12 Years a Slave

The Twelve Years a Slave is a drama film based on a narrative memoir with the same name. It introduces the story of the main character, Solomon Northup, who had been a free citizen of New York until the day he was kidnapped in 1841 in Washington City. Northup meets few white men who promise easy employment, fast money, and adventure. In reality, those men’s promises lure Solomon to Washington City where they drug him, beat, and sell into slavery. Northup becomes a slave for the next twelve years, and the film shows how the life of the free man dramatically changes and how he delivers that new conditions. The purpose of this essay is to analyze current film through the prism of sociological concepts. It also introduces phenomena illustrated in the movie and examines them deeply. The essay raises the topic of gender violence, patriarchal oppressions, and feminism. The main message of the movie is to show how subjective the discriminative and violent processes are as the society stimulates them and ways of stopping these processes.

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Social Perspectives Related to the Film Plot

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory is the perspective of sociology, which defines that uneven separation of power, resources, and status in different social groups can lead to arisen of tensions and conflicts. The film mirrors the theory clearly when it shows how black labors are treated differently from the white ones. During the film, one can examine that between a master’s and slaves’ chains there are several white people who represent the power of the master and control slaves’ work on a plantation and all other parts of their lives. Even though that white people are also just workers, they are still treated with less disrespect and violence. . Unequal power, resources and status parceling has served the reason of growing number of conflicts between two social groups in the movie. The theoretical perspective has qualitatively developed over the time. Toda, the power distribution between white and black people in the society is more balanced. The last still face many microaggressions but the government strives to make them disappear.

Functional Theory

The functionalism perspective is the theory focused on the macro-level of social structure. The theory states that the society is an organism with many parts, and all those parts are highly important in the process of its establishing. All the sections are dependent on each other, and each of them has specific needs and makes impact on society. An institution lives only while it stays a functional part of society. In the film, the functional theory is showed in the problem of slavery. Slaves are the group of people who are the property of their master and forced to stay in slavery, live in the given environment, and carry all orders they get under the fear of tortures and death. Workers of a middle chain also represent a social group, which is responsible for controlling the latter ones. That group formed during the process of enslavement and was needed in the society since masters could not govern slaves directly. Therefore, that middle chain formed on the functional purpose. As soon as slavery was cancelled, that group was not useful in the society anymore so it stopped existing or transformed into another functional group. Now, the exact functional group (“middle chain”) phenomenon does not exist in its initial form. Nowadays the profession of the manager of the middle chain exists, which reminds its roots. It is important to note that the functionalism of the “middle chain” has developed in a more delicate and appropriate profession of the manager. Now, his/her main function is to monitor how dependents succeed in their work, which does not differ from the task in a slavery period. The thing that has changed it the way of carrying that function is the shift from violating and abuse to the adequate organization of the work aspects. While in the slavery period the main goal was to accomplish all possible tasks with no matter of workforce amount, now the key aim is to reach success by improving workplace and making the process of work as effective as it is possible. 

The Role of the Background in Characters’ Social Lives

Producers of the movie use the geographical pointing in the story: the North is contrastingly different from the South since in the North black people are free, and in the South they live mostly as slaves. Based only on that fact, it can be implied that if black people showed in movie lived in the North America, their social lives would be on qualitatively higher levels. Supposedly, they would live calm lives with only routine problems, build their careers, make families, and enjoy the right to communicate with anyone completely freely. They would have a possibility to speak freely and make friends with no matter of color. 

The story takes the time slot between 1841 and 1853. It is know that in the period from 1619 to 1865 the fact of slavery was regular in the South America. Keeping it in mind, one can say that if the characters of the movie lived at the period before or after the slavery page, their social lives would stay on another level. However, that level would be dependent on the period– before 1619 or after 1865. It is clear that in the first case heroes would experience violated social lives, and in the second case, they would have an option to improve those lives gradually. As the scene happens in the slavery period in the area where that slavery is maintained, all characters have to apply to those conditions. Larger social forces expressed in the film are: 

  • Discrimination (unlike white workers, black slaves lose all human 
  • rights); 
  • The influence of the social environment (different social 
  • environment might positively affect characters’ lives); 
  • Crimes and violence (violated human rights, plural facts of physical abuse even in
  • relation to free people). 

If the characters lived in another culture, their whole life would be different. It is the cultural differences, not the color of skin that defined their destiny. For instance, being born in North, Solomon is a free man known as a master of violin, has with family and lives a peaceful life. Then, in another culture, he is a slave with no rights while his skin color is the same.

