Slavery and the mechanisms in which is exposed in Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave

Paper by Winston Hewes.

During the 1800’s, African American slaves were brought over by boat from Central Western Africa to America in a process known as the Atlantic slave trade. Slaves were chained, starved, beaten, and coerced while onboard these ships, and once they arrived in mainland North America, they were sold at slave markets to slave owners, plantation farmers, and white southerners alike. At slave markets, African Americans were objectified by their physical appearance and their potential for manual labor. Slaves were shown like cattle being bought at the stockyards to be used on farms or in houses. Plantations were notorious for having hundreds of slaves working in the fields and in the house. In Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave (2013), the harsh realities of slavery are revealed through the use of violence and fear in an effort to oppress African American slaves. Through this use of oppression, it is evident that the systemic racism towards African Americans was in part due to their subjugation and held belief by white southerners and slave owners that African Americans were property. To illustrate this idea, Steven McQueen employs the use of dialog, the unique use of cinematography, and the thematic relationship between religion and oppression as a way to disclose the objectification of blackness as it is exposed in part by his portrayal of the way in which slave masters and southerns abused and mistreated African Americans.

The historical accuracy that McQueen uses effectively exposes the objectification of African American Slaves through their physical and verbal abuse by slave owners and white southerners. In his film, McQueen identifies the subjugation of African American slaves through the authenticity of the insults and beatings that the slaves receive. In the scene where Master Epps (Michael Fassbender) confronts the slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), the audience is shown the grandiose plantation home where Master Epps and his wife reside. However, the beauty that encompasses the plantation home itself, is starkly contrasted with the harsh treatment of Patsey and main character, Platt (Chiwetel Ejiofor). In her explanation as to why she left the plantation, Patsey claims she took a walk to “commune with the Lord.” However, after much pressure from Master Epps, she reveals that she traveled to Master Shaw’s plantation for some soap to clean her body with. Master Epps condemns her for doing so and calls her a liar. She responds with an argument; however, Master Epps decides to punish her for leaving his plantation. Within the next few frames, the audience is exposed to the authenticity of slave abuse as Patsey is brutally whipped and beaten. Through the dialog, the audience gets a sense of how African American slaves were verbally assaulted by their white superiors. Master Epps threatens Patsey as he exclaims “Oh, I’ll fetch you down. Fetch some line, strip her. Strike her bare and lash her to the post. You’ve done this to yourself Pats.” Master Epps asserts his dominance over Patsey in the moment by physically and emotionally battering her. In the shot, it shows Master Epps practically spitting in her ear as he verbally assaults her. No form of respect is shown for Patsey as he clearly sees her as his inferior. This is historically accurate as slave owners were convinced that African Americans were of a lower class. African Americans weren’t seen as people, but merely as property. In this manner, slave owners treated their slaves as they would animals. They beat them and abused them in such a way that any sense of humanity was stripped from them. The words that McQueen uses in his dialog such as “fetch you down” and “strike her bare” are extremely powerful. These words are patronizing and abusive and, in this manner, the slaves are oppressed as they aren’t seen as the white man’s equal.

Another example from the scene in which physical and verbal abuse of African American slaves is perpetuated is when Mistress Epps, (Sara Paulson) intervenes in her husband’s affairs. Mistress Epps, while Master Epps scorns Patsey, watches observantly in the background. Her face is blurred from the audience; however, she can still be seen. After Master Epps forces Platt to whip Patsey, Mistress Epps intervenes, and claims Platt isn’t doing a sufficient job saying “He pantomimes. There’s barely a welt on her back. That’s what your niggers make of you, a fool for the taking.” This dialogue is extremely encompassing as it emphasizes McQueen’s political statement on slavery and the racism of African Americans during that time. The last part of her of line “That’s what your niggers make of you, a fool for the taking” is crucial to the audience understanding the intensity in which white southerners spoke to African Americans. Not only is Mistress Epps speaking from the point of view as the plantation owner’s wife, but also as a white woman. Even in a male dominated society, Mistress Epps still holds a higher ranking than the African American slaves. She is able to harass them just as her male counterparts. It is interesting because the diction that McQueen assigns to Mistress Epp’s character is more powerful and demeaning than the words used by Master Epp. This may show a power struggle and a slight prejudice towards African Americans. More importantly, using the term “Nigger” perpetuates the racism towards African Americans. The word itself is degrading and belittling. McQueen’s choice of words emphasizes the lack of respect that white southerners had for African Americans. The emotional abuse from this word is just as powerful as the beatings that the slaves endured, effectively acting as another form of oppression. This shakes the audience and forces them to examine how the world continues to be used as an offense to African American’s in today’s society.

