Monday, 16 November 2015

12 Years a Slave

In 2013, ‘12 Years a Slave’ was released by director Steve McQueen. This historical drama was based upon Solomon Northup’s slave narrative. The film adaption of Solomon Northup’s, ‘12 Years a Slave’ focuses on the authentication of slavery. Although the emancipation of slavery was over 150 years ago, the film depicts the brutal reality of slavery, from the excessive force used on the slaves to make them work to the mind-set they had developed due to these controlled exercises.

This review shall focus on the key aspects of slavery which are present in the film, such as the physical abuses which were used on slaves. McQueen stated that, “A lot of people didn’t want the movie to be made”, he said the reason behind this was, “people want to close their eyes on some subjects.”[1] Although, McQueen does stray away from the accounts which are in Solomon’s memoir, he manages to lift a veil and expose the truth behind slavery which many previous films failed to address. 

The conditions of slavery in the film, are key aspects which help to reveal the truth of how slaves were treated. These authentic representations of the reality of slavery help the modern world understand the lengths at which slaves had to go through to survive. ‘In general, treatment of slaves was characterised by degradation, rape, and brutality, and the lack of basic freedoms.’[2] 12 Years a Slaves most notable aspect was the use of the whip, the whip was repeatedly used on slaves throughout the film, as it was frequently used to force slaves to work. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) repeatedly gets lashed whilst working at Edwin Epps’ (Michael Fassbender) cotton plantation. ‘But the lash was also employed for a range of offences or even in a cavalier fashion, in the hands of men and women to whom brutality was a way of life.’[3] This can be seen when Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) is repeatedly lashed by Epps. Also in this scene, the audience can see how Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) resents Patsey and wishes for her husband to lash Patsey. As well as this physical abuse the slaves were subjected to ‘personal violations’. These violations can be considered to vary based on gender. Slaves were treated as possessions, therefore ‘they could be moved from one property to another.’2 Also slaves were sent to ‘distant, unknown, location[s], leaving behind family and loved ones’.2 This is clearly portrayed through the film, when Eliza (Adepero Oduye) is taken from her children. The film not only focuses on the male aspects of slavery but also the way in which slave women were exploited, both sexually and mentally. ‘Sexual abuse of slaves was partially rooted in the patriarchal Southern culture which treated all women …as property or chattel.’1 Multiple female characters are exploited in this way, as they were ‘pray to the predatory sexual habits of their master.’2 Eliza openly admits to Solomon that she had done “dishonourable things to survive”, although Eliza was her master’s mistress, she still recognised that she was still considered as his ‘property’. This can also be linked to Harriet (Alfre Woodard, who is also kept as her master’s mistress, however Harriet uses this to her advantage as she has a new social position. In comparison to Eliza and Harriet, Patsey is assaulted both by the master and the mistress. Epps much like other slave owners takes ‘little or no notice of…her age,’ but it is evident that Patsey is young, as she is seen making dolls. Patsey, unlike the other female characters, is the most violated not only by Epps, but by the jealous abusive nature Mistress Epps has towards her.

When Solomon is forced to change his name to ‘Platt’ it signifies the end of his freedom. Solomon has to also renounce all links to his past life, to survive and the only way he can do that is by relinquishing his birth name. Many other slaves were forced to do this, as they were kidnapped by slave traders. Norrece Jones states, ‘The issue of kidnapping in the North captures so many crucial aspects about the black experience in this country’, he also says that these kidnappings ‘reveal that even in a place of freedom, and even in a place where you had whites who were most progressive, from a black perspective, that they could be taken.'[4]

Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Epps are the main slave owners of the play. Although Ford is a much kinder person many people have argued whether or not there is a difference between them. Compared to Ford, Epps takes a much more physical approach when it comes to his ownership of slaves, as he is a much more abusive person. However, Ford puts Tibeats (Paul Dano) in charge, who will whip the slaves to keep them in check. These two contrasting slave owners take different approaches when dealing with their slaves. This allows audiences to see that there were two types of slave owners during that period. Unfortunately, neither can be considered ‘good’ as they both owned slaves, Solomon seems content with living on the Ford plantation, but Eliza helps to put this thought into perspective when she states, “Ford is your opportunity?” Also, Solomon hits realisation when Ford states, “I hope it brings us both much joy over the years,” when handing Solomon a violin. Ford has no future plan of letting Solomon go free, even when Solomon tells him that he is in fact a free slave, as Solomon is Fords’ possession and he paid good money for him.

12 Years a Slave is a film which given a significant depiction of slavery 150 years after emancipation. Compared to other films which illustrate, this film whole-heartedly focuses on the different aspects of the life of the slaves. It focuses on the troubles which both female and male slaves went through and is able to give an insight into what slavery was like at the time.

[1] The Guardian: Provides news on different categories of life

[3] Understanding Slavery: A national learning initiative which teaches about slavery<> accessed 14 November 2015 

[4] PBS: A educational website which helps broaden the mind of children

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