12 Years a Slave

In 1841, Solomon Northup, a free man, was drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery in the southern United States. For 12 years, he endured barbarism and cruelty at the hands of his masters, who almost killed him. When he was freed, Northup wrote a book about his experience. The film 12 Years a Slave tells his story. The injustice of his experience is laid bare in graphic detail – from the humiliating experience of being sold, to the regular beatings he received from his masters. The legacy of experiences like Northup’s remains controversial today, particularly in the USA.


Much of Northup’s experience was common. Millions of slaves were used on plantations in the southern USA, often doing demanding physical work. But unlike Northup, many slaves were either kidnapped in west Africa and transported in ships to the Americas, or born into the trade as slaves’ descendants. Where is slavery still a problem today? And how should free societies deal with its legacy?

Race relations

Northup was a black man. Although he lived in the northern USA, where slavery had been outlawed, this made him vulnerable. After his kidnapping he pleaded with his captors to let him go, as he was a free man. They simply beat him into submission, telling him repeatedly that he was a slave. Why has skin colour been a source of injustice in the USA, and why is race still a source of tension there?

Human Rights

The film is not for the faint-hearted: Northup and his fellow slaves are regularly beaten and live in fear of their masters. At one point Northup is almost hanged to death after talking back to one of his cruel captors – only to be saved by his more compassionate slave owner. How similar is the narrative of the film to stories of torture and punishment today?


The film’s powerful slave owners treat the slaves as they would any other items of their property. One even pits two of his slaves in a fight to the death simply for his own entertainment. Under southern US law, the overwhelming majority of black people were merely assets to be bought and sold at will. How do stories such as Northup’s help to overcome such indefensible injustices?

The arts

In his native north, Northup was an accomplished violinist who was often hired to perform at exquisite dinner parties. In the film, this educated, sophisticated, artistic man’s talents contrast sharply with the ignorance of his captors. Are the arts a force for good? And how much difference can they make in changing the world for the better?