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Alienation in “12 Years a Slave”

Alienationin “12 Years a Slave”

Tohighlight the values of the society or foundations of a culture,artists involve the use of characters that represent different traitsof the entire system. In the topic of alienation, writers and artdirectors alienate characters from the society in terms of race,gender, social class and faith. Through literal works, artistshighlight the main elements of culture that should be addressed for acohesive society. In light to this, this paper seeks to explore theelement of alienation based on race and gender by analyzing the topicin the movie “12 years a Slave.” The choice of this work of artwas inspired by the movie’s focus on the extremes of slavery andracism at a time when social alienation was based on color.


Themovie is about a hardworking and decent black man, Solomon Northup,born ad living a free citizen living with his family in SaratogaSprings in New York. Things go wrong for Solomon when he is druggedand kidnapped after a trickery to get him to Washington for musicperformances. He is chained and taken as a slave, then renamed asPlatt, a runaway slave from Georgia. He is later sold to a masternamed Ford, as a slave. The plot revolves his creativity and workingrelations with his master while as a slave. However, due to cottonplague in the farms, the master sells the slaves, including Solomonto a neighbor Epps as a way of averting what he perceives to be badluck. The new master, Epps treats his slaves badly and rapes a femaleslave, Patsey, another alienated slave. Later, a sheriff from NewYork comes to Solomon’s rescue and gets him back to his familyafter 12 years (McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”).


Alienationtake a person from the most important unit of the society andcultural set up the family. For families to grow and develop intosocieties, cohesion in the family should be enhanced by the socialsystems. As evident from the way through which Solomon Northup hasraised his family, the society around Saratoga seems to be coherent.However, alienation leads to family break ups that also translateinto social disorders. Based on racism, Solomon Northup is alienatedfrom his family through the distance that exists between the twoworlds world of freedom and that of slavery. He remembers and talksof his life with his family with a lot of nostalgia and a lot ofpersonal regret.

Inan illustration of how people can be alienated from the society, themovie depicts Solomon Northup’s alienation from the town ofSaratoga to Washington and then to the slavery farms of New Orleans(McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”). The two regions are far butmemories of the regions connect the experiences by Solomon Northup.He is totally taken from the society that made him who he was, a freeperson and beneficial to the society. Moreover, he is also alienatedfrom the new society as the whites treat blacks as beasts of burdenwho are not supposed to live. Together with other slaves, they aretreated like properties and sold in a market similar to properties.

Theaction of people treating others like beasts and also like propertyillustrates how a discriminative society can alienate sections of thesociety. Alienation vice is even made clearer that racial segregationis used as a tool of alienating free men, women and children from thesociety. They live in the same society but they live worlds apart.The masters, who are whites, live lavishly through the efforts andworks of the blacks. This is the highest level of social alienationwhere a person is made to think that he is a third class person. Thisreflects what made the two races white and blacks ad the depictionof white as the superior race.

Despitethe alienation from the society based on race, Solomon Northupillustrates that the black race is superior compared to other races.This is evident from the decisions that he makes and the actions thathe takes. In the movie, Solomon Northup seems to have a happierfamily before his kidnapping into alienated slavery. This familyseems happier than the families of the whites in the slave world ofNew Orleans. In addition, the supremacy of the black race due toalienation is illustrated when he invents a technology oftransporting wood logs, which Tibeats, a white master is unable to(McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”). This illustrates that despite thealienation, the inner person is made stronger by realizing who he isand what he can do.

Alienationis the main element of society or culture that the writer anddirector of the film invokes to drive the theme of slavery. SolomonNorthup is alienated from the family by two men who promise him goodreturns after his musical performances. To Solomon, his pursuit wasmaking money for his family and enhances his music. However,alienation takes precedence as his life is totally alienated from hismusic. He loves playing music and entertaining people. He also loveshis work as a carpenter at the small town of Saratoga. However, theevents that face his life alienated him from what he loves doing,from himself. Despite resuming music in slavery, he does not enjoyand eventually break his violin, an act that portrays the extent ofhis alienation from music enjoyment (McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”).

Moreover,alienation appears to be an element that keeps people from their owntrue identity. Solomon Northup is taken from being himself. The storyof Solomon presents the consequences of getting people in the societyto do what they were not meant to do. While being transported toslavery, Solomon Northup argue with a fellow slave on the identityand that he is not who he is being made to be, simply, the argumentspresents his recognition of alienation from his life (Buitendijk1).Even when at master Epps farm, he finds his real identity alienatedfrom him and covered with the slave tag. When he is asked by Mrs.Epps who h is and where he comes from, he gives the slave identityinstead of his real identity.

Alienationtakes the better part of a person and brands his or her conditionsand circumstances of alienation (Lacob1).This is because alienation involves taking away what one has in termsof identity and forces him or her to adapt to, mostly undesiredidentities. In the movie, Solomon Northup is the person who valuesfamily and lives a free life as Solomon Northup. However, it isevident that he is forced to be Platt, a character from Georgia. Thistakes away from himself and his fellow slaves also identify thedifference. When arguing with Master Ford, he tells him that he isnot a slave, an element that Ford illustrates by telling Solomon thathe is different from others.

Moreover,alienation takes away the abilities of a person to do what he iscapable of doing by covering the creativity that should be alive.Solomon is forced to think that he cannot do anything civilized, yetis an educated person. He hides the fact that he can read and write,to cover for his true identity and take the one forced by alienation(McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”). His abilities are revealed asalienation when he invents a technology of transporting logs over amass pool of water (McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”). This beats theideas of an aggressive slave master, Tibeats, who asks him of hisidentity again. Despite the instances, Solomon Northup does notreveal his identity until when circumstances give him a leeway to getout of the slavery alienation.


Alienationtakes the better part of a person in term of social relations at thefamily level and society level. From the movie “12 Years a Slave,”alienation is seen when Solomon Northup and other slaves are takeform their free lives to the life of racial discrimination andslavery. Alienation in this context goes to the extremes of equatingthem to beasts of burden and even worse, property that can bebought, sold, kicked, killed and disregarded. In addition to beingalienated from the society, Solomon Northup is also alienated fromhimself, from his own identity. Moreover, he is alienated from hisfamily and his career as a carpenter and passionate musician. Thisillustrates the extents that alienation can take people in thesociety through the use of racial discrimination among other forms ofsocial segregation.


Buitendijk,Jaap. 12 Years a Slave: how the Guardian reported on SolomonNorthup`s story in 1853. TheGuardian.2013. Available at


LacobJace. “12Years A Slave” Wins Best Picture And Makes Oscars History.Web. 2014. Available at


McQueen,Steve, dir. 12Years a Slave.Fox Searchlight Pictures (United States), 2014. Film.