The Brutality of Slavery in the 19th Century based on the Movie 12 Years a Slave

Slavery was one of the most pervasive features of life in the American South. Often referred to as a “peculiar” institution, it was the most noticeable hallmark of this agrarian society. Before the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865, slave states were officially acknowledged by the federal government as areas where it was legal to purchase and own slaves. New Jersey, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Louisiana South, and North Carolina were known for their proclivity towards this aspect of Southern life (Ernest, 2014, p. 87). While the Northern States relied on free labor, Southern states were deeply rooted in servitude for economic success. The development of plantation farming meant that there was an increased demand for African and African American slaves who were immediately put to work as farmhands.

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Slavery was a topical issue in 19th century America. Slavery was abolished in all Northern States 1805 which essentially made African Americans free. However, things were entirely different in the South. Wealthy landowners were deeply steeped in agriculture and depended highly on slave labor for economic sustenance.  News of their brutality and treatment of slaves soon created a rift between these two regions. The Mason-Dixon dividing the slaveholding states of Delaware and Maryland from Pennsylvania came to embody this conflict.  The kidnapping of free African Americans living in the Northern states also became prevalent during this period owing to the value slaves in the South. 12 Years a Slave is a historical drama that retells one such story. The protagonist, Solomon Northrup, lives as a free man in the North but is soon kidnapped and sold into slavery. He ends up in Louisiana where gets a front-row seat on the horrors and brutality of bondage. Exploring the brutality of slavery using this film is therefore instrumental in helping one to comprehend an essential era in American history, the prevailing law at the time and incentives provided by the government towards this end.


12 Years a Slave is a film directed by Steven McQueen and based on an 1853 memoir written by Solomon Northrup about his experience as a slave. Having been born and brought up as a free man in New York State, Northrup hardly knows what it is like to be a slave. Over the years, he has enjoyed a privileged life as a famous violinist and is even lucky enough to have a family. Things seem to be looking up for him, and he is pleased with the life he has made for his wife and two children. It is no wonder that Northrup quickly accepts an offer for short-term employment presented by two white men who are enthralled by his skill as a musician (“First Synopsis and Promo Poster for 12 YEARS A SLAVE Starring Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender,” 2011). The two white men (Hamilton and Brown) inform him that they will all have to travel to Washington in the District of Colombia where he is expected to perform. However, Northrup is drugged on arrival only to awaken inside a slave pen where his abuse begins. He tries to inform his captors that he is a free man, but is severely beaten.

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Soon afterward, Northrup is forced to accept this new reality and is transported to the South. He is given a new identity by his captors and characterized as a runaway Georgian slave before being sold to William Ford. His suffering continues in this new setting. John Tibeats, the plantation carpenter, dislikes Northup and takes every opportunity to punish him. Northrup soon gets despondent and decides to whip Tibeats savagely before being sentenced to hang. To save Northrup’s neck, William Ford sells him to Edwin Epps who is a stubborn plantation owner. In his new location, Northrup meets Patsey who is regularly raped by the plantation owner. Patsey’s woes are further compounded by the fact that her mistress abuses for she is jealous of the particular liking that Edwin Epps has for her.

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Edwin Epps experiences a terrible season that sees his crops destroyed by cotton worms. As a result, he leases off his slaves to Judge Turner, a neighboring plantation owner, who is in desperate need of additional farmhands. It is here that Northrup’s talent as a musician is recognized. He is allowed to play the fiddle and keep his earnings, although Edwin Epps proceeds to swindle him. Northrup’s attempt to mail a letter to the North informing his family members of his whereabouts fails and he narrowly escapes detection (Dargis, 2018). During this same period, Patsey is caught sneaking into a neighboring plantation to acquire soap. Edwin Epps forces Northrup to whip her as punishment for this infraction, an action that leaves the latter deeply disturbed. After meeting an abolitionist by the name Samuel Bass, Northrup finally reveals his identity and pleads with him to deliver his letter to Saratoga Springs. Bass agrees, and the sheriff arrives shortly after with a man in the carriage ready to identify Northrup and corroborate his story. Northrup is freed, leaving behind fellow slaves but prepared to reveal the horrors of slavery to a Northern audience oblivious of this reality.

