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12 Years a Slave and Crossing the River: Postcolonial Critique

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12 Years a Slave and Crossing the River: Postcolonial Critique

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  • November 2013
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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...