Power and Resistance in Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave"

Term Paper, 2020

25 Pages



Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Foucault
2.1 Power
2.2 Resistance

3. Antebellum American slavery
3.1 Control
3.2 Slave resistance

4. Analysis: Power and resistance in 12 Years a Slave

5. Conclusion

Works Cited

Table of Figures

1. Introduction

Although the United States Constitution declares all human beings as equal individuals, white people of European descent regarded themselves as superior compared to people of different ancestry, especially to Blacks (Benshoff and Griffin 6f.). Blacks were not even regarded as human beings and furthermore treated as objects and “legal property” of white people (Ture and Hamilton 25). This derives from the notion of race as an indicating signifier, categorising people based on supposed biological characteristics, including skin colour (Barker Sage 170). Moreover, race is not a universal concept; rather, it forms “a contingent and unstable cultural category with which people identify” (ibid.). With its prejudicial connotation, the cultural studies concept of race roots in the misbalanced hierarchical power distribution between colonialists and subjected people (Ashcraft et al. 180). Thus, colonialists referred to themselves as ‘civilized people’, distinguishing from the ‘primitive’ subject and thereby hierarchised human types (181). The dominant groups’ assumed superiority results in the suppression of the recessive subject by ranking social groups within a hierarchical system of both material and social inferiority and superiority (Barker Sage 170). This leads to the view of race being a cultural instead of a biological phenomenon (Ashcroft et al. 186). Consequently, black people suffered from Whites who maximised their power by inhumane laws and forces as they wanted to restrain and dominate the black mass during antebellum American slavery (Mullin 152).

Solomon Northup, born as a free black man, was a slave who was kidnapped and afterwards enslaved for 12 years in rural Louisiana (Fiske et al. xiii). Steve McQueen’s historical drama 12 Years a Slave (2003) tells Solomon’s life story and his multifarious ways of resisting slavery and oppression. Since cinematic adaptations of narratives or historical events display the handling of national history (Hebel 15f.), the movie majorly contributes to slave filmography by incorporating multifaceted views upon American slavocracy (Stevenson 108). McQueen’s movie hence functions as an exemplary piece of art both reflecting and questioning the cultural notion of power. As Eltis argues, even “if the master-slave power was severely maldistributed, it was never totally one-sided” (61).

Thus, the research question of this paper focuses on the relation between power and resistance within McQueen’s movie by incorporating Foucault’s notion that power is reversible and always brings along resistance. I argue that power as well as power relations change through practiced forms of resistance. For my analysis of Solomon’s confrontations with white power and strategies of resistance in the movie, I will first illustrate Foucault’s theory of power and resistance, followed by a depiction of control and slave resistance in antebellum American slavery. Finally, I will analyse how power and resistance are displayed in the movie.

2. Foucault

Michel Foucault’s work on the interrelatedness of power, knowledge and subjectivity still has far-reaching impact on cultural studies as well as sociology and philosophy (Longhurst et al. 20). Especially power has developed to be both one of the key concepts and terms within Foucault’s work as well as cultural studies (64). The following chapter gives a brief overview of Foucault’s complex work, exploring how power and resistance are exercised in society. Due to a limited scope of words within this paper, only the crucial aspects relevant for the latter movie analysis are introduced.

2.1 Power

According to Foucault, power is ubiquitous, meaning that its impact is everywhere in society and individuals find themselves under the permanent influence of power effects (Foucault Sexuality 93, Layder 9). However, at least to a certain degree, people also actively exercise power instead of only enduring it passively (Layder 107). Thereby, Foucault declines the one- and two-dimensional views of power which imply that power always flows from superior to inferior individuals (Longhurst et al. 64). These views suggest that some humans are “totally dominated and controlled by capitalism or patriarchy or ‘the system’” (Foucault Knowledge 156). Yet since individuals are able to create change in the world which, according to Foucault, is power, he denotes power and social change as coterminous (Heller 83). Power thus is not a form or type of change in particular; rather, it can be described as the medium or account for change. Change results from discourse which Foucault refers to as everything “that can be discussed, spoken or written about” (Layder 60). By conciliating “normalized forms of activity for individuals” (110), power is reinforced. This is especially convenient for certain ideology by detaining actual sources and structures of power relations from the subordinated (87).

