12 Years a Slave: A Tribute to Noble Characters

Posted: March 10, 2014


Through a modern, serious take on the theme of slavery, McQueen is successful in underlining the resilience of his characters’ determination to hold onto life, and their persistence in defying their circumstances. 12 Years a Slave abruptly affirms the abuse of slaves, yet it presents them as noble human beings through their defiance against the system in which they live.

The Louisiana-based set highlights the vicious treatment of slaves through a number of brutal scenes in the masterpiece that is the surrounding natural landscape. The film attains contrasting visuals in the oak trees within Ford’s Pine Woods estate, as they stand proudly to witness the hanging slaves. Staging Solomon’s defiance against an attempt at his life in this haunting setting, McQueen amplifies the horror by lingering on Solomon’s submissive and bowed posture.

Likewise, the Epps’ delicate cotton plantation doubles as the scene of a slave’s abrupt death. This dehumanisation of slaves into ‘baboons,’ as Epps puts it, is tangible and screamed consistently to traumatize the viewer with the horrors and atrocities on the screen.

12 Years a Slave coins and continually engages in a silent war theme; Patsey’s embodiment of sentimental elements Epps cannot enslave makes for the strongest defiance against her abuse. Her faith in a higher authority that is God is Patsey’s certainty of human rights to dignity and grace.

At first perceived a two dimensional character, she is reinstated as a human being fighting for her right to be respected and liberated. Patsey’s later request for Solomon to drown her in the river is a particularly powerful point in the film. Proclaiming her belief that God will forgive her, Patsey attempts to use dignity and grace to contest against the intense horrors and atrocities in her short life-span.

The film fuses a motif connecting liberation and divine song, and slavery is discussed in this frame to explore Solomon’s suppression. Speaking at the Toronto film festival, Chiwetel Ejiofor described Solomon’s journey as a ‘silent war,’ which can be characterised through Solomon’s suppression of his profession, education and identity to survive. Solomon’s heart-wrenching epiphany appears at the graveside rendition of Roll Jordan, Roll as we witness for the first time Solomon’s solace in uniting with a human in equal circumstances to share and fight his pain. In this way, Solomon evolves in his approach to tackling his grief and channelling his pain to a divine authority.

Having discussed moral ambiguity and societal imbalance at length, the film moves on to outlining a universal truth in the conversation between Bass and Epps. Bass debates a truth 200 years ahead of his time; the universal fact of basic human rights being accepted and embraced by society. Bass continues in challenging Epps’ mind in placing him on an opposite spectrum to a slave, each exchanging their social circumstance, at which point Epps’ primitive mind is unable to comprehend let alone accept this scenario.

12 Years a Slave speaks from the framework of slavery yet addresses concepts far more graceful and noble- no less than the judgement of mankind on their ideals and morals. A universal need that the film highlights is man’s right to reinstate their dreams. This is illustrated though Patsey externalising her childhood from Epps in making and playing with straw dolls and Solomon’s liberation in singing a graveside rendition, as well as a number of other poignant images.

The film is a powerful testament to human dignity, an idea that was advocated in Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscars acceptance speech as she reinstated the ‘validity’ of dreams, striking an extremely graceful message on human rights.