12 Years a Slave' and Its Main Themes

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In Steve McQueen's ‘12 Years a Slave’, the themes of racism, sexism, economic structure and neglect are shown throughout the film. Based on a true story, the film portrays the perils of slavery and its later effect. What I find incredible is even though we have had many tragedies like African American slavery, Native American genocide, and the Holocaust we don't seem to learn from our mistakes. All these themes have built up to these mass enslavements and killings of innocent people, and it still occurs today such as in Rwanda and currently in Darfur. We turn a blind eye when it happens and ignore the fact that it can easily be us one day. We must start to spread equality and justice, and not just spread it but demand it. Society has a moral responsibility to every human being in the world, to fix these injustices.

The film begins with main character Solomon Northup, a free African American who lives in New York with his wife and two children. The film flashes back and forth through time of Solomon being a slave, and his time as a free man. His friend in Saratoga introduces him to two white men, Hamilton and Brown, who offer him a job to play the violin in Washington, D.C.Hamilton and Brown proceed to take him out on the town, drug him, and sell him to slavery. He wakes up chained to the wall and tells the slave trader he is a free man. The slave trader asks him for his papers, Solomon fails to show them. The man claims Solomon is a runaway slave from Georgia and proceeds to paddle him repeatedly. This scene although harsh and difficult to watch was very real. It showed how in one day a free man, easily became a slave and someone's property; his life had completely turned upside down. He is then told by Clemens, an educated slave, to maintain a low profile and pretend to be illiterate. He meets Eliza, who has two children and is in the slave pit with him. They are then transported by river boat, along with other slaves, where he is forced to toss a dead man who revolted into the water. He and Eliza are then sold to a plantation owner named William Ford, who notices Solomon's potential. Eliza is separated from her children and cannot stop weeping for their loss. Ford can tell there is more to Solomon than meets the eye, however does nothing about it. Solomon comes up with a brilliant idea to transport the lumber by river, which leads to animosity from Tibeats, a slave handler. This shows the neglect of people, seeing something wrong is being done, however doing nothing about it. Even though Ford treats him decently, he is merely treated as 'prized livestock'. Tibeats later tries to whip Solomon for no reason, Solomon fights back which almost leads to his lynching. Mr. Ford saves his life, however realizes he must sell him to another plantation owner, to avoid any more trouble. Solomon is sold to a nasty plantation owner, Epps, who treats his slaves like scum. Epps however is fond of a female slave named Patsey. Mrs. Epps is infuriated by the favor he shows her and throws a bottle at her during a random celebration. A crucial scene in this film is when Solomon meets another plantation owner's wife, Mrs. Shaw, who is no longer a slave. She says that one day all the plantation owners will receive their karma. Epps is drunk and sees Patsey and Solomon returning from the other plantation and thinks Solomon is coming on to Patsey. This causes him to go into a rage as he fights Solomon. Mrs. Epps stops the fights and divulges her disgusts toward her husband who fancies a slave. Later that night Epps rapes Patsey and also beats her. Patsey implores Solomon to take her life since she can no longer bear the abuse; Solomon however refuses. These two previous scenes with Patsey and Mrs. Shaw show the sexism in these times, women were used for sex and it either brought them favor or cruelty. Due to an outbreak of cotton worm on Epps' plantation he sends his slaves part time to a judge who puts them to work. The judge also realizes Solomon's talent and refers him to his neighbor so he can play the violin at one of his affairs. There Solomon sees the contrast of his old life as a free man and his new life as a slave. This scene really makes you think of the injustice of slavery and the difference between worlds. Solomon then trusts a white worker named Armsby with the secret of his past. He promises to pay Armsby if he sends his letters to his friend in Saratoga. However, Armsby betrays him and tells Epps. Solomon turns the whole story on Armsby and is luckily believed by Epps. Another excruciating realistic scene was Patsey being whipped by Solomon forcefully due to Mrs. Epps enticing Epps. Solomon tries to whip her as gently as he can, but is then pressure by Epps at gunpoint to whip her harder. Epps then proceeds to whip her and brings Patsey to her knees. Solomon meets Bass a Canadian who is against slavery. Solomon confides in him the secret of his past and asks him to send his letters to his friend in Saratoga. Bass does him this favor since he believes in the injustice of Solomon's situation. Later on, a sheriff shows up to Epps' plantation and calls for Platt. Solomon answers and is questioned by the sheriff. Solomon then sees his old friend from Saratoga in the carriage and embraces him. He proceeds to leave and gives Patsey a goodbye hug. Solomon returns home and sees his wife and children who have also aged twelve years. They are happy to see him and all embrace. In the film’s final moments, it says that Solomon tried to sue Hamilton and Brown, however lost. He then advocated for the abolitionist movement and aided many runaway slaves.

