absolutely excited Jordan managed to complete his reports from the precious recommendations he acquired in your blog.
    It is now and again perplexing just to happen to be giving out guides
    which often people today might have been making
    money from. And now we know we’ve got the writer to be grateful
    to for this. These illustrations you’ve made, the straightforward site menu, the friendships
    your site assist to engender – it’s many overwhelming, and it
    is helping our son in addition to the family consider that this issue is
    excellent, which is really mandatory. Many
    thanks for everything!


  16. Bridget said: July 09, 2014 7:50 am

    It’s hard to find your articles in google. I found it on 22 spot, you should build quality backlinks ,
    it will help you to increase traffic. I know how to help you,
    just search in google – k2 seo tricks


  17. search engine optimization rochester ny said: July 11, 2014 1:32 am

    As we all know that we come in the era of twenty-first century,
    which is the era of Internet where the majority are connected through Internet in a few or
    the other way. Rochester is the third largest city in New York State today, nevertheless it was the
    construction of the Erie Canal that turned Rochesterville
    into an American boom town. What follows are a few more responsibilities and skills necessary to work in a clothing store:


  18. Fashion said: July 26, 2014 7:23 am

    Hello there I am so delighted I found your web
    site, I really found you by accident, while I was
    looking on Bing for something else, Anyhow I am here now
    and would just like to say thanks for a remarkable post and a all round enjoyable blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t have time to read through it all at the minute but I have bookmarked
    it and also added your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be back to read a lot more, Please
    do keep up the fantastic work.


  19. home remedies for toothache vanilla extract said: August 24, 2014 8:10 am

    It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button!
    I’d definitely donate to this brilliant blog! I guess for now i’ll settle
    for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account.

    I look forward to new updates and will talk about
    this website with my Facebook group. Chat soon!


  20. hygiene tips said: August 27, 2014 5:29 am

    If you want to get a good deal from this paragraph then you have to apply
    these strategies to your won web site.


Leave a Reply