12 Years a Slave – A landmark in United States Cultural History

12 Years a Slave follows the life of Solomon Northup, an African American who lived in the North and who was not enslaved, from directly before he was kidnapped and sold as a runaway until he was reunited with his family.

Films based on true events have to be analyzed or approach in a slightly different way than (more overtly) fictional films. In the case of 12 Years a Slave, we have over a decade of time condensed into slightly more than two hours. As a result, everything is highly selective. Rather than looking at what is actually true, we have to examine what we are shown and why.

Two, somewhat overlapping, key questions, then, should guide our initial analysis.

First, does the film speak to historical truths, as supported by evidence? Are scenes realistic based on the film’s time and place?

Second, does the film legitimately force viewers to think differently and critically, and does it, even if briefly, increase their understanding and interest in the topics covered?

For 12 Years a Slave the answer to both of these questions is yes. 12 Years a Slave speaks to the realities of beatings, rapes, lynchings, slave markets, fieldwork, extreme racism and absolute power, religion to reinforce the enslaver’s powers, methods enslavers used to humiliate the enslaved, and resistance by enslaved individuals, for example. People who see it are forced to think about the horrors of enslavement and of the United States’s past. I would be comfortable using it in a history class to give students a visual understanding of the violence and emotions involved in “slave societies.”

The film is not without a few concerns. 12 Years a Slave shows enslaved individuals picking cotton without a cotton gin and gives unrealistic numbers as to the amount they picked. As enslavement developed in the post-American Revolution South, the cotton gin was the number one factor in its exponential growth. A single enslaved person operating a small gin could clean 10 pounds of cotton a day. A large machine powered by horse, on the other hand, could process 50 pounds of cotton a day. In the film, they discuss enslaved individuals picking 100+ pounds a day. It also does not truly emphasize or really even address that enslaved individuals worked extremely long days and were given the most minimal food. Near the film’s conclusion, the sheriff aids in securing Northup’s freedom. This is the only appearance of the de jure law in the South, and the law is represented as a positive force. This representation would also tend to inaccurate.

12 Years a Slave is a must see film; indeed, it is a landmark film for its overall very honest, direct exploration of enslavement. I’ll likely do a more in depth analysis at some point in the future, but for now I want to get the word out that people need to see it and talk about it. This is a film that I will have to see several times to do a full analysis justice. The narrative structure of the film is a bit confusing, but it only adds to 12 Years a Slave’s power and mystery. I also don’t understand why it has had such a slow release and is not showing at all theaters. The nearest theater showing 12 Years a Slave is an hour from where I live!

So, please go see the movie – it’s VERY POWERFUL – and then come back here and leave your thoughts about it! 🙂

Thanks for visiting, reading, and commenting.


Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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11 replies

  1. Great!

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. @literature2guy

    Thanks! 🙂


  3. I often assign the book in class, and I’m glad to get your perspective on the movie. Regarding your comments about the cotton gin, the PBS Ken Burns documentary, The Civil War, states that a cotton gin could clean 1000 lbs of cotton per day. (This statement isn’t explained, though.) I hadn’t thought about it before, but I’m now assuming this statistic was only possible with the adaptation of the steam engine to the gin? That would have been during Solomon Northup’s time although not in the early 19th century. Interesting topic for further research! But the explosion of cotton production wouldn’t have made sense with a mere 10-50lbs of cotton being separated from the seed per day. Why have a slave like Patsy picking 100s of lbs each day if a cotton gin couldn’t keep up? Hmm. Thanks, as always, for keeping my old brain cranking!


    • steam-powered ginning factories became widespread in 1880s
      before then each plantation had its own gin, typically mule-powered
      their output was about several thousand lbs, in contrast with earlier hand-powered cotton gins
      late 19th century steam powered saw gins produced about 400-500 lb per hour


  4. @Johanna Hume

    Thanks for reading and for commenting! 🙂

    I’ll have to look more into the cotton gin and the stats. I’ve seen different numbers. From what I understand, an enslaved person could pick by just a few pounds a day prior to the cotton gin. I’ll see if I can find anything more specific with stats.


  5. A Masterpiece. Its about time a movie tackles what slaves went through in the american south. How horrific and brutal it was. Solomon’s Northup story was incredible. I walked out of that movie in tears.


  6. Thanks for your comment. It really was a powerful movie – rare for films to achieve what it did


  7. Slaves picked (gathered) up to several hundred lbs per day, 100 lb on average. Then this cotton was processed: seeds had to be separated from lint – thats what cotton gin was made for. Hand “ginning” yielded about 1 lb/day, early cotton gins – about 50 lb/day and later much more, several thousands lbs with the help of mules/horses to power them.



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