12 Years A Slave After America’s “Racial Reckoning”

This year marks the ten-year anniversary of the release of 12 Years a Slave, the “triumphant” Steve McQueen film that swept the Oscars with both critical and public acclaim. Yet 2023 also marks another decennial—the approximate moment CRT first escaped the fringes of far-left academia and began to permeate all facets of mainstream American society. Coming out of President Obama’s coalition of the ascendant re-election strategy, Americans’ views on race relations began to plummet consistently after 2013 and have still yet to recover. Looking back at the film today, its exploitative nature is more apparent than it was to the American public of ten years ago, earnestly naïve in its desire for racial healing and a truly colorblind society. It is an early precursor to tactics left-wing activists used over the past decade to force all of American society into racial grievance politics.

The film feigns to present a powerfully authentic and uniquely insightful depiction of slavery—a capstone of racial reckoning for a post-racial America finally able to grapple with the objective horror of its history. Yet in hindsight, its plaudits are much more a function of the self-satisfaction critics derived in praising the film rather than any of its standalone artistic merits.

For those who have not seen the film, it follows Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a comfortably bourgeois black man from New York kidnapped away from his wife and children and sold into slavery in the antebellum South. Over the course of twelve years, he experiences a comprehensive array of physical and emotional trauma at the hands of white slavers. Still, he endures—until fortune leads him to a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt) who helps to secure his freedom. The film proceeds deliberately from one sadistic scene to the next, manipulating the viewer into believing he is gaining an authentically gritty look into the human experience under conditions of great suffering. In actuality, however, such a depiction transforms each character into a caricature and reduces the inhumanity of slavery down to a mere gratuitous torture spectacle.

If Solomon reflects all that is good in the human spirit—strength, dignity, and compassion in the face of evil—the white characters are the embodiment of that evil. Master Epps (Michael Fassbender) is cruel but weak. Despite his twisted love for his beautiful slave Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o), he beats her nearly to death to prove his strength to himself as much as to her. On the other side of the coin is Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is kind but detached. He knows Solomon is more than he pretends to be but does not care enough to meaningfully help him. After a violent run-in with Tibeats (Paul Dano), a sadistic, low-ranking overseer, Ford sells Solomon to Epps and pats himself on the back for doing the minimum to save his life, even though he knows Epps will treat him badly. For his part, Tibeats is insecure in his status and resents Solomon for being smarter than him.

Each of these men serves as a villainous archetype for what is now progressive orthodoxy on “whiteness.” A common pejorative in today’s society, the term suggests that Western cultural norms are a duplicitous tool for cementing the “white identity” atop a racial hierarchy. Epps is an early prototype of what would now be called “white male fragility” and his cruelty overcompensates for his own insecurity. Ford is the stereotypical well-meaning white who thinks racism is wrong but does little about it since it does not personally affect him. Tibeats relishes in outranking someone on the plantation—a view progressives feverishly imagine all working-class whites hold broadly toward minorities.

To be certain, all of these stereotypes are historically accurate in many instances. Black Americans suffered immeasurably under centuries of slavery (and beyond), and on the whole, have endured it with strength and dignity. All of the most dehumanizing acts the movie gratuitously depicts—lynching, rape, merciless beatings, family separations, and more—all shamefully occurred and were callously rationalized by much of white America. Yet McQueen focuses almost entirely on these acts from one scene to the next as the driving force of the film.

This structure detracts from the simple fact that slavery is evil per se. It is sadistic for one human to hold another in bondage; the details and terms of such bondage are superfluous to establishing this. In other words, slavery is dehumanizing by nature of its existence, not just because of how masters treated their slaves. By centering the instances of horrifying treatment, McQueen reduces the philosophical and moral evil of slavery down to aesthetic Hollywood smut. The viewer misses the more nuanced aspects of the film—the emotional toll the loss of agency and dignity have on the spirit—when repeatedly bombarded with acts of physical violence in this way. The impact of slavery on the body dominates its impact on the soul.

