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History 201
Movie Review
12 Years a Slave
Directed by:Steve McQueen
12 Years a Slave is a film based on an incredible autobiography of a free black man
from New York known as Solomon Northup. In the pre-Civil War United States,
Northup is captured and sold to a slave master in the South. As a result, he
experiences all sorts of cruelty and discrimination. On a particular day, two men, who
claim to be circus promoters, approach Northup requesting that he goes on a tour with
them. Because of his love for music, he agrees to their request, accompanying to their
performances. However, after assenting to share a drink with them, he is drugged and
wakes up only to realize that some people had kidnapped and were transporting him
to the South. The men refuse to listen to claims that he owns papers proving that he is
a free man. He plots to escape several times, but his abductors apprehend him at every
At first, in disbelief of the plight he faces, Northup chooses cooperation to
safeguard his survival. The kidnappers sell him to a mill owner – William Ford – who
values his creativity. However, after a short period, circumstances force Ford to trade
him to Edwin Epps, another owner who subjects slaves to unspeakable cruelty and
brutality. At Epps’ coffee plantation, Northup meets Patsey, a black woman, who
Epps mistreats and rapes repeatedly, and they become good friends. At one stage,
cotton worms destroy the plantation, a situation that compels Epps to lease his slaves
to a neighboring owner named Judge Turner. Northup impresses Turner with his
music, which earns Northup special treatment. Consequently, Turner invites him to
play music in a wedding event and even allows him to keep all the earnings. In this
event, Northup keeps enough money to pay Armsby, a supervisor at Epps’ plantation
whom he had trusted to send letters to his kin. However, Armmsby betrays Northup
by reporting him to Epps. When questioned, Northup manages to persuade Epps that
Armsby is a dishonest man and was only lying with the hope of earning a better job.
While working, Northup meets Samuel Bass, a Canadian laborer who is
strongly against American slavery and the brutality displayed by Epps. Northup
confides his kidnapping to Bass, who agrees to help by sending letters to Saratoga
Springs, Northup’s home. Bass aids Northup regain his freedom after 12 years by
delivering a message to a friend who comes to demand his release. The film vividly
reveals African-Americans vulnerably succumbing to hopelessness, violence,
emotional abuse, racial abuse, as well as ethnic and gender discrimination.
The movie is the best docu-drama so far regarding the history of American slavery.
Filmed mostly in color, 12 Years a Slave is a documentary of the autobiography of
Solomon Northup as narrated by David Wilson. The narrative tells the incredible
story of Northup’s journey to and from slavery. Born in New York to a free family,
Northup grew up in his father’s farm and even received primary education. The entire
story is a real revelation of suffrage as his book, which goes by the same name and
published in 1853, depicts. In addition, 12 Years a Slave employs music to engage the
history of slavery and to disclose the emotional and psychological expressions of the
suppressed lives of African-Americans. On-screen violin, Northup’s fiddle, and the
numerous soundtracks expose the role of black music as a healing power within the
severe surroundings of familial separations and sexual as well as physical abuses.
Steve McQueen – the director – employed extreme close-ups to maintain his
preference of uncovering unfiltered cruelty within the depths of humanity. In
numerous instances, he outlines the actors in close proximity to reveal eyes staring
into despair due to the brutality of the slave owners. The film shows the faces of the
black slaves, such as Northup, Robert, and Eliza, up-close to express the fuming
aggression among them. Besides, numerous scenes encompass naked flesh to express
the underlying futility and desperation. Moreover, McQueen involved wide shots and
long takes, which is unusual for him, to introduce various fantastic performances and
scenes that function to awaken the emotions of the audience as much as possible. This
way, he allows the viewer to experience first-hand the realities and consequences of
slavery. These special effects make 12 Years a Slave an exceptionally uncomfortable
movie to watch.
Viewers of this film can readily appreciate the nature of dialogue that
McQueen emphasizes. The verbal and non-verbal languages that the producers
employ accurately portray the events that were prevalent during slavery. The
conversations between slaves and their owners, especially between Epps and Northup,
tell the tense and somber account of torture that African-Americans had to endure.
Moreover, McQueen uses silence as well as sound effects in unblinking detail to
challenge the audiences to examine and contemplate their consciences. The film
exploits violence to rebuke the historical injustices against one community.
The actors that the producers used were central to the success of the story. The
performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor, appearing as Solomon Northup, naturally reveals
the tension and despair among victims of slavery back in the period. After a decade of
acting as a supporting character, Ejiofor shows that he is a natural force in the ways
he shifts between the two different lives of Northup. In earlier scenes, he appears as a
classy, confident, happy, and free man from the upper states. In scenes that follow,
Ejiofor transforms into an entirely different persona. For example, his facial
expressions and bodily movements are excellent, as he mourns the death of a
colleague, where the singing of the people around compels him to tears. Another
exemplary actor is Michael Fassbender, one of McQueen’s regulars, performing as
Edwin Epps. Fassbender excellently portrays the barbaric and merciless Edwin Epps
in a manner that even the viewers flinch in a mere sight of him. The film also
encompasses actors, including famous Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano,
Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Giammati, Sara Paulson, and Alfre Woodard.
The first pivotal scene emerges as Northup beats Tibeats, a plantation overseer. As
punishment, Northup is chained and left to hang on a tree for a whole day with his
feet barely touching the ground to allow him space to stay alive. In the background,
the other slaves continue with their daily chores as if unaware of Northup’s situation.
This scene reveals the political and social injustices that Whites directed to Blacks
during the slavery era. Although Tibeats pushed Northup to attack him, Northup is the
one who is punished. This situation reveals the social injustices and racial
discrimination that American slavery created for the Blacks.