Foucault claims that power and knowledge inevitably depend on one another. A speaker without knowledge would not be accepted as an authority. As an authority, a person influences discourse and thereby what is ‘true’ for the society (Middeke et al. 201). Further, having “persuasive or dominant personalities”, “charismatic qualities” or simply physical power (112) can contribute to power maintenance. These power sources however can still be limited by “system (or social-structural) factors” (113). HisSsS asklDiscursive change can either promote or limit human freedom. Regarding the latter, power can then be viewed as a mechanism to purpose repression, yet it is crucial to mention that “power is not repression itself” (Heller 83).

Foucault refuses the notion of power being inherently oppressive (Layder 108). It neither is an institution, a structure or a specific strength people are endowed with (Foucault Sexuality 93), nor is it localised anywhere. Power cannot be possessed by humans (Foucault Knowledge 98, 108). An individual subject cannot exercise power completely on its own in total superiority. Much more, power is “a machine in which everyone is caught” (156). This applies both to those people who practice power and to over whom it is practiced, regardless of their political or social status (ibid.).

Concerning the system of slavery, power can be referred to as “disciplinary power” (Layder 108) or as an instrument of a social organisation (114). As an answer, slaves established self-control features of their acts and behaviour caused by intimidation and surveillance (108). The system however practiced “[f]orms of training (in the use of weapons, tools, manufacturing procedures or […] the acquisition of certain kinds of knowledge)” (109) in order to assign people to certain classes, ascribe qualities or to punish them (108). As a result, individuals were given a sense of their social position within a controlled system of hierarchy (109). These practices naturalised the system of slavery via internalisation processes (108).

2.2 Resistance

Following Foucault’s notion of power, the world should not be regarded as a “grey arena” (Longhurst et al. 64) where people find themselves under the permanent influence of dominance and control by certain political and social systems. Instead, as Foucault claims, “as soon as there is a power relation, there is possibility of resistance” (Monarchy 153). By using their power and knowledge, authoritarian instances control their counter-groups “by policing, imprisoning and corporal punishment” (Meyer 188). Yet no matter how socially, politically or economically hegemonic a group appears, it can never fully control its opponent (Heller 101). Those counter-hegemonic groups develop their own mechanisms of power in order to resist their domination since power instruments and mechanisms can always be reversed. On that account, no group is ever completely powerless (ibid.). Since individuals cannot ‘escape’ power (Foucault Sexuality 95), both power and resistance circulate in “the form of a chain” (Layder 135). For Foucault, resistance is a reversed power mechanism and necessarily exists.

Referring to Foucault, Gordon argues that power and resistance

constitute an inherently fragile structure and their instruments and techniques are always liable to forms of […] reversibility and re-utilisation not only in tactical realignments from 'above' but in counter-offensives from ‘below'. This is why no one good or bad ideology of oppression or subversion is possible: thematic implements of power […] have been and are constantly being 'turned round', in both directions.


Foucault refuses the notion of permanent subjection. For him, humans are rather “repeatedly constituted in subjection” (Butler 94) and, consequently, find themselves in a constant possibility of changing circumstances and environment (ibid.). As any offensive act from one side initiates a reaction from the opponent, power and resistance necessarily correlate (Foucault Knowledge 163).

Regarding appearing forms, it can be said that resistance results in individuals’ discontent over “resources, meanings, spaces, identities, positions and representations” but also ranges from political transformation to minor acts of alienation and disregarding the system (Longhurst et al. 64). Physical resistance cannot change power practices but only prevents the implementation of the latter (Butler 98). Butler argues that the internalisation and normalisation of oppressive acts does not effectively oppress in the long term but provokes a “reverse-discourse” or comparison with other power systems (93). One could conclude here that further forms of resistance are necessary in order to answer power implications successfully and sustainably. Power on the one hand certainly constrains yet through resistance, it also enables (Barker Cultural Studies 10).

3. Antebellum American slavery

Within the system of slavery, masters “held enormous power over slaves” (Sidbury 208). However, analogous to Foucauldian power, slave owners’ power was not unconditional and indeed limited (Heuman and Walvin 550). The following chapter introduces different control mechanisms as well as slaves’ responses in terms of resistance.

