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12 Years a Slave: Movie Review and Analysis

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Words: 1974 |

Pages: 4|

10 min read

Published: May 24, 2022

Words: 1974|Pages: 4|10 min read

Published: May 24, 2022

Table of contents

  1. 12 Years a Slave movie: essay
  2. A brief summary of the main plot
  3. The main conflict and how it is resolved
  4. Scenes that stand out in my mind
  5. What does the film reflect?
  6. Works Cited

12 Years a Slave movie: essay

A brief summary of the main plot

Solomon Northup lived with his family in upstate New York in the late 1830s. He was a free black man that worked as a carpenter and violin player. In 1841, two men approached Solomon saying they worked for the circus. They asked him to accompany them to Washington and play his violin. Solomon agreed and they traveled to Washington where, unlike in New York, slavery was legal. At diner, the two men unexpectedly drugged Solomon. He was sold into slavery in Louisiana to a minister named William Ford who owned a small plantation in the Great Pine Woods. Unlike most slave masters, Ford was kind to his slaves and did not beat them. Ford encountered some financial troubles, he sold Solomon to Tibeats, a carpenter working for him at the time. He was a horribly racist man, and he almost hanged Solomon after they had several negative encounters. Tibeats eventually sold Solomon to another horrible slave master, Edwin Epps. He owned two plantations near Bayou Boeuf. Solomon worked on Epp’s plantation to pick cotton and cut down cane. A carpenter and slave abolitionist from Canada, Bass, came to work for Epps. Solomon befriended Bass and told him about how he became a slave. Bass decided to help Solomon regain his freedom, so he sent letters to people Solomon knew in New York. Henry B. Northup, a friend of Solomon, received these letters. He acted as an agent for the Governor of New York to get Solomon out of slavery. Northup and a local sheriff arrived at Epp’s plantation. Northup and Solomon embraced, and after some questioning from the Sheriff, Solomon was free to travel back to New York, much to Epp’s dislike. Solomon reunited with his family, adult children and new grandson on January 4, 1853.

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The main conflict and how it is resolved

The main conflict in 12 Years a Slave is the circumstances in which Solomon became a slave. He was drugged, kidnapped and forced into slavery. This is the main conflict since the movie’s storyline revolves around Solomon navigating his life as a slave.

He was taken from Washington D.C to Louisiana where he was sold in 1841. Solomon was a slave for twelve years, working on various plantations, dealing with different types of slave masters and witnessing and experiencing how dehumanizing slavery is.

Finally, after twelve years, a friend of Solomon’s from the north, Henry B. Northup, received letters sent by a Canadian carpenter and abolitionist Solomon met on Epp’s plantation. Northup traveled to Louisiana and met with a local sheriff that went with him to Epp’s plantation. They found Solomon and, after some questioning from the Sheriff to prove Solomon’s identity, he embraced Henry and they travelled back to New York where Solomon reunited with his family in 1853.

Scenes that stand out in my mind

One scene from the film that stands out in my mind was one that showed family separation. Eliza was a slave that Solomon met at Burch’s ‘slave showhouse’. Eliza was for sale with both of her children, Randall and Emily. However, Ford arrived wanting to purchase all three of them, but Freeman, the man advertising the slaves, sold Randall to another slave master and deemed Emily ‘not for sale’. Consequently, Eliza was sold without her children. Eliza’s family was permanently separated, and she never saw her children again. During the scene, Eliza is distraught and begs for Burch to sell her with her children. It is evident on Ford’s face that he felt uncomfortable buying her without her children, but he did so anyway. This scene relates to the theme of Family. Solomon had young children and a wife before he became a slave. They added purpose to his life, and this is evident when he says, “Why had I not died in my young years—before God had given me children to love and live for?”. This shows that his family provided purpose and meaning, and like Eliza, that purpose was taken away when he was sold. Eliza is constantly grief stricken which later leads to her death.

Another scene that stands out in my mind was the funeral. The slaves are gathered to sing the gospel song “Roll Jordan Roll” at the funeral of a slave who passed from exhaustion. Personally, I found this scene to be somewhat of a relief. In the midst of being dehumanized, abused and forced to labor long days with little reward, their faith and hope was still strong. The scene focuses on Solomon’s face as the slaves sing. He does not sing with them at the beginning and he looks depressed and empty. But as the slaves continued singing, something changed, and he joined in. This scene ultimately relates to the themes of Abuse and Dehumanization. Earlier in the film, Solomon said “I don’t want to survive, I want to live”. This song, like many other gospel songs, is an example of how slaves overthrew the original Christian message of the song to express their own messages. As Solomon began singing along, it was as though he was painfully accepting that the slave system was designed to allow him just to survive and not live.

What does the film reflect?

Slaves carried with them a rich culture that included a tradition of religious singing. The songs, known as gospel songs or spirituals, provided a rhythm for when they were working repetitively, like when picking cotton. They were also used as a way to express emotion or their messages, similar to poetry. One of the main reasons for the gospel songs and spirituals was to unify slaves and give them strength in times of adversity.

In the film, the use of gospel songs for unity and strength is shown during a funeral scene. A slave had passed away from exhaustion, so the rest of them gathered to bury him. As they are gathered around the grave, the slaves sing the song “Roll Jordan Roll”. This song, much like many others, was claimed by slaves as they subverted the Christian message to express their own feelings. Gospel songs like Roll Jordan Roll that spoke of rivers often held the underlying message of the hope for escape. The idea of a river flowing free of any constraints was often the subject for many gospel songs as it pointed towards freedom and independence. This is an example of how the film reflects the social consequence of gospel songs and spirituals.

