In what USA today considers a film that “captures [the] brutality, [and] reality of slavery”, 12 Year A Slave retells the story of Solomon Northup, a freeman turned slave. Portrayed by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, Solomon Northup’s horrific life story is retold on the big screens for worldwide viewing, entertainment, and education. Solomon Northup was born in New York to a former slave father and free mother and had grown up a free man himself. He grew up to become an abolitionist, farmer, laborer and talented musician whose ability to play the fiddle led to his demise. In 1841, Solomon Northup was “recruited” by two men claiming to be with a traveling circus with desires to have him join their traveling show. From what he understood, they would be traveling from New York to the south during their tour of the country. Upon their arrival to Washington D.C., Solomon Northup was drugged and bound in chains in-order to be sold into slavery. He was then transported from Washington D.C. to New Orleans aboard a slave ship with a new identity being forced onto him at arrival: Platt Hamilton. Even with pleas to be returned to freedom, Solomon Northup’s cries went unheard and his twelve years of hell on earth began. 12 Years A Slave gives audiences a look into the horrors of our history and raises connections to our modern history.
Within the opening scenes of the film, the audience is given a firsthand glimpse into the hardships Solomon Northup faced. After waking up in chains, in a new world of captivity, Solomon Northup notifies his captors of their mistake, though in their eyes this was exactly what they had planned. To them and many others, anyone who was a person of color, free or enslaved, only had one sole purpose in life: slavery. During the times slavery existed, there was a division in places where slavery was legal and places where it had newly become abolished. Typically, the northern states became safe havens where blacks were considered free individuals while the south was a place of bondage and cruelty. However, this is not to say that many northerners wished to see blacks in bondage. At this point in history, black individuals who were former slaves or free their entire life were required to carry around documentation proving their freedom: “freedom documents.” When Solomon Northup tries to state that he was in fact a free man, he is asked to prove legal documentation, only to find out that he could not find them anywhere on him. He had been stripped to bare skin while unconscious with his clothes and papers disappearing along with his freedom. The requirement to carry around documentation proving freedom was one of the major differences between blacks and whites in this time period. After the granting of freedom for former slaves in certain states, laws and regulations inhibiting freedom for blacks were enacted in order to counter the initial abolishment of slavery. In chapter four of Freedom on My Mind by Deborah Gray White, Mia Bay and Waldo E. Martin Jr., rules surrounding the strict rules around proof of legal status for blacks is further touched upon “Ohio passed black laws requiring all free blacks to supply legal proof of their status and to post a $500 bond to guarantee their good behavior…bond requirements for free blacks eventually reached $1,000 – a sum well beyond the reach of most African Americans (White et. al, 2013).” Not everyone was on board with equal living conditions for people, regardless of their skin color. This theme of black individuals having to prove themselves “legal” still exists in our modern-day history. Though not as strict and dangerous, African Americans today are held to a higher standard, having to constantly be wary of how they act with other groups. An example of this behavior being exhibited today is with African Americans being harassed by whites when they are in neighborhoods that they “don’t look like they are from” as well as during bouts with law enforcement. Similarly, to Solomon Northup’s story, even being respectful and compliant is not always enough. It at times costs black Americans their lives. There are too many stories, too many tragedies where black individuals lose their life because some people want to be ignorant and do not want to grant the ability for them to be treated fairly with respect and dignity. Furthermore, African Americans are not held to the same standards as their white counterparts in which crimes committed are being monitored. One of the biggest events in history that emphasizes the disparity in race treatment for crimes was the War on Drugs during the late 1980s-1990s. In this time, “Black adults made up only 13 percent of the drug users (according to survey data) but constituted 40 percent of those arrested for drug violations (Langan, 1995).” Similarly, within the prison population, African Americans make up nearly 13.4% of the total US population but account for the largest population in US prisons, 34%, in all ranges of crimes. Even after 156 years since the abolishment of slavery, black Americans have to fight for their rights to live fairly today.
The film then moves to show Solomon Northup’s life as a slave working for several owners by the likes of William Ford, John M., andEdwin Epps. During his time under the three owners, Northup endures twelve treacherous years of hard labor, whippings, lynching attempts, and various other forms of torture. He was manipulated into using his talents as a fiddler for the entertainment of his masters and forced to let go of any actions that let him be himself.
One of the most powerful lines is delivered towards the closing of the movie, during the end of Northup’s time in slavery. Played by Brad Pitt, Bass, a Canadian worker on Edwin Epps’ farm says to Northup, “I take comfort in knowing I can walk out of here a free man tomorrow…”. This line strikes at the center of earlier acknowledgment in the different treatments between blacks and whites in today’s time. Sadly however, this treatment does not only apply between blacks and whites anymore but rather all minority groups and whites. It is fair to say that in today’s climate, whites do not have to fear walking the streets alone, driving down a road while speeding a few miles or going into expensive stores; whereas minority groups have to always have an eye looking over their shoulder to ensure their safety.
It is 2021, the United States of America seem more divided thenever in recent history and it seems that race is in the center of it. There is so much in which race plays a role in treatment of individuals whether it’s in crime, healthcare, education or anything else one can think of. It is time to put aside the physical differences that set us apart and find what links us together: our humanity. No one is born better than another. We should be judged for our character, not for what we look like. 12 Years A Slave does in fact give a look into the harsh reality of our history, but it sparks the need to rethink how certain groups have been and are being treated today.
Cole, R. (2013, October 1). Solomon Northup. Retrieved March 08, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Solomon-Northup
Mandell, A. (2013, October 18). ’12 years’ CAPTURES brutality, reality of slavery. Retrieved March 08, 2021, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/people/2013/10/17/12-years-a-slave-behind-the-scenes/2995965/
McQueen, S. (Director). (2013). 12 years a slave [Motion picture]. United States: 20th Century Studios.
Weisburd, D., & Majmundar, M. K. (2018). Read “proactive Policing: Effects on crime and COMMUNITIES” at NAP.edu. Retrieved March 08, 2021, from https://www.nap.edu/read/24928/chapter/9#268
White, D. G., Bay, M., & Martin, W. E., Jr. (2013). Freedom on my mind. Boston, MA: Bedford Bks St Martin’S.