Another pivotal scene comes at the instance the slave community burying one
of their own, Uncle Abraham. The scene takes place in the cemetery where every
person is standing over the grave while singing the song Roll, Jordan, Roll. This
section is vital, as it enables Solomon to realize his roots and connections with a
community to which he has never belonged before. In the beginning, he finds it
difficult to sing along with the rest. Eventually, he joins them, singing
wholeheartedly. The act tells the audience about the human spirit and the power of
sticking together in adversity, which is a common cultural practice among
African-Americans communities.
Another notable act appears as Epps forces Northup to lash his friend Patsey.
This act is the most unforgettable, as it reveals the immense psychological torture that
slaves experienced. Here, Patsey goes missing, and for a moment, everyone thinks
that he has run away. However, it turns out that he had gone to visit Mistress Shaw.
As punishment, Epps wants her whipped, but could not do it himself because of the
emotional attachment to her, so demands that Solomon does it for him. Epps holds a
gun to other slaves and threatens to shoot them if Solomon fails to implement his
orders. The scene lasts for five continuous minutes, which allows the audience to
experience feelings that accompany human suffering. Watching this section, one
realizes the amount of shame that people should associate with living in a country that
allowed the slave trade to flourish.
As the director, McQueen did not include any bias in the movie. However, the film
slants along the insertion of ethnicity and class in some aspects. For instance,
McQueen over-emphasizes the social standing of Northup in the state of New York
before his enslavement. The film depicts Northup as a successful and wealthy young
man, making a good living as a musician and carpenter. He dresses smartly and even
lives in a racially tolerant community. However, the reality is that African-Americans
were subjects of widespread discrimination and racism even within the Free states.
Moreover, this misrepresentation is evident in a scene where another slave – Jasper –
is fascinated by the fact that a white shopkeeper is treating a black man as an equal.
12 Years a Slave is one of the best movies I have watched in the recent past. I was
impressed by the power of the human spirit as portrayed by Northup. Although
Northup is deceived, captured, traded as a commodity, abused, and separated from his
family, he never relents at any instance. He undergoes many years of sorrow under the
brutality of Edwin Epps but never surrenders on his enduring determination of hope
that one day he will regain freedom. Moreover, he never loses trust and believes in his
friends – he was constantly sure that if he finds a way to communicate to them, they
would immediately move to rescue him, which they eventually do. Through this
character, McQueen shows the hope and faith of the African-Americans regarding
their freedom. Despite the abusive and discriminative environment that the White
supremacists subjected them to, they still believed that their perseverance would
eventually triumph.
This film was difficult to achieve given the context of the story and the period of its
occurrence. However, it was finally possible because of the determination of the
producer as well as the inclusion of ideas by a renowned historian and academician
Henry Louis Gates Jr. Gates did stories about Solomon Northup in graduate school
and is also an editor of various Penguin books known as the black classics, which also
includes 12 Years a Slave. Therefore, his involvement was a confirmation of the
credibility of the historical accounts depicted in the film. The film predominantly
concerns with issues surrounding slavery in the pre-Civil War period and, therefore, a
majority of its concepts is not part of today’s practices. However, it reveals various
values that are synonymous with the modern society. It is an effective critique of the
connection between slavery and modern capitalism. Notably, the pursuit of profit has
transformed women, men, and children into production units, resulting in the collapse
of human relationships.
Ann X. Ample
History 201
Online – Summer 2014
TITLE: REVIEW – Your Film Title Here (Italicize, underline, or quotes)
1. What is the basic plot?
2. What are the major influences in the plot (these are possibilities)?
a. Neo-colonialism
b. Ethnic Nationalism/Social Darwinism
c. Capitalism & materialism
d. Manifest Destiny
e. Ethnic & gender Self-determination
f. Mal-distribution of wealth
1. What type of film is being presented?
a. Action
b. Comedy
c. Documentary
d. Docu-Drama
e. Drama
f. Pop Culture
2. What was the story filmed in?
a. Black and white (usually a statement film)
b. Color
c. Both (black and white often used to authenticate the storyline)
3. Did music have an important role?
a. Was it used passively in the background or as an integral part of the
b. Was it classical, jazz, hip-hop, country, r&b, rap, r&r, latin, middleeastern?
4. Were there special effects or unusual camera angles?
a. Explosions, gunfire, other sound effects
b. Computer generated graphics
c. Panoramic views
d. Close-ups
e. Use of light – natural/artificial, shadows
5. What type of dialogue occurred?
a. Academic/Scientific jargon
b. Contemporary/Slang
c. Obscene/Scatalogical
d. Foreign accent/Foreign language
e. Subtitles
f. Elizabethan
g. Southern drawl/Brooklynese
6. What type of actors were used?
a. Well-known stars
b. Unknowns
c. Did the story need a recognized actor to make up for a lack in the
d. Was the story-line strong enough to be accurately portrayed by
e. Was the bottom-line the amount of money that the director hoped to
make by using stars in his cast?
1. Discuss three pivotal scenes and their significance.
2. What are the major issues in these scenes?
a. Political
b. Economic
c. Technological
d. Social/cultural
1. Has the director made similar films like this one?
2. Did he present a story slanted along inclusion, exclusion, or omission of
these topics?
a. Ethnicity
b. Gender
c. Class
d. Religion
e. Politics
3. Was there conflict among the characters based on the previous question,
and was the conflict intensified, resolved, or left open for interpretation?
1. How did you feel about the movie?
2. Why did you feel this way?
1. Why was this film possible and profitable?
2. Is the film based on historic events?
3. Source of historical confirmation?
4. Does the film present any concepts and values from the past that are a part
of today’s culture; why or why not?

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