Analysis of the Film '12 Years a Slave'

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‘12 Years a Slave’, directed by Steve McQueen, is a film about a free black man, Solomon, being kidnapped in to slavery, separated from his family, dehumanized, but eventually, finding his way into freedom again. The depravity of slavery stripped away his humanity and identity, stretching his hope further away as each portion of his life becomes harder to overcome, eventually leading to his desire for freedom.

The editing in the film illustrated the development of the characters as the director draws us into the mind of the characters, allowing us to experience and reflect on events that are most impacting to him. Early on in the film when Solomon got off the ship that sent him to the slave market, we cut to a scene where he flashbacks to a day when he was at a market with his family, then we cut back to the reality where he was slap by a slave buyer and was told that his name is now Platt (McQueen; 26:00-28:35). The editing in this scene illustrated the loss of identity of Solomon as now he has lost his real name, also reminding us that he was once a free man but now he is dehumanized and became a slave. Another scene later on in the film, we see him carved the names of his family on a violin, then we cut to him playing the violin, placing the part where the names are carved on his neck illustrating his love to his family but also in the same time, the pain of being separated with them (McQueen; 1:24:45-1:26:25). Later on, we see him breaking the violin in frustration, demonstrating his suffering and once again his hope has been stretched further away (McQueen; 1:54:15-1:54:34).

Furthermore, cinematography helps construct the mood and atmosphere of the film. There are a lot of long takes or long shots in the film that hold the camera in the same spot for server minutes. This method of filming in ‘12 Years of Slave’ allows us as an audience to have a greater focus on the absolute depravity of slavery, forcing us to sink in, almost like witnessing it with our own eyes. One scene that particularly stands out to me is when Solomon was hanged under a tree and it was shot by using a long take that lasted for 86 seconds combined with a wide shot (McQueen; 49:34-51:00). 86 seconds of Solomon gripping on the muddy ground trying to survive, others walking behind him and is powerless to do anything. This scene truly let the audience feel the suffering of Solomon, as his hope is stretching further away as each second passes.

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Dialogue shapes the narrative perspective of Solomon as we hear his experience and thought in a first-person perspective. At one scene he said: “I will not fall into despair. I will offer up my talents to Master Ford. I will keep myself hearty till freedom is opportune” (McQueen; 40:38-40:46). We can hear the pain and the suffering in his voice as he says these lines, showing his desire for freedom, as he will not give up until he finds freedom again, also foreshadowing that freedom will eventually come to him at the end of this suffering journey.

Set design influences symbolism in the movie, as set designers are using locations to convert messages to the audience. When Solomon was locked up in a cell after being kidnapped, his face was shown behind a small window, crying out for help. But behind it we can see the Capitol building in Washington which represents freedom (McQueen; 16:00-16:20). Set designer used this building as a symbol for freedom, putting Solomon in the foreground creates contrast between freedom and suffering, converting a message of blindness to slavery. Another location in the film is the cotton field (McQueen; 1:28:19-1:28:47). Cotton in some way can represent purity or freedom, as cotton is white and it can fly freely in the air. People only sees the ‘cotton’ in the field but not those who are force to work in it, similar to the American society as people only sees America as a land of freedom and justice but blind to the heartbreaking truth of slavery.

In summary, as can be seen from the information presented above, director Steve McQueen used various cinematic techniques in his film ‘12 Years a Slave’ to highlight the heartbreaking truth about slavery, making the film extremely powerful in terms of meaning.

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Analysis of the Film ’12 Years a Slave’. (2023, March 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 18, 2024, from
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