The Manifestation of the Brutality of Slavery in the film 12 Years a Slave

Physical Abuse

 Slaves were generally treated in an inhumane manner. During this period, physical abuse was prevalent and even sanctioned by the federal government. The situation was even worse in plantations located in far-flung regions with absentee masters.  Overseers took this opportunity to terrorize slaves in the harshest way possible. Since slaves would make numerous attempts to escape, branding was common as a way of identifying runaways once they were apprehended. The process involved the use of red-hot iron that was pressed against the skin, leaving a permanent mark. Savage floggings were also common in Southern Plantations where slaves were often subjected to unprovoked beatings (Ernest, 2014). Any perceived transgression, real or imagined, was met swiftly by an organized campaign of physical abuse. For instance, Maryland law permitted the hanging and decapitation of any slave who seemed to foment rebellion. South Carolina allowed overseers to kill slaves if need be.

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 Floggings were public affairs deemed necessary for psychological purposes. Typically, the slave would be stripped, tied to a post and lashed on the back using a thrasher or any other field tool available at the time. Severe bleeding was common during such encounters but overseers seemed to care less. During other instances, ground brick, pepper and oil would be rubbed on the wounds to increase the level of suffering. While some survived these ordeals, there were those who succumbed to their injuries. Solomon Northrup gets a taste of what it is like to be a slave when he awakens after being drugged en route to Washington, D.C to perform as a musician. Brown and Hamilton proceed to whip him ruthlessly as soon as he proclaims his freedom. John Tibeats, the carpenter at Edwin Epp’s plantation, also abuses him physically. Northrup’s attempt to resist this form of abuse sees him flogged and nearly hanged for his crime. Patsey’s effort to obtain soap from a neighboring plantation also stirs up trouble for her. During this affliction, Northrup is placed between the devil and the deep blue sea. He is forced to whip Patsey, an action that also scars him emotionally.

            Throughout a majority of the scenes, it soon becomes apparent to the viewer that brutal violence was part of a systematic campaign meted out against the enslaved blacks of the antebellum South. These scenes are highly detailed and depict life as it was during this horrific period in American history. It is vital to acknowledge that they were all based on a verifiable autobiographical account of the physical violence that was witnessed by Solomon Northrup during his stint as a slave. McQueen’s relentless and gruesome depiction of the physical abuse experienced by the slaves was meant to place this violence under a cinematic microscope in a manner that would allow him to explore an issue rarely talked about in mainstream America.  Slavery still remains a highly emotive topic in the United States and has left an indelible stain on the country’s national character. Filming 12 Years a Slave and bringing Solomon Northrup’s account to life was therefore a bold move by the director in an attempt to make a historically accurate film about the fate of most African American slaves. To drive his point home, McQueen makes sure that such scenes are longer than usual so as to have their desired effect on viewers (Pecchenino, 2014, p. 31). For instance, Northrup’s hanging and subsequent dangling from a tree was extended as a cinematic technique that would express slavery in some of the most authentic depictions ever made.

Sexual Violence

            Rape and sexual abuse was a common feature of life for many slaves in the American South. Its prevalence stemmed from a lack of legislation protecting slaves and codes defining their treatment. In essence, slaves were regarded as property, classified together with hogs, cattle, horses, and buggies. A slave master, therefore, wielded powers that went unchecked when interacting with individuals they deemed “property”. A vast majority of those who were consigned to this life were African American women. They were sexually exploited from a tender age and did not receive any form of protection from the state. Typically, slave masters would manipulate such women into high-risk situations, such as meetings in their bedrooms or working in a dark field where it would be easy to prey on them. In most cases, such advances were never fought off. African American slaves were aware of the consequences of resisting such advances and therefore submitted.

