12 Years a Slave and Crossing the River: Postcolonial Critique

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In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “all this happened, more or less.” Despite the fact that time-travel and World War II (aka Slaughterhouse Five) have absolutely no relevance here, the quote still stands as a remembrance of sorts. Slavery in the colonial period happened more than less, actually. From the 16th to 19th centuries, the British Empire orchestrated the greatest institution of oppression through the Atlantic slave trade, subsequently producing unconscious bigotry and racialized fantasies. As a postcolonial United States absconded from the political, cultural and economic ways of Great Britain, imperialism remained as a consequence of the human colonialism of slavery. Steve McQueen’s adaptation of 12 Years a Slave depicts the legacy of slavery and racism, and its relation to the African American diaspora. Through the collapse of identity and white prevalence, 12 Years a Slave subverts order and chaos in postcolonial America with efforts to decolonize the mind.

The film offers an autobiographical account of a freed black man, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who –in 1841- is kidnapped after being enticed with a job offer, and sold into slavery. Through Northup’s inexplicable struggles, McQueen provides a striking glimpse into a painful chapter of American’s history, which was shaped and influenced by former colonial powers. Although 12 Years a Slave imparts a 19th century narrative, McQueen manipulates the archetype to depict the justifications of slavery through colonialism, and the detached lens of his postcolonial subaltern protagonist, Solomon Northup. Needless to say, the director offers an account of imperialist tropes and racialized fantasies; still, we can render McQueen’s film as a postcolonial canon, since it offers a moment of reflection on the troubled history and identity of Blacks from a colonial context.

Although the movie focuses primarily on African American studies, it nonetheless proves to be postcolonial, despite Ashcroft’s belief that the two fields “are vastly different disciplines” (KCPS 151). Both share the goal of destabilizing racial hierarchies, and exploiting power relationships between the colonizer/colonized and master/slave (which can be examined through colonial discourse). Thus, discrimination and racism towards black slaves in the United States and diasporic individuals (as a result of colonialism) become synonymous through the theory of neocolonialism. Under these circumstances, 12 Years a Slave and Caryl Phillips’ Crossing the River come to be one in the same through their want to reclaim and recover ethnic identity, and decolonize those internalized mindsets.

In both McQueen’s adaptation and Phillips’ novel, slaves are depicted as capital incarnate, or living debts and impersonal obligations that were foisted upon them by their status as commercial objects. One of the major plantation and slave owners in the film, Edwin Epps (played by Michael Fassbender), can be seen as an extension of James Hamilton in “Crossing the River”. Each man in his “God-fearing” mentality personify the notion of commercial detachment, which essentially allows him to participate in the slave trade while maintaining a Christian belief. Thus, slavery became justified solely through the idea that it was a means for capital enterprise.

Throughout 12 Years a Slave, the diversity of characters is conveyed through Solomon’s rather detached outlook, which inevitably fails him in his attempts to stereotypically classify slave proprietors as rogues, and the slaves uniformly as heroes. While this is actually a good thing, it allowed McQueen to subtly hint that the institution of slavery made masters and plantation overseers abusive and indifferent to human suffering. Subsequently, this notion parallels Phillip’s underlying argument of unconscious bigotry throughout Crossing the River. Each unrelated chapter alludes to the idea that men were not fundamentally cruel, and instead, was born into systems in...
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