Category Archives: Talking about 12 Years a Slave

Talking about 12 Years a Slave

Nimen Hao,

today we’ll have the first of a few lessons on race and racism in American Movies.

First, let’s do a quick quiz on the femininity reading.

OK, now let’s talk about the film, race and racism in the U.S., starting with a little background information.

Background: Slavery in the U.S.

Slavery in the United States was the legal institution of human chattel enslavement, primarily of Africans and African Americans, that existed in the United States of America in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Slavery was based on racism “the division of people in a “race system”( like Apartheid) where certain races are biologically subordinated others. For the dominant race, the purpose was economic.

A slave was treated as a legal form of property and could be bought, sold, or given away like other personal property. Like a horse, a capable slave could be worked or bred.

Slavery had been practiced in British America from early colonial days, and was legal in all Thirteen Colonies at the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and their revolutionary colleagues in the Congress of 1776 grounded the new nation’s independence on the declaration “that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

It lasted in about half the states until 1865, when it was prohibited nationally by the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

That’s known as emancipation (freedom from slavery).

That amendment meant that slavery could only be practiced as punishment for a crime. What actually happened was that, in the Southern American states at least, slavery was largely replaced by sharecropping and convict leasing. Large numbers of African Americans were defined as criminal in some way, and the southern economy was thereby, in practice, able to reneslave them.

By the time of the American Revolution (1775–1783), the status of slave had been institutionalized as a racial caste associated with African ancestry.[1] When the United States Constitution was ratified in 1789, a relatively small number of free people of color were among the voting citizens (male property owners).[2] During and immediately following the Revolutionary War, abolitionist laws were passed in most Northern states and a movement developed to abolish slavery. Northern states depended on free labor and all had abolished slavery in some way by 1805 (some Northern states adopted immediate emancipation, and others had gradual systems of abolition).

The rapid expansion of the cotton industry in the Deep South after the invention of the cotton gin greatly increased demand for slave labor to pick cotton when it all ripened at once, and the Southern states continued as slave societies. By 1850, the newly rich cotton-growing South was threatening to secede from the Union, and tensions continued to rise. Many white Southern Christians, including church ministers, believed that the Bible endorsed slavery.[7]

When Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election on a platform of halting the expansion of slavery, seven states broke away to form the Confederacy. Due to Union measures such as the Confiscation Acts and Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the war effectively ended slavery, even before ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865 formally ended the legal institution throughout the United States.


Slave kidnapping and the Underground Railway

While slavery was still legal in the southern states, many African Americans escaped to the north where slavery was illegal. The organisation of those escapes came to be known as ‘the underground railroad’. There’s a great novel by Colson Whitehead called The Underground Railroad‘ (he imagines it literally as like a south-north escape subway), and one of the greatest novels about slavery and its effects on people and their memories is Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841 and Rescued in 1853  was the title of Solomon Northup’s memoir, published in 1853. His experience was part of that wider history of kidnapping and re-enslavement as the states contested fought over the issue of slavery.

Group Discussions

Director: Steve McQueen

Featured Actors: Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup; Kelsey Scott as Anne Northup; Adepero Oduye as Eliza; Benedict Cumberbatch as Ford; Liza J. Bennett as Mistress Ford; J.D. Evermore as Chapin; Paul Dano as Tibeats; Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps; Sarah Paulson as Mistress Epps; Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey; Alfre Woodard as Mistress Shaw; and Brad Pitt as Bass

Have a look at these images of some of the key characters from the film.

Solomun Northup family
Anne and Solomon Northup and children
Solomon Northup kidnappers
Solomon Northup and the circus kidnappers
The slave auctioneer Mr. Theophilus Freeman
Ford and Solomon
Eliza Weeps
12 Years A Slave
Patsey, Mr Epps and Solomon
Mistress Epps and Patsey
Patsey and Platt

Platt meets Bass

Discussion questions part one.

1. Who was Solomon Northup and how did he come to be enslaved?

2. Solomon says ‘I don’t want to survive. I want to live’. What does he mean (what’s the difference)?

3. When Solomon is punished the plantation hands hung him from a tree and only Patsey comes to help. The rest of the slaves do nothing (they continue to go about their business). Whhen Mr. Ells rapes Patsey, none of the slaves try to stop him. Later when Mr. Ells wants Patsey punished for leaving the plantation (she goes to get soap) Solomon reluctantly agrees to whip her, and whips her harder when he is told to.

a. Why do the slaves (including Solomon) not resist?

b. How do you think the enslaved people feel in these (three) situations?

Discussion part two

1. Tell the story of Eliza.

2. Tell the story of Patsey.

3. What do you think about the position of black women in slave society (the plantation society)?

Discussion part three

1. Describe some of the effects of slavery, as practiced in the American South, on the slave owners (male and female) that are exemplified by the characters in this movie.

2. What do you think are the historical legacies of slavery in the United States?


Watch If Beale Street Could Talk and The Hate U Give.