12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen


by Joshua Thrift


In the year 1853, Solomon Northup published a memoir, in which he details his toil from being kidnapped and locked into the shackles of slavery. Soon after he is captured, he protests his unjustified placement into the slave trade. He proclaims himself to be Solomon Northup, a free man, but the white men profiting off his bondage falsely pronounce him to be a runaway from Georgia, with the name of Platt. However, these men did not mistake him for an actual slave, but rather, they grant Solomon a new name. Not only does this represent the lack of worth that African Americans hold in the eyes of the men, but in taking away Solomon’s name, they are also stripping away his identity, his own history. He has nothing to look back on from his past. Although memories of his wife and children are a driving force in his motivation for survival, he will settle into the role of Platt until his liberation. Over 150 years later, a director, named Steve McQueen, picked up the movie script and breathed new life into the near-forgotten story. In a film starring famous modern-day actors, such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, and Michael Fassbender, McQueen is still able to replicate the events and the ultimate message that slavery and racism have plagued the lives of African Americans throughout history, and this hatred will continue long after the Civil War.

Historical and Cultural Context

McQueen grew up in London, and as a child he struggled in school. According to Jonah Weiner of Rolling Stone, he was dyslexic, and the school system eventually placed him with a group of kids destined for the field of manual labor. He never belonged in the rigid educational system anyhow; he was an artist. However, his experiences as a boy inspired him to create 12 Years a Slave, which portrays how injustice degrades the mind and spirit of the people who fall victim to it. Two years after his movie won the award for Best Picture, McQueen was a strong critic during the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, but his anger was not directed at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He pointed out that the problem exists throughout the movie industry. In an interview with The Guardian, he mentions that it originates in “below-the-line” casting, the process where casting directors sort through initial auditions and weed out the choices before McQueen has a chance to see them. Steve Rose, the interviewer, quotes him saying, “I made two British movies [Hunger and Shame] and I never met one person of colour in any below-the-line situations.” His hatred for injustice is apparent in the movie, and it was likely on his mind while choosing a script.

Other than 12 Years a Slave, there exists several slave narratives which remain relevant in popular culture. More recent novels include Beloved and The Underground Railroad. In fact, several films were released around the same year as 12 Years a Slave, including Django Unchained (2012), Lincoln (2012), and The Birth of a Nation (2016). There is something mystical about the slave narrative, something that continues to attract audiences time and again. With each successive release, they manage to keep people on their toes. Everyone needs to be watchful of their actions so that we do not find ourselves slipping back into the past. In the case of 12 Years a Slave, McQueen often displays disturbing, sometimes gruesome, images on the screen to reinforce that society must face its past no matter the pain. If people somehow justified the enslavement of others in the past, it is not impossible for it to happen again.

Themes and Style

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Fig. 1. The character Solomon Northup played by Chiwetel Ejiofor from the film’s trailer uploaded by FoxSearchlight; YouTube, 21 Nov. 2017,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z02Ie8wKKRg

Beyond the context in which the movie was made, the best story about the movie is the movie itself. From the performances to location, McQueen demonstrates that he was mindful with every decision he made towards 12 Years a Slave. Every actor in this movie brings depth to his or her character. Chiwetel Ejiofor, the actor who plays Solomon Northup, expertly portrays a person exhausted from the labor of everyday slave life. His eyes often stare in one direction for long periods of time, with his mouth hanging open. Gazing off into the distance, he appears to be drifting away, trying to escape from his current present and return to his past life. Ironically, everywhere he looks is beautiful scenery.

