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The Movie “12 Years a Slave” Critical Essay


The American society has encountered many upheavals and changes within the past three centuries. Such developments have resulted in different social and political relationships in the country.

Different conflict theories examine the origin of social struggles and disagreements. Such theories also explain why many people disagree with their leaders. Human beings require specific rights and needs. The denial of such needs will eventually result in violence.

The film “12 Years a Slave” gives a clear picture of slavery in the United States. This dark history created complex socio-economic and political developments in the country. Such issues also continue to affect the lives of many Americans. This paper examines the movie “12 Years a Slave” using different conflict resolution theories.

Review of the Movie

The history of America explains why many human beings fight for power. Hans Morgenthau offers a powerful analysis of human conflict using his Realism Theory. According to Morgenthau, human beings tend “to have insatiable lust for control and power” (Molly 12).

This situation produces social disagreements and conflicts. This argument also explores the actions and behaviors of many political leaders (Molly 13). Many landowners in the film such as Edwin Epps oppress their slaves. Many “whites believed that it was right for them to oppress their slaves” (Burton 41).

Northup finds it hard to cooperate with individuals such as John Tibeats. This situation occurs because many people want to control others. Epps also rapes Patsey because she cannot fight for her rights (12 Years a Slave). Brown, James Burch, and Hamilton are also able to smuggle different slaves.

According to John Burton’s Basic Human Needs Theory, “people have unique needs that must be fulfilled” (Burton 19). Social struggles are usually determined by the nature of such human needs. Human beings are usually motivated to engage in violent behaviors (Burton 42).

Throughout the film, it is notable that Solomon Northup works hard in order to achieve his goals. He eventually finds himself in the hands of different slave-owners. He works hard in order to become free. He also fights back after being attacked by John Tibeats (12 Years a Slave).

This film explains how the society fails to fulfill Northup’s needs. The existence of unfulfilled needs eventually results in social conflicts. Sociologists should therefore work hard in order to satisfy these human needs. Many slaves such as Patsey also encounter different challenges.

According to Ted Gurr’s Relative Deprivation Theory, people will always engage in various acts of violence. Ted believes that “a frustration-aggression mechanism is the leading cause of violence” (Gurr 38). Frustrations can also produce anger and pain.

This form of anger can eventually result in violence. Relative deprivation occurs “when people encounter major discrepancies between their gains and expectations” (Gurr 94). Deprivation can also cause violence or rebellion. This situation might occur even when the government fulfills the basic needs of its people.

Poor leadership can also result in violence. The stories presented in this film explain why many African Americans fought tirelessly for their rights. They were unhappy with the social, economic, and political issues affecting their lives.

The challenges encountered by Patsey shows clearly that many women suffered in the hands of different slave-owners (12 Years a Slave). Bass and Northup are also saddened by the challenges encountered by different African Americans (12 Years a Slave). This situation explains why inequality is experienced in the United States even today.

Johan Galtung’s Structural and Cultural Violence Theory examines the origin of human disagreements. Violence occurs whenever there are specific political and socio-economic arrangements in a given community. According to John Galtung, “structural or cultural violence will eventually result in direct violence” (Galtung 292).

However, this kind of violence arises from the existing structural developments. The “political and social conditions in a specific community can result in violence” (Galtung 294). That being the case, leaders and communities should work hard in order to deal with structural violence.

The existence of inequality has redefined the history of America. The movie explores how different African Americans such as Patsey encounter numerous problems.

The social and political conditions experienced during the time failed to favor many African Americans. This situation resulted in different conflicts. Bass is against slavery because it affects the lives of many people (12 Years a Slave).

According Vamik Volkan’s Ethnic Violence and Psychoanalysis Theory, different groups tend to have unique values. Such traits dictate the behaviors of different communities. A “proper understanding of people’s psychologies can produce positive results” (Levine 276).

Human beings should understand the irrational attributes associated with violence. This approach will make it easier for every community to deal with ethnic violence. Many individuals “assign different cultural identities to other groups” (Levine 278).

The theory explains why different communities engage in endless fights. The concept of awareness can make it easier for many groups to deal with their conflicts. Throughout the Reconstruction Period, many whites believed that every black citizen was inferior.

Vamik’s theory explains why “class struggles have been experienced in the United States for many years” (Levine 279).

Max Weber has made numerous contributions to Modernization Theory. According to the sociologist, rationality is a core value towards modernization. The “main mission of every society is to be deliberated” (Wheeler 9). However, the absence of “a smooth process towards modernization will result in disagreements” (Wheeler 17).

This is the case because many people will always focus on their basic needs (Wheeler 18). This theory explains why “the idea of rationalization encouraged many African Americans to fight against slavery and inequality” (Wheeler 18). Northup eventually becomes a free citizen. He eventually reunites with his family after 12 years of slavery.


The film “12 Years a Slave” explores the existence of conflicts in the American society. A proper understanding of the social, political, and economic backgrounds of different groups can result in better resolutions. Although the film does not offer the best resolutions, it encourages people to focus on the needs of their neighbors.

Slavery is a malpractice than can result in disagreements and class struggles. Hans Morgenthau’s theory describes the origin of inequality. The government should use the above theories in order to fulfill the needs of its citizens (Burton 92). Every society should embrace the best practices in order to deal with different conflicts.

For instance, the American government should have dealt with slavery during the period. The film explains how conflicts and class struggles emerged in America during the time. This development will continue to affect the lives of many Americans. Many descendants of these slaves are also struggling in order to achieve their goals.

Works Cited

12 Years a Slave. Ex. Prod. Brad Pitt. New York, NY: Fox Searchlight Pictures. 2013. DVD.

Burton, John. Conflict: Human Needs Theory. New York: McMillan, 2003. Print.

Galtung, Johan. “Cultural Violence.” Journal of Peace Research 27.3 (1990): 291-305. Print.

Gurr, Ted. Why Men Rebel. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2012. Print.

Levine, Howard. “Large-Group Dynamics and World Conflict: the Contributions of Vamik Volkan.” The Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Associations 54.1 (2006): 273-280. Print.

Molly, Sean. “Truth, Power, Theory: Hans Morgenthau’s Formulation of Realism.” Diplomacy and Statecraft 15.1 (2004): 1-23. Print.

Wheeler, Norton. “Modernization Discourse with Chinese Characteristics.” Springer 22.3 (2005): 3-24. Print.

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"The Movie “12 Years a Slave”." IvyPanda, 23 Dec. 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/the-movie-12-years-a-slave/.

1. IvyPanda. "The Movie “12 Years a Slave”." December 23, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-movie-12-years-a-slave/.


IvyPanda. "The Movie “12 Years a Slave”." December 23, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-movie-12-years-a-slave/.


IvyPanda. 2019. "The Movie “12 Years a Slave”." December 23, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-movie-12-years-a-slave/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'The Movie “12 Years a Slave”'. 23 December.

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