Review of '12 Years a Slave': Critical Essay

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The first film to be looked at is the Academy Award-winning film, 12 Years a Slave by black British director, Steve McQueen. The story is a biographical period drama that adapted Solomon Northup’s slave memoir of 1853, titled Twelve Years a Slave. The film follows Solomon Northup, who was a New York State-born free African American man. Northup is tricked into taking a ‘job’ opportunity, offered by two white men, Brown and Hamilton. He is then kidnapped in Washington D.C and sold into slavery, where he was put to work on plantations in the state of Louisiana for twelve years, before being able to prove he is a free man.

When looking at the representation of black people in 12 Years a Slave there are multiple avenues to go down. Focusing on the main character Solomon Northup, it can be argued that this story and his portrayal, fail to execute the idea of black resistance. Many films that tell the stories of those enslaved, often leave out attempted escapes, rebellion, and resistance; these stories tend to showcase submission and degradation, and whilst this did occur and many did not fight back, there was always opposition. Which unfortunately leaves 12 Years a Slave as a very one-sided story and not an accurate reflection of history. A Guardian article by Davies (2014) explains this notion very well. She brings forth valid points, highlighting that when the film is compared to the original memoir, written by Solomon Northup, the memoir is filled with stories of attempted escapes, fighting back, and opposition – evidently, this is completely left out of the film. Furthermore, the film fails to bring attention to Northup’s emotional resistance to his enslavement. This is a big problem when regarding representation, as the story is not told to the fullest and misses out on key information that would inform the viewer of who Northup really was and his story of enslavement. How McQueen decided to portray Northup is problematic as it plays into the typical themes and ideas that are so prevalent in American media and filmmaking when regarding black people. Two examples of these typical themes are slavery and black people being lesser. Whilst films on slavery can be very informative and needed, in order to witness a fraction of the ugly acts black people went through, these films have to be true representations of what happened, otherwise, they could face backlash. 12 Years a Slave misses multiple opportunities to showcase a different side of slavery, that usually is overlooked. Referring back to Davies’ (2014) article on this film, she notes that whilst the film remains true to some of Northup’s accounts in his memoir, such as choosing to stay on the plantation, until he could ‘legally’ free himself, the film ignores the many others.

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Review of ’12 Years a Slave’: Critical Essay. (2023, October 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 14, 2024, from
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