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Fig. 2. The swamps of Georgia in the movie from the film’s trailer uploaded by FoxSearchlight; YouTube, 21 Nov. 2017,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z02Ie8wKKRg

McQueen, alongside cinematographer Sean Bobbit, captures gorgeous images of the landscape and swamps of the southern United States, yet all that we witness through scenery contrasts with the series of events occurring on the plantation. Nature is beautiful; humans are the ones that have corrupted it. However, McQueen understands that the use of the camera extends far beyond taping the setting. He manipulates his shots in multiple ways to make a scene more dramatic or intense. The camera will often linger on a horrific subject until the audience can no longer stand to watch the screen. In the scene where Solomon had just been captured and stripped of his freedom, he is beaten and chained up in a cell before he can be relocated. The camera looks through the window of the cell from the outside of the building, and Solomon climbs up to where his eyes can just barely peer out of the opening. Normally a tall man, he looks small and powerless in the frame. He begins to cry out for help, pleading for anyone to save him. Then, the camera pans upward, and the audience sees that beyond his building are many, many more. McQueen reveals that Solomon is hopeless, and his fate has been solidified. At the end, Solomon gives one final, heart-wrenching scream. The camera cuts. With the excess of long-takes in the movie, the audience has less room to escape the pain of the situation. If this movie were real life, the characters would never have an escape.

A major theme in the movie is the questioning of morality. Solomon lives under two different masters over the course of the movie. Master Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, first purchases Solomon and quickly recognizes his talent and intellect. He respects Solomon as much as a slave owner can respect his slave. When a group of white men plan to murder Solomon, Master Ford protects him by sending him to a new plantation, the home of Master Epps, played by Michael Fassbender. Master Epps, however, is the slave owner molded from evil, and the events taking place on his plantation arise from a nightmarish Hell. When he looks at Solomon, he glares with demeaning eyes, which could never see his worth beyond that of literal property. These two masters seem vastly different in temperament on the surface, but they both confine Solomon under the same status, a slave. Is Ford the more morally sound character, or are they both inherently the same? McQueen leaves this question for the audience to decide. No matter the view, this question does relate to today’s society. There are unfortunately many people who perpetuate racism across the globe. They exist in a small minority, but their hateful nature manages to capture the attention of the public. On the other hand, there are people who stand idly by and do not act upon the racism they see. They do not reinforce the institution; they simply let it remain. Is there any difference between these two groups of people? That is up for the individual to come to a conclusion.

Critical Conversation

Critics of the work have compared the memoir and the movie to Harriet Beacher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Frederick Douglas’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas. John Ernest argued that the movie is sadly posed with the same task of the memoir when it was published in 1853. Additionally, Deborah E. McDowell has written that the movie serves as a commentary on both how far we have come and how far we still have to go to establish equality. America has eradicated itself of slavery, but at the same time, oppression and racism are still present. The African American woman, specifically, faces the worst persecution. Salamishah Tillet examines the character of Patsey, a slave woman who falls under the infatuation of Epps and is victim to his sexual abuse, in her article “I Got No Comfort in This Life: The Increasing Importance of Patsey in 12 Years a Slave.” Tillet writes that Patsey is representative of the modern day black female, one who falls victim to both racial and sexual violence in her daily life. Patsey is tough and diligent, picking twice the amount of cotton for any man or woman on the plantation, but her toil on the field does not relieve her of the abuse she receives from her master. At the same time, she faces the jealously from his wife, who is outraged at how her husband could prefer a black woman over herself. In one scene, she hurls a glass jar at Patsey’s head, leaving a large bruise along her face. One day, Patsey approaches Solomon begging for him to take her life, for she does not have the will to take it herself. Solomon refuses, questioning how a person could fall into such despair. However, Patsey still pleads to Solomon. Tillet writes that she “directly challenges his reading and reveals his inability to ‘see’ how the experiences of his fellow slaves, particularly enslaved women, might be so abject that death, by suicide or murder, might be a viable alternative.” This major point in the film stirs emotion within the audience, who, up until now, saw more of the physical harm than the mental harm the slaves are forced to bear. To Patsey, the pain is never-ending, and suicide is the only solution.

