Reflections on Slavery in “12 Years a Slave”: Unveiling the Horrors

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Steve McQueen’s Adaptation of “12 Years a Slave”

The film 12 Years a Slave is directed by Steve McQueen, who based this narrative on Solomon Northup’s autobiographical experience. The film exposes the brutality of slavery and the dehumanizing repercussions of human subjugation. Initially, the film was created entirely different from the 1853 classic narrative until its producers discovered Northup’s narrative and the importance of historical documents in relation to this film.

This film depicts Solomon Northup, an African American man who is now a free citizen in New York, during his years of slavery. Northup is approached by two men who persuade him to be sold into slavery by promising him a lucrative career. The two men’s motives, on the other hand, are to make money by selling him. Northup had a wife and two children and was a free man in New York. The injustices he confronts after realizing that all he is now to White folks is a black man on a plantation are horrifying. While McQueen’s adaptation of Twelve Years a Slave is essentially accurate to Northup’s original story, it overlooks some of the more uncomfortable subjects that surround slave history.

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A Historical Dive into Slavery’s Origins and Structure

Such a justification has resulted in a ‘chain of silence’ about slavery, or the obscurity of enslaved people as historical subjects, which has been exacerbated by the continuance of racism. Chapter four of the book, in the 2013 publication, addresses the slave system. Tobacco and cotton could be developed by farmers with the assistance of a few farm workers. The local people had been wiped out due to the first European settlers. So, farmers were brought from Europe while on the British islands; these farmers were indentured servants and sentenced prisoners.

Indentured servants are women and men who consented to work for a given number of years for a fixed wage, their board, and the cost of their voyage out to the islands. Sentenced prisoners could be transported to the plantations for a given amount of terms rather than being killed or imprisoned. This framework did not supply enough labor as the tobacco farms became sugar plantations. Sugar required a huge number of workers.

The Portuguese had been utilizing enslaved Africans to grow sugar in the Madeira Islands since 1460. Africa was nearer to the Caribbean than Europe was. African atmosphere was similar to the Caribbean. Europeans claimed that the ‘uncivilized’ Africans were not human. This kind of reasoning enabled the inhumanity of slavery to be dismissed. Therefore, Africa appeared to be the obvious place for labor for the sugar plantations.

Hierarchy and Work in the Plantations

There was a strict ‘social order’ on the plantations. The white owner was at the highest of the social structure. Under the white owner are other white employees, for example, bookkeepers and overseers. Among the black slaves, carpenters or sugar boilers were above ordinary field slaves. The head of the field slaves were women and men called ‘drivers,’ whose job was to keep the field slaves working diligently by using the whip if necessary.

Those slaves who worked in the house were thought to be of a higher status than field slaves. It would be a horrible punishment for a house servant to be put to do field work due to the lighter obligations in the house. There was an order based on skin tones. The darkest slaves normally had the hardest job/work. The light-skinned slaves, frequently the offspring of the owner or manager by a slave woman, were given better jobs or kept as house servants or trained for a job. A few slaves worked in towns. However, the majority worked on plantations for 12 hours or more a day.

Plantation work requires numerous hands. Sugar, particularly, was a labor-intensive job, and everybody was required to work, including kids and old slaves. Work on a plantation relied upon harvest development. For instance, the process of sugar required different skills from those needed for tobacco and rice. There were skilled jobs that Africans did: such as blacksmiths, sugared boilers, carpenters, etc. These jobs generally went to men.

Women, for the most, did the hands-on work. However, some worked as house slaves. Frequently, men were brought from Africa as slaves compared to women, but some plantation owners favored women as the ‘harder laborers.’ Sometimes women outnumbered the men, which meant that they had to do all the heavy fieldwork, such as digging and cutting. Moreover, ‘marriages between slaves were demoralized although many slaves formed connections and had children’.

Frequently the relationship was with a slave from a different estate. ‘Plantation owners were known to arrange a spouse or accomplice to flog his own wife for an offense’. In the event that the slaves were claimed by various estates, that couldn’t occur. Slave women were routinely assaulted by white men on the estate, by their owner, or by a white employee. A few women were forced to utilize sexual favor to white men in order to survive or to acquire better conditions.

The triangle slave trade began vigorously. Prior to this, a small number of Africans had been kidnapped or purchased by Europeans and taken to Europe or to European-claimed islands. In any case, as the development of the sugar plantation took off, and the demand for labor increased, the quantities of enslaved Africans transported to the Caribbean islands and to mainland North and South America expanded massively.

A Cinematic Reflection on Historical Brutality

The presentation of the historical event was a fair presentation because the director Steve McQueen’s extraordinary direction utilized close-ups and poignant images of rustic Louisiana in the times of slavery, which just added to the colossal tragedy of Northup’s frightening story. Enslaved people are normally depicted as having ‘trees of scars’ on their backs, which is the consequence of brutal whippings they got from their masters or other people. This film shows the consistency of such treatment. In one incident, Epps forced Solomon Northup to whip another slave, Patsey, to the point where they fell down from pain.

However, Patsey’s ‘wrongdoing’ was to leave the plantation in search of a bar of soap to wash herself. I believe that the director Steve McQueen presented different perspectives fairly because the film is a startlingly precise and evident record of the common slave experience in the South. This film serves as a timeless indictment of the practices of ‘chattel bondage’ or ‘human slavery’. Northup’s enumerating the abuse he endured and those he was forced to incur warns all generations of the moral cost that slavery demands from everyone involved. The slave herself or himself is debased, created to endure awful torments, and brutally robbed of emotional, physical, and riches.

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Reflections on Slavery in "12 Years a Slave": Unveiling the Horrors. (2023, Aug 11). Retrieved from

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