At best, it is merely an exploitation film disguised as a meditation on human suffering. At worst, it posits a dim view of the average moviegoer who—it is presumed—can only sympathize with the plight of black America if he sees slavery depicted in this way. This is not only wrong, but actually detracts from the message the film seeks to convey by insulting its target audience. The average viewer does not need to be shocked into earnest reflection on race. McQueen indirectly reveals what he thinks of the American public’s capacity for empathy and critical thinking. Ten years later, it is clear that such a posture will inevitably breed resentment.

In this way, the film is a true but inauthentic story—it prioritizes emotional manipulation over honest reflection. The viewer leaves with a rightful sense of disgust for this period in American history, but it is visceral, not substantive. No deeper thought is required to imbibe the film’s message.

To its credit, the film avoids a didactic theme beyond the reasonable baseline that slavery is terrible—something virtually all Americans agree on. It conveys this message cheaply, but in mostly good faith. Yet in blurring the lines between insightful authenticity and performative gratuitousness, the film was one of the first major cultural touchstones to subtly but aggressively launder CRT-style racial animus into the public consciousness—opening the doors to much more nefarious actors.

Like the film, CRT activists focus on events that prompt visceral rather than substantive reactions, as the latter is much more difficult to translate into acute political action.

Critical race theory claims to provide unique insight into the plight of racial minorities in America. The theory posits that the American founding, including its laws and institutions, were formed by and continue to perpetuate racial oppression. It is not ideological, its proponents contend, but a neutral corrective to America’s heretofore self-flattering history books. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Like the film, activists conflate authenticity with performance art to produce a message that shocks rather than resonates. Activists reduce all individuals down to a collection of group stereotypes and American history—all of its social roles, experiences, and interactions—down to a predictable dialectic of victimhood and oppression. They manipulate the information consumer by hopping from one terrible act to another—from 1619 to Jim Crow to Rodney King—to obfuscate the moral progress that occurred in the interim.

However, unlike the film, proponents of CRT operate in bad faith. The atrocities that occurred throughout American history are only part of the story and not a more authentic representation of its entirety. Like the film, CRT activists focus on events that prompt visceral rather than substantive reactions, as the latter is much more difficult to translate into acute political action. While nearly all agree on the message of the film, few would likely support activists’ political priorities absent such emotional manipulation. People accept CRT’s key narratives not because it prompts reflection that leads them to arrive at the same conclusions, but because they are effectively beaten into submission by agitators who prey on their good nature—their earnest desire for racial healing in America. 

This is not an argument for contextualizing or whitewashing slavery as some critics will certainly contend. Rather, it is a call to avoid oversimplifying bad things just to more easily convey that they are bad. The legacy of racism is better understood as American principles imperfectly realized. A true “racial reckoning” would seek to continually improve the application of those principles, not pervert them. Examining complex socioeconomic and cultural factors through this lens is more likely to solve contemporary problems than the prescriptions derived from using racism as a blanket explanation for all injustice in American life. When we retreat to such intellectual laziness, we abdicate the duty to fully understand and competently defend our convictions—and lose out on the opportunity for meaningful progress.

This, ultimately, is the legacy of 12 Years A Slave: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The film, like CRT propaganda, leaves the average person thinking, “Well, I could never do any of those terrible things.” This unearned sense of moral superiority flatters us into thinking moral choices are easy—that if we lived during this period, we would have had the courage to stand up to such oppression. Yet this is never the case; by our very nature, we all possess the potential for evil. True racial healing can only occur by remembering this simple truth.

A naïve public was not equipped to recognize this playbook ten years ago. Critics presented the film as a masterpiece in its own right and the public took it at face value. The large segment of the country who has forgotten humanity’s fallen nature are likely the same ones who continue to view the film as such, rather than the abject mediocrity it is.

Yet thankfully after ten years of bombardment with CRT propaganda, much of the American public has taken a more jaded view on what the self-appointed arbiters of “true” American history have to say. If we are to repair race relations in this country—and work towards a more perfect union as envisioned by both the Founders and Martin Luther King Jr.—we must reflect genuinely and diligently through our own conscience. The bad moments of our history are important not because they are most reflective of the American spirit, but because they will lead us back to what is true and right.