The Portrayal of the Institution of Slavery in 12 Years a Slave

Updated September 21, 2021

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The Portrayal of the Institution of Slavery in 12 Years a Slave essay

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“12 Years A Slave” is very well known as Soloman Northup’s autobiography. Solomon was born in Minerva, New York in 1808. Raised as a freeman, Solomon had achieved and education as well as the skills to play the violin. Soloman’s education gave him several job opportunities in New York and also gave him a very upright nature. Soloman was also married and had three children of his own in a lovely home. In 1842, Solomon’s life was forcefully changed when he was kidnapped and put into slavery in Virginia by two deceiving businessmen. Just like any other slave, resistance was met with cruel beatings and punishments. The institution of slavery is accurately described in the film and novel’s portrayal as it narrates Northup’s suffering and also balances the symbolizing that it objectifies. Even through minute differences between the film and novel, the integrity of these pieces is able to convey the cruelty of slavery.

12 Years A Slave By Solomon Northup

The book 12 Years A Slave encompasses the devastating suffering that Soloman Northup withstood during his years as a slave. Through the use of Soloman’s narrative, the readers are able to envision the true wickedness that racism produced without any valid justification. The author’s purpose in this book isn’t to simply tell his story of survival as a slave. Solomon makes it clear at the beginning that his narrative must be a “candid and truthful statement of facts.” This narrative has the goal to induce influence in the Northern States to speak out against the atrocious acts of slavery. Many Anti-slavery abolitionists had very unpleasant views on the act of enslavement and created pieces of art to show the cruelty and agonizing truths of slavery.

12 Years a Slave provides a very unique insight on the extents of slavery which goes to the simple concept of a hierarchal justification. To make it simple, slavery is not just about the complexion of a slave’s skin but rather it is much more profoundly tied to a sense of power. This was clearly shown when Solomon meets Celeste, a runaway slave. According to the book, Celeste was “far whiter than her owner, or any of his offspring.” This does nothing but show that the institution of slavery is not something people are born with, it’s learned. The book shows that slaveowners have the power to own another life without regards to its humanity.

Solomon’s implementation of Christianity to appeal Northern Abolitionists through religious contradictions and also uses it as a source of strength for his survival. Soloman strongly emphasizes that slavery is a learned habit and not something that comes from birth. Solomon also knows that if William Ford had been raised in an environment that was not influenced by the wickedness, he would be on the opposite side of slavery, fighting against it. This was seen when Soloman said, “The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery…” The book shows the contradictions that the institutionalized slavery brought upon the nation.

As Solomon described William Ford, his only compassionate owner who taught to his slaves about God: “He pointed upwards, and with benign and cheering words addressed us as his fellow-mortals, accountable, like himself, to the Maker of us all.” Slaveowners disregarded Christian values and manipulated them so that they could find justification for their cruel actions. The Bible was even used to enforce the obedience by slaves just like Peter Tanner did when he said to the slaves as he read the Bible, “And that servant which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.”

This is the perfect example of how the book exposes the attempts to justify the institution of slavery by the manipulation of religion. While Christianity was used towards the advantage of slave owners, slaves came to religion as a promising source of comfort and strength through their great pain. The book shows the cultural values that the enslaved communities had created such as the implementation of Christianity. Solomon explains how his father him and his siblings “to place our trust and confidence in Him who regards the humblest as well as the highest of his creatures. The author is able to attain the attention of the reader by providing factors of Christianity that bring controversy.

In a discussion between Edwin Epps and Bass, a kind Canadian construction worker, a very crucial question was asked which questioned the differences between blacks and whites. Bass asked, “Now, in the sight of God, what is the difference, Epps, between a white man and a black one?” The institution of slavery had twisted their own religion in to order to attain what they so desperately and selfishly want, which is wealth. The book didn’t only give in-depth insights on the cruelty of slavery, it also shows the humanity within the slaves. The author portrays a passion in the arts of music which brought him moments of tranquility even through his horrendous experience as a slave. The role that is portrayed through his violin in this peculiar narrative shows a deep sense of prominence in Solomon’s life.

The opening narrative to the book explained how Solomon was able to find a feeling of rejoicing and consolation by “beguiling my own thoughts, for many hours, from the painful contemplation of my fate.” The experience that Solomon endured was simply dehumanizing, same goes for every other slave. However, Solomon was able to use the violin as an instrument that didn’t only play music but also gave him company in his desolation. As Solomon contemplates on his years of slavery and suffering, he wrote: “I was indebted to my violin, my constant companion, the source of profit, and soother of my sorrows during years of servitude.” Solomon’s violin provided him with joy and tranquility through his pains: “ It was my companion—the friend of my bosom—triumphing loudly when I was joyful, and uttering its soft, melodious consolations when I was sad.”

His talent on the violin made Edwin Epps, Solomon’s most cruel, rent out to other slave owners in need of music at their parties. As Solomon explains, these few times that he is rented was able “to witness scenes of jollity and mirth” once in a while. The institution of slavery took something so beautiful like music and twisted to a point where it can become perverted and evil. This was seen when Solomon had to play the violin as he was for sale in order to increase his value for the owners. Music was also twisted when Epps drunkenly forced his slaves to dance to a “quick-stepping tune” which Solomon had to play for.

12 Years A Slave as Directed By Steve Mcqueen

12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve Mcqueen, is a current adaptation to the 19th-century slave narrative of Solomon Northup titled by the same name. This film was released on October 18, 2013, while the book was released in 1853. The film’s framework is based on Solomon’s transition from a free man to a slave and his experience as a slave. The film falls under the genre of historical drama since it is specifying on a specific group in a particular time period. The film is able to a portray concise account of slavery in this the history of the United States through its underlying concepts including trauma, violence, representation of suffering, suicide, intertwined race, and oppression.

The most popular factor of this film which causes many discussion among academia is its realism. The film did a very astounding work as they portrayed the violence and damages that the institution of slavery caused. There is a very efficient exhibition of the enslaved culture and the concept of torture. As Mcqueen creates the film, he uses a very realistic style of cinematography, he uses this style to project the atrocity of slavery. Mcqueen’s use of imagery provides an insight into the prolonged scenes of slave torture and affliction such as rape, beatings, hangings, and whippings.


The realistic cinematographic imagery and sound attempt to recreate the events that slaves underwent, which in return, creates an attempt to instead recreate the experiences. Physical trauma to psychological damage that enslavement inflicted deems slavery to be violent and evil down to its core nature. Mcqueen lingers several times on scenes throughout the film which makes the viewers have to face their discomfort of slavery and as cultural historian Dr. Thomas Doherty says “has already been called the most searing depiction of slavery ever projected on the American screen”. An unrelenting intensity is portrayed from the very starting scene of this film as the camera pushes its way through leaves in the field creating a claustrophobic feeling that sets up the viewer for the upcoming atrocities. Camera work wasn’t the only key factor for this film, Mcqueen used his actors to portray pain and suffering through their actor’s facial expression.

The Portrayal of the Institution of Slavery in 12 Years a Slave essay

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The Portrayal of the Institution of Slavery in 12 Years a Slave. (2021, Sep 21). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/the-portrayal-of-the-institution-of-slavery-in-12-years-a-slave/


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