The film Film 12 Years a Slave bears many similarities to Frederick Douglass’s autobiography The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The movie portrays the old South as the heart of darkness for the black people. Chiwetel Ejiofor, the main character in the movie, lived a free man in Saratoga Springs, New York but tricked into slavery by two visitors1. Ejiofor’s life in slavery is hell-like as he experiences brutal, gut-wrenching conditions the same way Fredrick Douglas did. In both works, slaves are portrayed as commodities with no freedom or any human relation to their masters.
While both the film and the autobiography explore the disheartening challenges facing slaves, the movie does not depict how the slaves managed to establish some levels of economic and social autonomy. Understandably, during the 19th century, slavery in the South was at its peak, but some individuals found a way to lead a free life. In Fredrick’s autobiography, some strategies on how slaves managed to earn their liberty are explored. The most dominant one is running away through the underground railroads2. Another method is buying freedom from their masters by fulfilling some requirements. The abolitionists also played a significant role in helping the slaves escape bondage.
In the 1800s, the idea of freedom and equality differed significantly. An individual could be free but could not be treated as an equal to others. Black people were not free in the first place as most of them were in bondage under the peculiar institution of slavery. Therefore, to them, freedom meant breaking away from their masters. On the other hand, those black people enjoying freedom did not know what equality was. Black was perceived as childlike and inferior to whites such that they could not be trusted with any important position, except working under commands. Freed black could not vote or hold offices the same way whites did. Therefore, freedom and equality were two diverse concepts rarely available to African Americans.
- Alfred, Alfred, M. Natsir, and Ririn Setyowati. “Slavery of the Main Character Solomon Northup in the 12 Years a Slave Movie.” Ilmu Budaya: Jurnal Bahasa, Sastra, Seni dan Budaya 1, no. 3 (2017): 188.
- Frederick Douglass. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. Elegant Ebooks, 1845.