I see ‘12 Years a Slave’ as a story told as the beginning of slavery. At first Solomon is a free man, living a swell life, like the Africans who lived in Africa peacefully and freely. Then he is kidnapped, taken on a boat, and sold to slavery just like Solomon. Most films start off with slaves being born into slavery on a plantation, however this film really showed the opposite sides of freedom and slavery from one man’s perspective. Racism is most blatantly shown throughout the film with negative connotations, them being slaves, and especially Solomon not being given the chance to prove he was a free man. Even though he was obviously more educated than most people, he was still not given the chance to prove himself because he was black. Racism was mostly shown by Hamilton and Brown who went out of their way to deliver Solomon to the slave pen. Even though they knew he was a free black man, one can tell that their deep hostility towards blacks led them to destroy this innocent man's life. Their mindset was there shouldn’t be any free African Americans roaming, they should all be slaves and Solomon should know his place. The whole slavery system was based on racism, thinking a race was of lesser humanity and chastising them for it.

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Sexism was also a recurring theme throughout the film and impacted African American women for centuries to come. In popular opinion, female African Americans had the worst conditions during the slavery era. They also had a significantly lower class since they were depicted as ‘whores’. While the white woman of the house was seen as a saint, the African American woman who was being raped by the master of the house was seen as promiscuous. We see than in the film with Mrs. Epps. Mrs. Epps mistreats Patsey when in reality it is all her husband’s fault, she is forced to succumb to his needs. It also forced these women to just accept it, especially if it meant better treatment. Mr. Shaw’s wife, who had previously been a slave, took this advantage and was no longer a slave. Did she really want to be ‘Mrs. Shaw’, probably not, but she had to do whatever she needed to in order to survive and live a better life. The film also shows after Patsey has been beaten, that Epps is starting to favor another little girl who will one day end up like Patsey. It was a cycle; another girl was hand-picked and favored in order to end up being raped and used.

The economic structure in those days was mostly family production, a family sustained themselves on farming and agriculture, especially in the South. Slavery was essential for the economy of the South due to the cotton boom. The economic structure and class subjected African Americans as the lowest class of people. It was a social norm for families to have slaves, it was just how life was; the presidents were said to have slaves on their plantations. Since the economic structure called for working acres of land, they needed people to work the land which called for the bringing over of slaves. These slaves were bought, traded, which was a huge business but however these individuals were never monetarily compensated for their harsh work. In understanding that slavery was a way of life, and thinking in that perspective it still gave no right to treat the slaves worse than animals. Let us say we can understand slavery because it was just normal, the mistreatment was absolutely uncalled for. Their living situation, the whippings, the mental torment they received was disgusting. There was no justice system for slaves, they could just be killed without trial. They were seen as disposable and easily replaceable, and not as human beings with rights. This was no way to live, but the slaves knew nothing else; they just had to survive. Since family production was mostly in the South, slavery became less prevalent in the North. The North was more progressive in slavery abolition in later years since their economic structure was more industrialized and their mindset was more liberal.

Neglect has to be a recurring theme not just in this time in history but throughout all of history. People see that an injustice is occurring however refuse to stand up for what is right due to societal norms. A scene that really depicts neglect is the extensive hanging scene where everyone goes about their day while Solomon just hangs there. There is one lady who gives him water however retreats out of fear. The symbolism behind this scene explains the neglect that has happened and is happening. A man was hanging, barely hanging onto life; and yes, one person came to help but instantly retreated once she got scared. Everyone else just went on with their life as if nothing is happening, and that is what society does. During the era of slavery, people knew it was wrong however didn’t do anything about it. People who knew they were in the wrong still mistreated their slaves and it was okay because everyone else was doing it. During the Holocaust, America knew what was going on in Europe however didn’t act until after Pearl Harbor once we were attacked. Imagine if people intervened earlier during slavery and the Holocaust. Millions of lives would have been spared and history would be completely different. According to Al Sharpton and many other scholars, slavery is still affecting African Americans today. It has led into this ongoing cycle, since African Americans are still recovering from something that was done to them by their own people. The cycle started from slaves being too poor to sustain themselves so they lived in worse parts of the country, therefore generations being thrown into the same cycle of poverty and not being able to escape it. Even those who aspire to achieve higher education sometimes cannot pursue it since they have to drop out and help their families sustain themselves, and it is an ongoing cycle. Neglect has led to this cycle, and it is a real shame.

All these themes including, racism, sexism, economic structure, and neglect, demonstrated in ‘12 Years a Slave’ fused together to create slavery in America. Racism led to blacks being chosen as slaves, since they were seen as lesser human beings. Sexism led to the mistreatment of the majority of women during this era. The economic structure in the South led to the economical need of slaves unlike the North. But most importantly neglect is what led to slavery lasting so long, fellow Americans not standing up for their fellow Americans. This movie had a lot of heart and really depicted the agony of slavery and the suffering these people endured. It reminded me a lot of ‘Roots’, the story of Kunta Kinte. It was very realistic and had no problem showing you the realities of slavery. It really showed an injustice, and how a man really couldn’t escape the horrors of slavery as much as he tried. I would recommend this movie to anyone, especially President Donald Trump.

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12 Years a Slave’ and Its Main Themes. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 20, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/12-years-a-slave-and-its-main-themes/
“12 Years a Slave’ and Its Main Themes.” Edubirdie, 15 Dec. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/12-years-a-slave-and-its-main-themes/
12 Years a Slave’ and Its Main Themes. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/12-years-a-slave-and-its-main-themes/> [Accessed 20 Apr. 2024].
12 Years a Slave’ and Its Main Themes [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 15 [cited 2024 Apr 20]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/12-years-a-slave-and-its-main-themes/
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