Oppositional, Dominant, and Negotiated readings Within Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Rashaan Pace, Impact staff

Dialogue, plot/story, and action are key elements which have a profound effect on an audience’s cinematic experience, and ultimately sway the manner in which they may interpret and read into a film. Based on the true accounts of Solomon Northup life, and set in the 1841, pre-civil war, antebellum south, Director, Steve McQueen’s 2013 film, 12 Years a Slave, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o holds within it’s artistic expression, all three elements, oppositional, dominant, and negotiated readings.

Unlike any other film regarding slavery ever made, McQueen’s,  12 Years a Slave, is in and of itself an oppositional film. Generally when the issue of slavery and race relations, prior to the civil war, are raised in cinema, audiences are almost never given insight into what the experience of a free African American would have possibly been like. From the moment the film commences, the director, and writer, are intent on distinguishing, the difference between the film’s protagonist, Solomon Northup, and the usual image that usually arises in the minds of viewers in regards to a “slave” film. Solomon is not only educated, but wealthy, and initially free. Solomon walks through his neighborhood in Saratoga, New York, and blends in with it’s white citizens. He and his family walk the streets, shop the stores, and interact with the people unmolested because of the racial difference between them and their white neighbors. There is a scene in which a younger black male sees the affluent Northup family, and follows them into a store, which leads to a reprimanding from his owner, indicating that there is indeed slavery in the North as well, yet it’s effects aren’t nearly as felt as it is in the south, seeing as the carriage that carries away the Northup children and wife is driven by a white male, while they sit comfortably in the rear.

The wealth, privilege, and eloquence of language of Solomon are only a few of the oppositional elements which occur in this film.  When slavery is addressed on film, it is never depicted that white people were slaves, in certain situations, however this film contains a character named Armsby, whose irresponsible, drunken ways as an overseer on a different plantation force him into a life of slavery. While this approach on white slaves is completely oppositional, He’s not able to perform up the the labor average, yet because of his complexion, he evades the whip. While this film is revolutionary in its oppositional depiction of white slaves, it also sheds light on the favor certain masters extended to their female concubines. The characters Eliza and Mistress Shaw find so much favor that they are draped in lavish garments , and treated as prized possessions reminiscent of the days when kings of old had chambermaids and harems.

Lastly in regards to this film’s oppositional contents, there are plenty of moments of action and dialogue which are almost unreal because of the previous films and ideas about slavery which audiences have been exposed to. There is a scene in which Solomon and Master Jimmy exchange words, and physical advances at each other, however Solomon isn’t killed because of his tenacity. Instead another overseer comes to his aid, which is completely oppositional, and he’s penalized, yet sold out of ethical pity, also oppositional, to another taskmaster. As mentioned earlier, there are lots of moments in which dialogue between Solomon and his masters takes place. In these moments of dialogue, there are moments in which the master seeks Solomon’s wise counsel. This counseling from the subordinate character contradicts the idea that slavery was a completely one sided experience.

However brilliant, revolutionary, and oppositional this film may be, because of the setting,and content of the film, there are certainly moments in which ideas reflexive of dominant culture are present. Solomon is forced to accept the reality that his name has been changed to Platt.  He’s also subjected to the physical, and verbal abuse which came along with his initial unwillingness to acknowledge and accept his new and limited state of being. Because he’s forced to accept his new identity and hide the remnants of his true one, he thus conceals the fact that he can read, and when questioned about it, he lies. Although Solomon is dishonest with Mistress Epps about his literary abilities, her response, “  Master brought you here to work… any more will earn you 100 lashes,”, reaffirms the dominant culture’s understanding  and intent to maintain control through slave illiteracy, and the penalty for learning.

In addition to the physical hardships endured by Solomon and the other slaves, mental manipulation played a huge factor in slavery. Master Epps preaches a sermon in which he quotes scripture , and explicates on being “beaten with many stripes”. The way in which he manipulates scripture to force the slaves into believing that punishment was a biblically sound consequence for disobedience, and was thus their fault, reaffirms a portion of the dominant culture’s understanding of brainwashing and fear instilled in the slaves during time in which the film takes place.

Although the film is both oppositional, and dominant, there are moments in which negotiation occurs as well. While the film depicts oppositional images an educated, wealthy, legally free, yet oppressed African American, in direct contrast with dominant, manipulative,  slave masters, the film does well to present the few white people who Solomon finds favor with well. Masters Ford and Chapin do their best to preserve Solomon’s life after his tussle with Master Jimmy. The Judge shows favor to Solomon, offers him money to keep, as well as presenting him with a new violin to have in his possession. Masters Bass and Epps indulge in a heated debate over the philosophies and ethics surrounding slavery, in the midst of the slaves. Master Bass then becomes the instrument through which Solomon is able to contact his constituency in the north and procure his freedom. In addition to Master Bass aiding in Solomon’s freedom, Solomon’s friend Mr. Parker, another sympathetic white male, is the person who travels to liberate Solomon. All of these examples serve as negotiated readings, however they can also reaffirm the idea of black dependency on their white counterparts, which can be read through a dominant lens.

As mentioned earlier, this film is revolutionary in it’s oppositional depiction of the various dynamics which occurred during slavery. It has been the custom in film that slaves escape to freedom, yet 12 Years a Slave, is the complete reverse. Not only is this film a reverse of the traditional conventions, because of the dialogue, elevated language, action, wealth, and intellect of the protagonist,  97 years later, this film stands in direct contrast of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), and it’s crude depiction of African Americans.

Based on the true accounts of Solomon Northup life, and set in the 1841, pre-civil war, antebellum south, Director, Steve McQueen’s 2013 film, 12 Years a Slave, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o holds within it’s artistic expression, all three elements, oppositional, dominant, and negotiated readings. Through the actions, dialogue, and plot, the emotions of the audience are aroused so that viewers are adequately affected, and can thus interpret the piece through a vast array of different lenses.