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12 Years a Slave (film)

The Oscar winning movie 12 Years a Slave is based on a memoir by a black man who was born free but kept as a slave for twelve years.

Slaves on a sugar cane plantation

12 Years a Slave narrates the story of Solomon Northup who was born as a free man in New York. In 1841, however, he was tricked into a fatal trap. Solomon was a renowned violin player, and under the pretense of a tour and the prospect of earning a good deal of money, he accompanied, what turned out to be traffickers, to Washington, D.C. There he was captured, sold off at the slave market and shipped to Louisiana to labor in the cotton and sugar cane fields. After toiling 12 years for more or less brutal and abusive plantation owners, his contacts in New York came to his rescue.

Watch the Movie Trailer

12 Years a Slave - Trailer

  • In what ways is Northup stripped of his humanity? How many severe violations of basic human rights do you see?
  • Ponder how Northup survived to tell his story.

Watch the Entire Movie (2hrs 8min.)

African Americans and Civil Rights in the 1800s

Solomon Northup was kept as a slave from 1841 until 1852. To understand the historical context, you should study the period ranging from 1830 - 1870. Use the provided resources:

African-American Civil Rights timeline

African Americans, from Slavery to the Present Day – Text in Brief

  • Describe the status and development of civil rights for African Americans in this period of time in a brief summary. Use your own words.
  • In what way was the Amistad case important?
  • What purpose did the Underground Railroad serve?
  • How could Northup be a free man in New York?
  • Why was the slave market in Washington, D.C. illegal?
  • How could the plantation owners look at Northup and their other slaves as "property"?
  • In what way was Uncle Tom's Cabin significant?
  • What impact did the election of Abraham Lincoln as the Union's president and the Civil War have?


  • Look up a definition of racism.
  • Name some racist acts.
  • What makes the plantation owners see their slaves as "property"?
  • The plantation owners often refer to the Bible and the Scripture. For what purpose? What do you think about that?
  • The wives of the plantation owners do not execute physical violence. However, they are still racist. How?
  • There are numerous incidents of physical violence in the movie. The whites, however, also demonstrate other ways to denigrate the blacks, like calling the grown up male slaves "boy". How is that offensive?
  • One of the few respectable whites in the movie is Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt). Much to the plantation owner's dismay, he has to hire Samuel to help out as a carpenter. To show his lack of respect for Samuel, he calls him "yankee". What kind of attitude did that signify?
  • Solomon Northup's credo was :"Everyone deserves not just to survive but to live". How is Northup's story a statement of this legacy?
  • Even if Northup was encouraged to revolt and fight back, he chose to submit and obey his oppressors. He even gave up his identity and name and concealed the fact that he was a literate and educated man. Why did he do that? Was he unmanly and a coward? Explain why this was a difficult choice.
  • Ellen DeGeneres, the famous American talk show hostess, commented on the nomination of 12 Years a Slave: "Possibility number one: 12 Years a Slave wins best picture. Possibility number two: You're all racists." What did she mean?

Is the Pen Mightier than the Sword?

The book, Twelve Years a Slave, was published one year after Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel, which some regard as the book that started the Civil War by making the Northerners more aware of the cruel slave practice in the South. Even if Twelve Years a Slave became a bestseller when it was published in 1853, it has in no way competed with Uncle Tom's Cabin in popularity. Steve McQueen, who has directed the movie, has dusted the book off and put it on the shelf again.

  • Discuss in what ways a book can be a more effective tool than physical violence.
  • Can movies like 12 Years a Slave influence attitudes and make people more aware of racism?


The movie, 12 Years a Slave, insists on showing us detailed scenes of flogging, hanging and rapes. Some of the members of the Academy admitted that it was too upsetting to watch. Still, they voted for it.

  • Is it necessary to rub it in the way we witness in the movie, or should some things be left to our imagination? What do you think?
  • Why do you think the Academy members voted for it without seeing it?

If you want to read the book, you can have a look here

  • Do you think all the violence in the movie is justifiable when you read the book?
  • If not, what might be the reasons for the director and script writer to dwell on all the brutality?


US History

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