June 3th 2014
12 Years a Slave Film Adaptation: Analysis, Rhetoric and Responses “Then did the idea begin to break upon my mind, at first dim and confused, that I had been kidnapped. I felt there was no trust or mercy in unfeeling man; and commending myself to the God of the oppressed, bowed my head upon my fettered hands, and wept most bitterly.” 19 —Solomon Northup The day Solomon Northup woke up in chains marked the beginning of his twelve year journey through slavery. Northup had been among the small minority of free African Americans living in preCivil War times who were financially well off. He was well educated and a remarkably talented violinist who resided in upstate New York. In the spring of 1841, he was lured by two white gentlemen into traveling to Washington to perform music for a circus. Tragically, he was kidnapped on the trip and sold in the Southern states as a slave. He regained his freedom in 1853 and published his memoirs of the experience as a narrative titled 12 Years a Slave. The book instantly became a national best seller that further fueled the abolitionist movement because it provided a comprehensive view of the horrors of slavery by showcasing its relentless physical and psychological violence. Northrup’s detailed account and unique perspective inspired movie director Steve McQueen to make Northup’s 12 Years a Slave into a 21st century film. McQueen’s film, 12 years a slave, accurately depicts Northrup’s anathema of slavery and as importantly, presents the hardhitting discertation that racial discrimination is rampant in our present times. McQueen’s movie is not just powerful because it is based on Northrup’s unique perspective, but also because of his vivid depiction of the brutality that past
movies regarding slavery more often than not glossed over, and in fact often were sympathetic and even romantised the plight of the slaveholderswith the romantic and personal struggles of slave holders , McQueen’s 12 years a slave strived to bluntly depict the brutal horrors, ironies and corruption of slavery. Unlike previous land marking films portraying slavery, McQueen’s film does not idealize slavery but instead employs film crafting techniques to embark the audience in a journey to understand the privileges that so many Americans now take for granted.
It was the nature of Northup’s circumstances that enticed McQueen to choose the narrative 12
Years a Slave over other popular slave narratives. Northup—having been a prosperous free man prior to his enslavement—is a character that bridges the gap in perspective between the 19th century slave and our contemporary audience. Similarly, the negligence on slavery that Northup possessed prior to his enslavement strengthens the audience’s emotional response by transitioning from a life of freedom and wealth—which we are well acquainted with—and unto the utter depth of despair and torture brought on by the institution through the loss of identity, dignity and possessions. Additionally, the fact that discrimination still echoes through the present allows McQueen’s film to link Northup’s circumstances today’s ongoing discrimination. The evidence is “present as you walk down the street in through prison population, mental illness, poverty, education”, McQueen states. A more recent and notorious example of such discrimination being Arizona’s 2012 immigration law which conspired to incarcerate immigrants and minority populations. Thus, reminiscence of the past in modern legislation and social behaviors further allow the audience, especially individuals of minority groups to connect with Northup’s character. Moreover, given that the McQueen’ film was produced for a 21st century audience, it does not ...
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