3.1 Control

Before familiarising with the different forms of control, one should investigate the question why masters would generally want to control their slaves. As Aptheker states, ruling classes often doubt their abilities to maintain their power (52). Masters in the South did not feel satisfied with depending upon social inertia (78) and even regarded their slaves as unpredictable, dangerous threats (Heuman and Walvin 547). Therefore, American slavocracy developed thorough and complex methods in order to hold up their superiority and prevent possible unwillingness to work (Mullin 95) by “numerous psychological, social, juridical, economic, and militaristic methods of suppression and oppression” (Aptheker 53). Making slavery appear a natural part of the system was the overall goal and anyone who tried to boycott that system was declared a public enemy (55). The reasons why slave owners as well as overseers felt threatened were as individual as the answers to it. Sometimes, intentional actions such as refusal to work or a neglect to step out of a white person’s way would be enough to upset the master (53). Other times, unintentional looks, words and gestures would count as imprudence and create enough offence to cause disturbance of the system (Wagstaff 1). There were no strict rules on when to punish slaves and how; overseers and masters were free in their considerations and the severity of punishment depended on their daily mood (Mullin 183).

Regarding non-violent or rather non-physical mechanisms, fostering the myth of the Negroes’ innate inferiority was one of the most common devices of establishing control (Aptheker 53). Slaves were incorporated the thought that they earned the cruelty of their fate, that “Almighty God requires to bear it patiently” (56). Bible passages were reinterpreted, Blacks were considered to be the doomed and even compared to Cain or the snake who tempted Eve to sin (53). Further, slaves were somehow forced into a twisted and misinterpreted version of Christianity in order to support slavery and to hold up their hope to be rewarded in afterlife by sticking to the system (Bisson 36).

Behind the owner and the plantation system, military forces as well as laws contributed to control (Aptheker 67, 70, Heuman 220). Armed horse patrols (Heuman and Walvin 547) for example guarded plantations in the countryside and punished slaves who had tried to run away (Bisson 43). Slave marriages were illegal (60) and witness account against Whites was not accepted (66). Further, slaves had to ask for permission for assemblies, participation in economic activities or carrying any kind of arms for defence. They were prohibited to leave plantation grounds at any time without their owners’ written permission. Even lifting hands against Whites was forbidden, as well as education in terms of literacy, including reading and writing (70). In addition to all that, slaves had to keep their voice quiet when talking to their masters and always pull off their hats at the approach of Whites (55). In order to naturalise American slavocracy, especially women should be restrained as they were the ones who were responsible for raising children and thereby teaching norms and values (Wyatt-Brown 1229).

According to Heuman and Walvin, “violence was the lubricant of the slave system” (545). It either was used as punishment or for the sake of entertainment (Sidbury 213). During the Antebellum era, econometricians have called slaves to be one of the best investments in order to grow business and well organised plantations (Mullin 133, 152). In order to keep these alive, plantation owners critically monitored their human property (154) and whenever a slave misconducted, according to the rules, they were whipped brutally (Wagstaff 7). Numerous “blows across the shoulders with […] though, flexible, ‘raw-hide’ whips” (Mullin 185) were distributed to the slave after pulling up their clothes and lying down naked (ibid.). These lashings and beatings were called “correction(s)” of misbehaviour (Aptheker 56), mostly in plain view for showcase warning (Mullin 91, 186). Sometimes, slaves were even played off against each other in order to support the superior in their brutal intentions. This also controlled the slaves’ bond with their owners. The closer their functional and helping roles appeared to the master or overseer, the more slaves faced a certain “degree of humanity” (Aptheker 62) and the less did owners fear them. If the bond developed to be quite strong, a slave could even be used as informant (61).

Physical abuse frequently resulted in applying fire to the slaves’ bodies, washing them with boiling hot water and scattering their injuries with pepper. Later, they were kicked and stamped upon and chocked, at times even until death (Aptheker 66). Runaway slaves were branded with ‘R’ after they tried to escape their plantations (Heuman and Walvin 549). If they were not flogged, slaves suffered from humiliation, intense field labour, extreme climate, miserable living conditions, and, in terms of mental violence, separation from their family and friends (Fiske 67), insults and threats (Heuman and Walvin 549).

Summarising, slaves could hardly operate without any kind of regulation and control.