Similarly, Jasmine Nichole Cobb in “Directed By Himself: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave” claims that “accuracy as an object in McQueen’s 12 Years demands a willful commitment to the fetishization of black visibility and suffering are essential elements of transatlantic slavery.” The ability to authentically recreate the suffering of African American slaves, is what makes the scene so historically accurate. McQueen’s ability to show the lashing of Patsey fulfills the “fetishization of black visibility and suffering.” The audience gets a first-hand look at the ways in which beatings were performed. The blood and scars that are left on Patsey are reminders of the ways in which slave owners had a cynical obsession with beating their slaves. In turn, this is compelling evidence which lines up with the conditions that slaves experienced once they stepped foot onto slave trade vessels.

Through the use of cinematography, McQueen is able to depict the ways in which African American slaves were beaten by their slave masters, authentically revealing the hatred and ill will of African Americans in the Antebellum South. McQueen uses several different styles of cinematography designs in the scene in order to illustrate the details of African American mistreatment. The scene opens with the use of an establishing shot, one in which shows the spatial relations among the main characters and objects within the setting (film/comm/pols-308, Maestu, CLU). In this specific shot, the audience is shown the plantation home, with its large open-air floor-to-ceiling windows with large draperies that blow in the wind. The porch has whickered chairs and tables for its owners to look out at the fields and large oak trees that are covered in Spanish moss. The camera then pans over to the right of the plantation where it follows Master Epps as he rushes towards Patsey. Fast forward a couple frames and the audience is presented with Patsey’s scars from previous beatings. The camera zooms in, focusing on Patsey’s back as it is covered with whip scars as she is stripped naked. While the camera zooms in, the audience is shown the right side of Patsey’s face which is scarred. In this moment, the camera blurs out, utilizing a soft focus as everything except the scars on her face are blurred out. The audience is left looking at these scars for a few moments as the camera slowly pulls away. The use of this specific type of camera movement and focus forces the audience to home in on the physical scars of slavery. Doing so, elicits the audience’s ability to empathize with those who had to endure the evils of slavery. Showing the grotesque scars of slavery shines a light on the way in which African Americans were treated as property. They were beaten and left with the scars of hatred and perhaps prejudice from their slave masters and other white southerners. In “I Got No Comfort in This Life: The Increasing Importance of Patsey in 12 Years a Slave” written by Tillet, explains that the use of closeups and soft focuses “de-familiarize [McQueen’s] audience with the most oft-repeated scene of slavery to evoke empathy for his characters and repulsion at their predicament. He does this by shifting our gaze, and thus our identification, from that of Northup, to Patsey’s, to Epps’s, and back to hers.” Furthermore, McQueen continues to use the combination of close-ups, soft focus, and revolving angles to show his audience the various points of view from the different characters. Moving from one character to the next, the audience is exposed to individual facial expressions and emotions which can ultimately be related to social and class standing. The facial expressions of Patsey and Platt differ entirely from those of Mistress and Master Epps. There is much more grief and pain in the slave’s eyes than those of their white tormentors. The stark contrast between pain and pleasure is extremely evident.

Similarly, McQueen closes the scene with the use of extreme close-ups. An extreme closeup is one that focuses on a small object or body part which fills the screen (film/comm/pols-308, Maestu, CLU). In the last moments of the scene, the audience is shown Patsey and her utter exhaustion after the brutal whipping. The camera then follows Platt as he goes to untie Patsey. It focuses on her hands which are bound to the post. The scene ends with the camera zooming in on the dropped bar of soap which lies on the ground. The whole time, the audience is only shown Patsey’s hands and the bar of soap that she had left the plantation for. The meaning behind this may lie in the idea that even the simplest pleasures that people take for granted such as bathing are quite literally stripped from slaves. The bar of soap represents the one piece of humanity that slaves may have been trying to hold onto while they endured the beatings, manual labor, and verbal abuse from their white masters. Tillet goes on to say that “the whipping is a spectacle of gruesome beauty: the steadied handheld camera closes up on Solomon’s face and then slowly follows the whip’s arc from his grief-stricken eyes to Patsey’s tortured back; the welcoming hues of the Louisiana plantation and the brazen whiteness of the Big House collide with Patsey’s tattered clothes and bloodied back. Only laughing birds, the stinging lash, and a desperate human wail puncture a strange and overwhelming silence.” The audience, once again, is shown the blatant difference between the calmness of nature and that of physical and emotional pain of the African American slaves. McQueen uses these differences in his use of cinematography to expose the mistreatment and abuse that lead to the oppression of African American slaves.

