Film review: 12 Years a Slave

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Reviewed by Eljeer Hawkins, New York

“There may be humane masters, as there certainly are inhuman ones – there may be slaves well-clothed, well-fed, and happy, as there surely are those half-clad, half-starved and miserable; nevertheless, the institution that tolerates such wrong and inhumanity as I have witnessed, is a cruel, unjust, and barbarous one.”

This is how Solomon Northup described slavery in his book, 12 Years a Slave, his autobiography. And in Steve McQueen’s film, based on the story of Solomon’s captivity, that barbarism is clear.

Solomon, a free black man living a Victorian lifestyle in Saratoga, New York with his wife and children, was a well-known fiddle player and carpenter by trade.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon brilliantly. We see him drugged, and awakening to find himself shackled and bound and then shipped to Louisiana for a slave auction. The odyssey of Solomon Northup lasts from 1841 to his rescue in 1853.

McQueen provides a clear and graphic examination of slavery, including the use of biblical justification for slavery, and the power of the human spirit.

But this is a mainstream Hollywood film produced by Brad Pitt. McQueen is a highly skilled storyteller and artist.

Various shots of the natural scenery of the south and extended up-close profiles draw the audience into the film’s subject: despair and an individual’s struggle.

The film has been criticised for containing an orgy of violence. It has six scenes depicting whippings and rape which help to tell this story in its full breadth. McQueen sticks close to Solomon’s biography.


There is a towering performance from Lupita Nyong’o as Patsy, the unfortunate desire of ‘slave-breaker’ Edwin Epps, sinisterly portrayed by Michael Fassbender.

Epps’ wife, seeing her husband’s infatuation with Patsy, does everything to destroy Patsy. But the film is largely limited to the story of Solomon, limiting its investigation of women’s stories.

McQueen told the Voice magazine that “We [black people] have to recognise our past in the same way that other ethnic groups like the Jewish community has”. “They believe in the saying ‘never forget’ when it comes to the Holocaust and I think we should be the same when it comes to slavery.

“It’s important.” He explains that “The high numbers of black people in prison, mental health issues within our community, drug abuse, and single parent families – these are the repercussions of slavery and we have to acknowledge that.”

Capitalism and white supremacy have produced unspeakable horrors that must be studied and acknowledged for working people, poor, and people of colour, particularly African-Americans, to then engage in a struggle to eradicate this system of violence, lies and racism. Steve McQueen’s 12 years a Slave begins the process.

But the film’s contribution is limited. He has based it on one man’s story rather than showing the incredible history of slave revolt which could inspire today’s generation of young black people to resist racism and oppression.

Films that give a greater fullness to both slavery and the rebellion by slaves include the 1993 independent classic by Haile Gerima, Sankofa.

Julie Dash’s majestic 1991 cinematic triumph, Daughters of the Dust shows more fully the diversity of African-American women. CLR James’ Black Jacobins is a must-read too.

The release of 12 Years a Slave and Solomon Northup’s autobiography does, however, begin a key discussion that must take place to understand the roots of American capitalism and its shaping of race and class in the western hemisphere.

12 Years a Slave is released across Australia in late January 2014