3 Jan

Programme Note: 12 Years a Slave


‘One end of the chain was fastened to a large ring in the floor, the other to the fetters on my ankles. I tried in vain to stand upon my feet. Waking from such a painful trance, it was some time before I could collect my thoughts. Where was I? What was the meaning of these chains?’[1]

(Extract from Solomon Northup’s book, Twelve Years a Slave, published in 1853). 

In 1841, Solomon Northup, an African-American, middle-class citizen of Saratoga Springs, New York, who had been born a free man and was married with three children, was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American South. He would remain a slave for twelve years, passed between several plantations, before he was eventually aided by a Canadian carpenter, Samuel Bass, in proving his true identity as a free man, and returning to his family. The year after he was freed, Northup published his memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, which sold around 30,000 copies within three years. Over time, Northup’s book fell away from public consciousness, but the growth of African-American Studies as an academic discipline in the USA in the late 20th Century led to re-evaluations of his work and its importance for understanding this dark part of American (and global) history.

British filmmaker and visual artist Steve McQueen (whose West Indian grandparents were descended from slaves) wanted to address slavery on film, but the project only solidified after he discovered Northup’s book; McQueen recalls: ‘It was a script already […] and with every turn of the page, there was another huge revelation. For anyone who thinks that they know slavery – you read that book and you do a double take. It was just stunning to me that I'd never known about it. In fact, the majority of the people who I spoke to about the story had no idea about it. I was like, “How did I not know about this book?” It was like reading Anne Frank's diary for the first time.’[2] In his career as a feature filmmaker, McQueen has quickly earned a reputation for addressing, in uncompromising visual style, stories which deal with pain, suffering and isolation. His debut feature, Hunger (2008), stars Michael Fassbender as IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, who starved to death in prison in Northern Ireland in 1981, protesting the British government’s refusal to acknowledge IRA members as political prisoners. His second feature, Shame (2011), stars Fassbender as Brandon, a successful executive whose mental health is being destroyed by sex addiction. McQueen’s short films also demonstrate a commitment to addressing issues of marginalisation and identity: his 2002 piece Western Deep, notably, was shot in the world’s deepest goldmine (South Africa’s TauTona), and uses sound and light to immerse the viewer in the claustrophobic experience of the mine’s migrant workers. In 1999, McQueen, a fine art graduate, won the Turner Prize for an exhibition of various video and installation pieces. In 2006, he travelled to Iraq as the UK’s official War Artist, producing a piece entitled Queen and Country, which displayed the faces of recently killed British soldiers on postage stamps.

The power of McQueen’s cinema is in its ability to draw the viewer, often uncomfortably, into the sensory, physical experiences of its protagonists. In 12 Years a Slave, there is no comfortable veneer of history or ‘pastness,’ allowing us to view events at an objective distance. If the language, dress and customs of a past century might make us feel capable of sympathising but not necessarily identifying with Northup, then McQueen’s intense focus on the physical sensations he endures draws us into jarring proximity to his suffering. Northup is an educated, articulate man, but must remain silent to avoid provoking his oppressors; in close-ups of his sweat-soaked skin, we feel the unrelenting heat of the plantation, the claustrophobic humidity and the rage which Northup must not verbalise. McQueen says of British-Nigerian actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northup, ‘he has this quality where he's like a silent movie star […] It's all about the eyes. Because he cannot be verbal in the movie, he has to use other tools to communicate.’[3] One of Northup’s fellow slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) is brutally whipped and raped by sadistic plantation owner Edwin Epps (Fassbender). While the violence exerted upon Patsey by Epps is horrific itself, the intimate scene in which a fellow slave woman tends her injuries is perhaps more distressing, as we see the damage that has been done to her body and hear her scream as her wounds are cleaned. There is no comfortable, objective distance for the viewer in this scene – we flinch ourselves, identifying physically with Patsey’s suffering. If history creates distance, pain can be said to be universal and timeless – something all of us understand. In Hunger, memorably, there is no mention of politics in the film’s last half – the focus is entirely on Bobby Sands’ physicality and the minutiae of a human body starving: choking, convulsing, blurring the line between life and death. In 12 Years a Slave, Fassbender’s character, Epps, expresses his rage and frustration through his violent physicality; McQueen says, ‘He's in love with [Patsey], but he cannot fulfill that love. He also hates himself for it. He hates himself because he loves this slave – he loves this black woman […] He hates all for it. So there's this guy who has a lot of anger and a lot of longing that just comes out in a physical way.’[4] 

At the film’s end, Northup is reunited with his family; but intertitles before the credits tell us that he failed in an attempt to sue his abductors. Slavery was not abolished in the USA until 1865 and Northup, as a black man, was still not permitted to testify against white men. The circumstances and date of Northup’s death remain unclear: there is no clear end to his story, as there is still no end to the legacy of slavery and racial prejudice throughout the world today. As McQueen reflects, ‘Prejudice is all around us. Just walk down the street—it's everywhere.’[5]

Jenny Munro-Hunt
Researcher, University of Glasgow
January 2014


[1] Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave (Auburn: Derby and Miller, 1853).

[2] Steve McQueen, in Elvis Mitchell, ‘Steve McQueen,’ Interview Magazine <http://www.interviewmagazine.com/film/steve-mcqueen-1/#_> [accessed 2 January 2014].


[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.


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