Finally, the thematic use of religion and oppression as a way to disclose the objectification of blackness play a key role in exposing the manipulation of African American slaves by their slave masters as a way to keep them oppressed and to perpetuate systemic racism. Systemic racism is defined as state policies and practices that create an unfair advantage that lead to the mistreatment of others based solely on race. In the Antebellum south slavery was legal and was used in such a manner that degraded African Americans. McQueen emphasizes the oppression that African American slaves endured as he gives Patsey a monologue in which she says “Mistress Epps won’t even grant me no soap to clean with. (crying); I stink so much; I make myself gag. 500 pounds of cotton… day in day out. More than any man here. For that I will be clean, that’s all I have to ask.” The simple pleasure of bathing is taken away from the slaves. Even though Patsey may deserve to clean herself properly as she picks the most cotton, the jealousy and prejudice from Mistress Epps hinders her ability to do so. This idea of oppression is tied in with the use of religion as a way to trick the slaves into working more, but also provides the slaves with a false sense of comfort. While Master Epps lashes Patsey, Platt screams “Thou devil. Sooner or later, somewhere in the court of eternal justice, thou shalt answer for this sin.” Platt uses the only comfort he knows outside of the physical hell that he lives in to try and process what he sees and endures. In response, Master Epps says “Sin? There is no sin. Man does how he pleases with his property.” Master Epps is in full belief that the abuse he inflicts on his slaves is in no manner wrong. However, he uses the idea of sin and “work” as a way to keep the slaves obedient. Religion is used as a tool to misinform the slaves. Schaefer in “Our Peculiar Institution: 12 Years a Slave, American Protestantism, and the Erotic’s of Racism” explains that “Religion appears in 12 Years a Slave in its conventional costume in the antebellum era, as a discursive technology that slave owners use to persuade their slaves to be obedient…slaves were by moved regimes of physical and psychological violence.” The connection between the abuse of power and religion shows that the words of the masters were believed to be the same as God’s. Furthermore, Lisda in “Slavery in Twelve Years a Slave” concurs as “many scenes of torture are shown vividly and frontally: caning, hanging neck and naked…raising humanitarian issues in a serious tone is indeed the main power in itself for this film.” The audience is left to connect with the idea that religion, when used as a form of oppression, works against that of what it’s supposed to do and increases the ability for systematic racism to occur as it becomes ingrained in the religious practices themselves.

In Twelve Years a Slave, McQueen exposes the grim realities of slavery in the Antebellum south. The historical accuracy and authenticity of the ways in which African American slaves were treated is revealed through their physical and mental abuse, along with the corruption of power wielded by their white masters. McQueen’s attention to detail in dialogue, cinematographic technique, and thematic relationships further unmasks these evils. Through the use of these techniques, the audience is able to make parallels between that of the past and the present. The ways in which African Americans have been treated by society have come an extremely long way, however McQueen highlights the idea that there is still much more to be done. The audience must use what they have learned from the past and apply it to the present, so that the future does not repeat the past.


Amalia Lisda, “Slavery in Twelve years a Slave”
Jasmine Nichole Cobb, Directed by Himself: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, American Literary History, Volume 26, Issue 2, Summer 2014, Pages 339–346,
Maestu, Nico Film Glossary film/comm/pols-308, CLU
Schaefer, D. “Our Peculiar Institution: 12 Years a Slave, American Protestantism, and the Erotics of Racism.” Bulletin for the Study of Religion, vol. 43, no. 1, Bulletin for the Study of Religion, 2014, pp. 34–36.
Tillet, Salamishah. ““I Got No Comfort in This Life”: The Increasing Importance of Patsey in 12 Years a Slave.” American Literary History, vol. 26 no. 2, 2014, p. 354-361. Project Muse

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