A mostly full Harris Hall 107 stayed completely silent for 82 seconds as a clip from Steve McQueen's 2013 film "12 Years a Slave" plays on a screen. The scene depicts the moment after Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) gives Samuel Bass (played by Brad Pitt) a letter to be sent to his family, whom slave traders had separated him from over a decade earlier. Ejiofor gazes into the distance, breathes heavily and appears to be in disbelief throughout a long, uninterrupted moment of reflection.
"This is one of a number of long, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes difficult takes that Steve McQueen brings us in '12 years a Slave,'" Northwestern Assistant Professor of Film Miriam Petty said. "In showing us instead of telling, he's compelling us to be there with Solomon, to see the emotional turmoil that he's going through in this moment."
Along with Associate Professor of English Nick Davis, Petty used "12 Years a Slave" as a major point of reference in their talk titled "Slavery on Screen." The event was one of a series hosted on Saturday as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival's Morris and Dolores Kohl Kaplan Northwestern Day, coordinated in conjunction with the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities. Other speakers included Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, Russian-born reporter Masha Gessen and Harvard University professor Lawrence Lessig.
Across a number of different fields, the 13 speakers addressed the festival's theme of "Citizens," aimed at "examining contemporary citizenship in all its messiness and glory," according to an official pamphlet.
Petty and Davis dissected some of that 'messiness' as it pertains to how American plantation slavery has been portrayed in film from the early 20th century to the present. Slavery is such a complicated part of American history, Davis said, and filmmakers' storytelling approaches in the genre have typically reflected dominant perspectives of the times, as exemplified by the 1940 film "Gone With the Wind." But these approaches have often been intentionally skewed from the truth for artistic reasons, as exemplified by "Manderlay" in 2005.
"When you say that the artist must speak the truth and tell the facts, you are prone to what that artists thinks the facts are, and that has really changed over time," Davis said. "And yet, even as we say that, we know there can be a really dicey charge to hearing from anybody that say 'I’ll be using slavery in my film as a metaphor.' A lot of us go back on our heels when we hear about what may sound like a figural appropriation of a very painful and still durable history that's with us in so many ways, but remains so unspoken."
Earlier in the afternoon, moral philosopher Peter Singer spoke to a sold-out crowd in the McCormick Auditorium on the tenets of effective altruism, which he described as a philosophical and social movement which applies evidence and reason to determining the most effective ways to improve the world. As an example of this movement, Singer cited GiveWell, a website founded by former hedge fund managers that reviews charities to help prospective donors find ones that will use their money to its full extent.
"Whatever we are doing in the way of resources, whether we are donating money, whether we are giving our time and energy into it, we ought to be using that as effectively as possible, to do the most good that we can," Singer said. "If we’re making some kind of commitment, why do less good than we could?"