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 Sexual violence also resulted in the birth of bi-racial children who subsequently became slaves. Under the 1662 partus sequitur ventrem principle, any child born of a slave mother adopted their status regardless of descent (Rosenthal, 2018). As a result, slave owners, overseers and their relatives continued practicing their exploitative actions with the knowledge that they would be free of any responsibilities if the union resulted in an offspring. In addition to this, slave masters viewed this as an opportunity to increase their pool of slaves. The prices of slaves had skyrocketed during the antebellum period, and any addition was seen in positive light. These children would be put to work as soon as they were old enough to work and others sold to willing buyers at a substantial price. In 12 years a Slave, Patsey is sexually abused by Edwin Epps who is seemingly obsessed with her. She is powerless and knows better than to resist (“Reviews: 12 Years a Slave,” 2013.). Her mistress soon becomes jealous and also abuses her whenever she gets an opportunity. To her, Patsey is the reason why her marriage is on the rocks and also why their crops were afflicted with the blight. Patsey’s mistress also refuses to give her soap, an action that drives her to sneak into a neighboring plantation leading resulting in her flogging incident. 

Forced Family Separations

Enslaved people also had to contend with separation as a standard fixture of life in the American South. Family members knew better than to get attached to lessening the pain of separation. Separation often began during slave auctions. A slave family would be brought up to the podium and sold to the highest bidder. In rare occasions, a wealthy businessperson would buy an entire family and keep it together. But, in a majority of the slave auctions, individuals were purchased by different individuals who often resided miles apart from each other. As a result, families were divided right down the middle, causing them unimaginable angst and torment. Slave owners did not care about keeping these families together but were only interested in the money they would generate from such sales. The commodity in question was lucrative and could make a king out of the meekest of men. The closure of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in 1808 across continental America also increased commercial activities related to the sale and purchase of slaves (Rosenthal, 2018, p. 32). In particular, slave children became a precious commodity that was highly sought after by investors. Forced separations, therefore, became a common phenomenon where young children would be snatched from their mothers and sold off to whoever paid the highest coin. They were immediately put to work, usually in the house, but some would begin work in the fields at a tender age and continue with this challenging routine for the rest of their lives.

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The separation of families was also supported by the predominantly Christian white families of the South and intricately woven in its fabric. There were those tasked with crafting the shackles that would be used on the slaves once they were sold to prospective buyers. Securing such individuals was vital in ensuring that they did not attempt to escape and amount to losses for slave owners. Others managed the slave jails where they were kept before being transported for auction. It was always vital to ensure that the slaves were taken care of during this stage to make sure that they arrived at the market as healthy individuals free of any blemish. The generation of official documents required to finalize these transactions also involved white families that were versed in the trade. Reading and writing were prohibited for slaves as a way of ensuring they remained ignorant and could not question any of the established Southern norms. The printing of advertisements for runaway slaves who wanted to get back to their families was also a common occurrence during this time.

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Brutal bounty hunters would often be called in with bloodhounds in tow to track down runaways and bring them back to their rightful owners. It was such individuals who tricked Solomon Northrup into accepting an offer for work at Washington, D.C then label him as a runway from New Orleans to validate their claim. As a result, Northrup is abruptly separated from his dear family and ends up within the grips of slavery. At the plantation, he soon learns that forced separation is a common feature of life as a slave. More often than not, Edwin Epps separates mothers from their children in a bid to control them and make a profit from the sales. Northrup suffers for 12 years, separated from his family in Saratoga Springs but never gives up hope.


Slavery in the 19th century was arguably one of the most brutal practices during this epoch. Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave explores the horrors of slavery, shedding light on the physical violence, sexual abuse and the forced separation of families. It serves as a constant reminder of this social ill and why the world needs to be united in ending all forms of contemporary slavery.

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