The film is based off the memoir written by Solomon Northup, 1853. However, the movie was condensed and some small scenes were added, but it does not stray too far from the truth. Two events that accurately reflect Solomon’s real experience were his journey into Louisiana and his encounters with the character Bass.

In his memoir, Northup stated that during his journey to Louisiana, he was beaten with a paddle and whipped by a slave trader just because he revealed his identity. This is represented accurately in the film, and it provides possibly an even more realistic representation for you can see the pain on Solomon’s face, the aggression in the slave trader’s body and the wounds it left. Another accurate event was the scene where the abolitionist Bass argues with Epps, stating that slavery is horrible and dehumanizing in an attempt to change his mind. Solomon’s recount of Bass’s argument in the book is almost parallel with the scene in the film. Bass also sent several letters to New York to some of Solomon’s friends in the memoir, and this is also shown in the movie.

However, there were some scenes that did not accurately represent Solomon’s experience. One of these events was in the beginning of the movie. Solomon, as a slave, pleasured a woman whom he was lying next to. She then proceeded to turn over and begin sobbing. The director, Steve McQueen, admitted that he created this scene, saying “(he) just wanted a bit of tenderness- the idea of this woman reaching out… and then she is back where she was. She’s back in hell.”

Another inaccurate event was Solomon’s plan to take over the slave ship with Arthur, a freeman, and Robert, a slave. In the film, they attempted to take over the ship, but Robert was stabbed by the sailor and thrown overboard the next day. However, this did not happen. In Solomon’s memoir, they did not even attempt to execute their plan since Robert died from smallpox before they could do anything.

In general, I would consider this film to be a reliable historical source. It is a useful since it shows the reality of how slave masters treated their slaves. Slaves were physically and sexually abused, tormented psychologically, forced to carry out demanding tasks such as working in the field all day or being forced to dance at night for the slave master’s enjoyment. The film also shows the randomness of the violence. In the film, a slave named Patsey left the plantation to get a bar of soap. Epps, the slave master, was so furious over such a minor issue that he brutally flogged Patsey to the point of near death. Other useful aspects of the film include the representation of social hierarchy (that slave masters are above the slaves), dehumanization, family separation, the abuse of control and power and the use of the Bible to justify the abuse. The film also gives a strong insight into slave culture and how they used music, gospel songs and religion to connect and unify. The film also shows that not all white people treated slaves horribly. Bass, a white carpenter from Canada, was an abolitionist that helped Solomon out of slavery. There was also Ford who treated his slaves with respect and did not abuse them. However, the film successfully shows the more common reality of slave masters through Edward Epps who always cruelly abused his slaves.

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However, the film has some qualities that limit it as a resource to show the experience of slavery. Solomon’s memoir details 12 years of slavery. However, the film has condensed 12 detailed years into 140 minutes. Obviously, events and other important details must have been left out in order to turn the novel into a film. The film’s purpose is to entertain the audience. Some scenes were added or modified to make it appealing and entertaining to an audience, so this makes its reliability questionable. The film also follows only Solomon’s journey. He was incredibly fortunate to go back to his life before and to see his family again. Most slaves never get this opportunity and are a slave until they die. The film only shows the surface of other slaves’ lives and never went into any depth of the other characters. One final limitation was that the film was set towards the late slave period in the 1840s-1850s. Slavery was not in its prime, so this may influence the quality of the information we get from the film, such as how slave masters treated their slaves and how there were abolitionists. There would be no abolitionists like Bass in the early slave period, and this means Solomon probably would not have gone home.

Works Cited

  1. Ebert, R. (2013, October 16). 12 Years a Slave. Roger Ebert.
  2. Hahn, M. (2014). “The Most Interesting Character I Ever Met”: Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave and on Antebellum Stage. Journal of American Culture, 37(4), 579-589.
  3. Hedges, C. (2013, October 18). 12 Years a Slave: A powerful story of one man’s endurance. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/oct/18/12-years-a-slave-review
  4. Hornaday, A. (2013, October 17). 12 Years a Slave movie review. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/movies/12-years-a-slave-movie-review/2013/10/17/249a5e8e-35d3-11e3-8a0e-4e2cf80831fc_story.html
  5. McQueen, S. (2013). 12 Years a Slave (Film). Fox Searchlight Pictures.
  6. Northup, S. (1853). Twelve Years a Slave. Derby and Miller.
  7. Puchko, K. (2013, October 18). 12 Years A Slave: 8 Fascinating Facts About The Year’s Best Film. Cinema Blend. https://www.cinemablend.com/new/12-Years-Slave-8-Fascinating-Facts-About-Year-Best-Film-39987.html
  8. Scott, A. O. (2013, October 17). The Blood and Tears, Bondage and Misery of 12 Years a Slave. The New York Times.
  9. Solomon Northup Project. (n.d.). History & Archives.
  10. Stuever, H. (2013, October 16). 12 Years a Slave: A raw, unrelenting, violent film. The Washington Post.
Image of Dr. Charlotte Jacobson
This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

Cite this Essay

A Detailed Analysis of the Film 12 Years a Slave. (2023, March 09). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 28, 2024, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/a-detailed-analysis-of-the-film-12-years-a-slave/
“A Detailed Analysis of the Film 12 Years a Slave.” GradesFixer, 09 Mar. 2023, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/a-detailed-analysis-of-the-film-12-years-a-slave/
A Detailed Analysis of the Film 12 Years a Slave. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/a-detailed-analysis-of-the-film-12-years-a-slave/> [Accessed 28 Feb. 2024].
A Detailed Analysis of the Film 12 Years a Slave [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2023 Mar 09 [cited 2024 Feb 28]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/a-detailed-analysis-of-the-film-12-years-a-slave/
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