12 Years a Slave

Official poster to Steve McQueen's movie !2 Years a Slave (Image Source: Fox Searchlight: 12 Years a Slave)

Official poster to Steve McQueen’s movie !2 Years a Slave (Image Source: Fox Searchlight: 12 Years a Slave)

I am a huge fan of the works of Steve McQueen, not Steve McQueen from the Great Escape, this McQueen is responsible for Shame, and now another great movie, 12 Years a Slave.

Slavery, a “peculiar institution” that existed in America, is  a sad and shameful part of US history. But the history that we know broadly, slaves brought from Africa and sold as “chattel” at auctions, sometimes for $800 each, turns out to be far more complex.

In the years preceding the civil war in America kidnappings of free black men and women from northern states did occur, and this is the story of Soloman Northup. It is a true story of Northup’s abduction from a free life in upstate New York to the life of a slave in the south.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, and Michael Fassbender portrays the cruel slave master he is sold to.

Unlike Alex Haley’s “Roots”, or the movie The Amistad,  12 Years a Slave portrays a view of pre-civil war America as being not just ideologically divided with regards to the slavery issue, but within the black community there was division, and though black men and women were “free” in the North, they still had their “place.”

This is shown in McQueen’s film during the scene when Northup and his wife are shopping for a travel bag, and again when Northup is rescued by the white man who shows up at the southern plantation with Northup’s papers.

What struck me most about 12 Years a Slave was how the definition of “free-man” altered between black and white. There are, it would seem, varying degrees of freedom. That is what I left this movie with, a sense that even in the North, black men and women had a different freedom to the whites, and certainly a different freedom to the blacks living in the South


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