3.2 Slave resistance

According to early slavery scholars, slavery itself was the cause of resistance (Heuman 220). Resistance therefore has been discussed “as a defining characteristic of slavery, not so much a consequence of slavery but integral to slavery itself” (546) which corresponds to Foucault’s notion of power and resistance. There is historical evidence that slaves developed their own strategies of how to exploit white power by evolving their own forms and culture of resistance (Heuman 550 and Walvin). Resistance took various forms and differed in times and places (Sidbury 204). Classic historical views on slave resistance concentrate on overt actions in terms of violence, destruction and sedition (Heuman and Walvin 545). Modern perspectives however also take into consideration further areas of social examination, meaning that resistance can also be performed within the “peaceful fabric of everyday life” (ibid.). Slave resistance hence can be categorised in three different groups, as presented in the following.

To begin with, slave resistance forms “physically violent responses of (…) enslaved people to their condition” (Sidbury 204). Although they were mistreated, slaves still were in good physical condition and had strong survival instincts (Fiske et al. 77-78), especially because a great number of them were somewhat advanced in warfare due to their experience from Africa (Heuman and Walvin 545). Empowered by their will to survive and their view upon slavery as “temporary misfortune” (Mullin 11), slaves therefore were able to physically fight against members of the plantation they were held at, namely owners, masters and overseers (89, Heuman 231). From time to time, slaves courageously stood up for themselves and challenged their owners to shoot them. In the end they neither were whipped nor shot but, while legally enslaved, became freemen virtually (Wagstaff 8-9). Yet physical resistance was not only exercised individually as slaves also grouped in order to rebel collectively, including killing of Whites (Aptheker 298, Heuman 223). As Aptheker states, these acts were promoted by slaves slowly exceeding Whites by “severe economic depression, and by the more rapid growth of the Negro population” as well as “unrest among the slave populations” (294). Although rebellious acts were a rarity (Wyatt-Brown 1232) they still influenced the abolishment of American slavocracy (Heuman 231).

Secondly, resisting the system also found its ways in the search for cultural autonomy (Sidbury 204). Since most of African slaves had been free citizens (Heuman 222) before they were enslaved through seizure, kidnapping or warfare (Heuman and Walvin 547), they felt lost in the new worlds they had been violently transferred to. As a result, they tried to develop ‘parallel worlds’ based on different aspects of their African culture in order to clearly confine from their owners (Heuman 222, Sidbury 205f.). Masters surprisingly did not destroy these cultures which can thus be seen as either a key accomplishment of resistance or an “independent achievement of the enslaved” (206). Different cultures often connected and formed “slave networks” which eased exchange of information and attempted runaways (Heuman and Walvin 549).

“[D]ay-to-day resistance” was the most common form of resistance slaves exercised, deterred by the consequences of revenge or attempts to run away (Sidbury 208, 213). The public expression of their thoughts and opinions (Aptheker 58), simple movements like pointing with their fingers or neglecting to give way to their owners (55), decelerating working processes or destroying the master’s property would count as open resistance (Sidbury 208). Passive resistance however could be exercised by ceasing work until owners rewarded them (Heuman 230). As stated earlier, slave marriages were prohibited and if still performed, also counted as resistance (Aptheker 60). Although Blacks were not allowed to read or write, some slaves still tried to contact their families via letters, knowing that it was forbidden (214). Apart from the literal meaning of the term literacy, some slaves had the ability to read other people’s actions which came in handy multiple times. Due to their cognitive skills and active evaluation of both their social and physical environment, slaves were able to fight, shape and take advantage of their circumstances (Fiske et al. 79f.). Another source of resistance was the possession of knowledge (85). To the white American masters, Africans were aliens and their rebellious and resistant acts derived from “novel preconceptions and expectations about relations with others and the way the world worked” (Mullin 11). Also, religious meetings, the so-called “‘hush-harbour’ meetings” (Aptheker 59) where slaves preached illustrate forms of resistance, especially since they were regarded as illegal and secret, needing the masters’ obligatory approval (ibid.). Religion in return was not only a form of resistance but also another instrument of the Whites’ domination, formed into “weapons of resistance” (Fitzhugh Brundage 120).


Excerpt out of 25 pages


Power and Resistance in Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave"
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mcqueen, power, resistance, slave, steve, years
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Anonymous, 2020, Power and Resistance in Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/539289


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