Sociological Concepts Depicted in the Movie

Deviant Behavior

Deviant behavior or deviance is the behavior, which violates formal or informal rules of social norms. The movie shows plural facts of deviant behavior of the characters. An example is the episode of relationships between Patsey and Epps. Since slaves were considered property, their master had a right to do anything with them. Anything that slaves were forced to do was not by a will, but under the fear of beating. Consequently, the behavior of the slave is not independent and cannot be seen as deviant since he/she does not have an opportunity to choose another way. In time, masters were educated and knew what was forbidden. Nevertheless, Epps repeatedly raped Patsey. 


In accordance with civil rights, discrimination based on gender is a violation that includes sexual harassment, unequal pay for work of women and men, pregnancy discrimination, and many others. The film showed that female slaves were not just free workforce but also objects of sexual abuse. Turning to Patsey, she has happened to be a victim of plural insults. First, she suffered her master’s sexual harassment, and then her white mistress found Patsey’s fault in it, which is why the mistress started to torture the girl physically: 

“If [Patsey] uttered a word in opposition to her master’s will, the lash was resorted to at once, to bring her to subjection; if she was not watchful about her cabin, or when walking in the yard, a billet of wood, or a broken bottle perhaps, hurled from her mistress’s hand, and would smite her unexpectedly in the face”. The woman in slavery serves as free sexual support, and since a slave is a property of master, woman has no right to refuse giving that service. In addition, black female slaves had to face the separation from their families. The movie brings the story of Eliza who was mandatorily separated from her two children. One more discriminative fact about women in the story is that they work as hard as men does and have to agree with worse respect. 


As described earlier, the hierarchy of each plantation included three main institutions: master(s), labors who controlled slaves, and slaves themselves. Even though the white ones were just labors, they still were at the higher level of the system. Concerning black slaves, Solomon gets the status of a “senior” slave. That means that he has special position in the black slaves’ group, and they have to respect him more than other blacks. Even with that high status in black group, Solomon still does not matter to whites since they still are in the higher class. The fact that people on the plantation were divided into different classes by the color of skin already shows the presence of racism in the story. The question of classes is also underlined in the issue of speech right. In the film, there are several scenes when the right to speak for the black people is roughly violated, for example, in the scene where the master gathered all black men but they were not allowed to talk at all. The right of basic needs suffers violation when slaves are robbed of proper food, their own homes, and proper place to wash. 

Research Study

The topic of the research: Human rights violations in the movie “12 Years a Slave”.

Hypothesis: It is predicted that the analysis of secondary data will be relevant in determining sociological concepts.

Problems that are being examined: The research will be focused on finding and analyzing facts of violations, imaged in the movie, in relation to sociological concepts, such as deviant behavior, racism, gender. The paper will examine the effectiveness of secondary data analysis for sociological research.

The method of the research: The method of textual analysis or secondary data will be used in this paper which to exam variable episodes in the film “12 Years a Slave”. The purpose of the research will be to analyze the given film in details on all rights violations, showed in the movie. The research method will also examine an additional sources, such as the Solomon Northup’s narrative diary Twelve Years a Slave and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The process of the research will begin with reading the UN UDHR; the next step of the research will be watching the movie. During the second step of the research, the episodes of violating basic human rights to be notices, studied in details in relation to the UN UDHR, and pointed for the next analysis. The last step of the research will be studying episodes of violation, explored in the movie, with the original book. 

Con: The study will use a limited amount of sources, which might weaken the informative base and will narrow the amount of input data.

Pro: The method of the research will be organized in a way that will pursue the maximum of personal reflection on sociological concepts. That method will stimulate a researcher to provide a unique result of the study.


The “12 Years a Slave” calls for that deep painful struggle in situation of abuse and shows that pain and injustice from the point of the first-place. From that place, the film can touch the viewer can feel all the energy and the meaning of rights violations. That can help to build mentally healthier society, where all people would be treated like equal. The film also shows how large were first steps in overcoming the slavery problem and the whole problem of racial discrimination. Generally, the “12 Years a Slave” underlines twelve different human rights violations during the whole film. Those are social life, family, law, protection, employment, education, identity, speech, torture, mobility, property, and basic needs. That means that the film is not specified on a narrow topic but underlines many different issues from the various categories. Such an emotional film provides a positive influence on those who are willing to explore the problem of racism in US. Researching the main massage of the film, it can be assumed that such type of literature analysis can be definitely useful and relevant in order to study sociological concepts. While the paper literature can inform and express some sociological aspects with words, watching the film can give an internal understanding and deep realization of those aspects from the first-person. 

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