Rachel McBride Lindsey discusses the presence of religion in the movie. The slave owners preach the Bible to their slaves, hoping that the words of Christ will enlighten their uncivilized ways. At the same time, the book they hold in their hands condemns slavery in every form. It makes the audience question why these people have chosen to live in complete ignorance. However, she also observes Solomon’s turn to religion later in the movie as a crossroads in his struggle to survive. In one scene, a group of slaves gather around the burial of a slave who had been killed and proceed to sing around the site of his grave. Solomon, hesitant to sing at first, joins in at the chorus and continues more passionately with every word. McBride Lindsey writes in her article “Pulled into the Maze: 12 Years a Slave” that the “song is beautiful, and we are supposed to recognize it as a turning point in Northup’s story where the narrative tension culminates in his renewed determination to overcome his present hell.”  It is an emotional scene of the movie. For once, the audience can almost feel at ease, and it his turn to God which grants him hope. Solomon’s attitude shifts from fear to anger, an experience which is felt by many other slaves and abolitionists across the country. The film leaves a raw and dissatisfied feeling in its audience, dissatisfied in the fact that this institution ever existed. How can America claim itself to be the land of the free when human beings are living in such treacherous conditions? Even a man who is free from servitude can be confiscated and sold back in. 12 Years a Slave is a slave narrative fueled by anger but also by a desire to bring about equity. With every frame, McQueen strives to mend the scars in our present still struggling to heal.

Works Cited

Ernest, John. “(Re)Mediated History: 12 Years a Slave.” American Literary History, vol. 26, no. 2, Apr. 2014, pp. 367-373. Oxford Academic, https://academic.oup.com/alh/article-lookup/doi/10.1093/alh/aju022

McBride Lindsey, Rachel. “Pulled into the Maze: 12 Years a Slave.” Religion and Politics, 5 Feb. 2014, http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/02/05/pulled-into-the-maze-12-years-a-slave/. Accessed 14 Nov. 2014.

McDowell, Deborah E. “How Long?—Not Long.” American Literary History, vol. 26, no. 2, Apr. 2014, pp. 374-384. Oxford Academic, https://academic.oup.com/alh/article-lookup/doi/10.1093/alh/aju023

McQueen, Steve, director. 12 Years a Slave. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2013.

McQueen, Steve. “Steve McQueen on the Oscars whitewash: ‘I’m hoping we can look back and say this was a watershed moment’”. The Guardian, 24 Jan. 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/jan/24/steve-mcqueen-oscars-whitewash-watershed-moment. Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.

Tillet, Salamishah. “I Got No Comfort in This Life”: The Increasing Importance of Patsey in 12 Years a Slave.” American Literary History, vol. 26, no. 2, Apr. 2014, pp. 354-361. Oxford Academic, https://academic.oup.com/alh/article-lookup/doi/10.1093/alh/aju010

Weiner, Jonah. “The Liberation of Steve McQueen.” Rolling Stone, 3 Mar. 2014, http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/the-liberation-of-steve-mcqueen-20140303. Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.

Further Reading

Bennett, Brit. “Ripping the Veil.” New Republic, 2 Aug. 2016, https://newrepublic.com/article/1 35708/colson-whiteheads-fantastic-voyage. Accessed 15 Oct. 2017.

Livesey, Andrea. “Conceived in Violence: Enslaved Mothers and Children Born of Rape in Nineteenth-Century Louisiana.” Slavery & Abolition, vol. 38, no. 2, June 2017, pp. 373-391. Oxford Academic, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0144039X.2017.1 317033?scroll=top&needAccess=true

Fortin, Jacey. ” What Robert E. Lee Wrote to The Times About Slavery in 1858.” The New York Times, 18 August 2017: p. A11. The New York Times. Web. Accessed 15 Oct. 2017.

Mitchell, Anthony B. “Self-Emancipation and Slavery: An Examination of the African American’s Quest for Literacy and Freedom.” Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 2, no. 5, July 2008, pp. 78-98. EBSCOhost, prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=34193985&site=ehost-live.

Keywords: Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen, hypocrisy, sexual abuse of slaves, racism, objectification, slave drama