12 Years a Slave is a dramatic chef-d’oeuvre film that highlights the brutal experiences that slaves underwent in the hands of their masters in the Southern America. Undoubtedly, the movie reinvigorates the debate on the historical significance of slavery in the contemporary United States. Critics shift the debate from the historical significance of slavery in the United States to the correctness of the slavery events portrayed in the film.
Critics agree that the film plays a critical role in highlighting the plight of slaves in the South; however, they accuse Steve McQueen, the movie’s director, of portraying a politically correct version of the events surrounding slavery as portrayed in the movie. Critics argue that slaves in the antebellum South were highly contented with their lives as opposed to McQueen’s version in the film, 12 Years a Slave.
The film reinvigorates the debate on the historical significance of slavery in the United States by pitting critics against the neo-slave narrative partisans. This paper explores the critics’ arguments on the film coupled with highlighting what the movie has to teach about slavery and the people caught in it.
As aforementioned, critics argue that the film, 12 Years a Slave, is a critical historical piece that highlights the plight of slaves in the antebellum South. However, whilst slavery cannot be accepted or justified, critics argue that McQueen chose to highlight the politically correct aspects of slavery in America.
Bowman rues, “If ever in slavery’s 250-year history in North America there were a kind master or a contented slave, as in the nature of things there must have been, here and there, we may be sure that Mr. McQueen does not want us to hear about it” (par. 5). This claim insinuates that the movie only focuses on the presumably brutal side of slavery.
Ostensibly, Bowman adumbrates that perhaps slaves were better of in their status, as opposed to the conventional assumption that they craved freedom. This aspect reinvigorates the debate on whether slaves were contended in their status or they really wanted any form of emancipation. Interestingly, Bowman’s views are common in debates surrounding the historical significance of slavery in the US.
Most white supremacist groups think that slaves enjoyed their time in slavery as they lived better lives as compared to some indigenous Americans at the time. Cooper supports these views by noting that slaves were treated as “properties”, and thus they were taken care of for maximum utility (par. 9). In other words, the objective of slave masters was to get maximum returns from slaves in terms of output in the plantations.
Therefore, for the slaves to function optimally, they had to be in good health, which could only be necessitated via good meals. Cooper posits, “…many slaves actually had a higher standard of living than many poor whites… the slave’s diet of corn, pork, molasses, and greens was coarse and lacked variety, but it was better than that of many English farm laborers…” (par. 16).
Vincent adds, “A slave’s long workday was no longer than that of many Northern industrial and agricultural laborers” (par. 17). Such arguments reinvigorate the debate on whether the abolishment of slavery was necessary. Therefore, critics like Cooper question the authenticity of scenes in the film where slaves are killed or mistreated.
Particularly, critics validate their line of thinking by claiming that most slaves continued serving their masters even after the famous emancipation. Therefore, given the issues raised by these two critics, the debate on the historical significance of slavery in the United States rages on. However, not all critics see the film as a historical fallacy seeking to propagate political correctness.
In her masterpiece article, 12 Years a Slave as a Neo-Slave Narrative, Stephanie Li digresses from the savage attack on the movie to explore a different perspective of understanding slavery. She posits, “12 Years a Slave is best understood through…neo-slave narrative…residually oral, modern narratives of escape from bondage to freedom” (Li 326). From this perceptive, one can understand McQueen’s motives.
For instance, critics question the motive behind Patsey’s request to be killed. In the eyes of the critics, slaves could not make such a request because they were living a contented live. However, from the neo-slave narrative perspective, one appreciates Patsey’s request because to her, death was the only way of achieving ultimate freedom (Salamishah 356).
Therefore, critics raise the question of ‘if’ slaves wanted freedom, but neo-slave narratives answer the question ‘why’ slaves wanted it. In this light, the movie reinvigorates the debate on the historical significance of slavery in the United States by pitting critics and neo-slaver narrative enthusiasts against each other. This debate is healthy as it creates awareness of the issue of slavery in the US.
Ernest notes that 12 Years a Slave “is a film that calls, vividly, for its proper context, the historical awareness and understanding by which its representation of slavery might be justly valued” (367). Such perception and debates will ultimately create the much-needed awareness on the historical significance of slavery in the United States. Individuals will analyze arguments and counterarguments, and thus clear the conspiracy theories that have bedeviled the issue of slavery in the antebellum South.
The film’s teaching on slavery and people caught up in it
The movie underscores the suffering and consequences of slavery in the United States in the 17th and 18th centuries. Slavery was an insult to humanity and this aspect stands out conspicuously throughout the film. Apparently, the movie makes it clear that some free people living in the United States became victims of slavery due to their races.
For instance, before his capture, Solomon Northup was a free man living happily with his family in Saratoga Springs. Slavery entailed untold brutality and individuals were used as tools of production without pay. Slaves were dehumanized at every opportunity.
For instance, in one scene, Edwin Epps rapes Patsey indiscriminately and this act is dehumanizing. In another scene, Patsey is beaten senselessly until flesh falls from her back. In yet another scene, Northup almost dies in the hands of Tibeats and his friends. The people caught up in slavery were reduced to mere objects to fulfill human vacuity. From all perspectives, slavery is unjustifiable as it is an affront to human dignity.
The film, 12 Years a Slave, is an austere reminder of the woes and suffering of slaves in the antebellum South. The movie reinvigorates the debate on the historical significance of slavery in the United States by pitting critics against neo-slave narrative partisans against each other as each side endeavors to validate its arguments.
Critics hold that slaves did not want freedom, while neo-slave narrators maintain that the slaves’ need for emancipation was absolute. The film teaches that slavery was a dehumanizing venture and those caught up in it were accursed.
Bowman, James. “Propaganda is not ‘Reality’ or ‘Truth’: 12 Years a Slave deserved Better.” The Spectator 2013. Web.
Cooper, Vincent. “12 Years a Slave: Two and a half hours of boredom.” The Commentator 2014. Web.
Earnest, John. “(Re) Mediated History: 12 Years a Slave.” American Literary History 26.2 (2014): 367-373. Print.
Li, Stephanie. “12 Years a Slave as a Neo-Slave Narrative.” American Literary History 26.2 (2014): 326-331. Print.
Salamishah, Tillet. “I Got No Comfort in This Life: The Increasing Importance of Patsey In 12 Years a Slave.” American Literary History 26.2 (2014): 354-361. Print.