Back to IndieWire

’12 Years A Slave’ And The White Fantasy Of A New Species

'12 Years A Slave' And The White Fantasy Of A New Species

12 Years a Slave will not be released in Brazil until February 28. I could not resist the urge to watch it. As a Brazilian who lived in the US for four years, and who had the chance to experience American culture from the standpoint of an ethnic minority member, here is what I learned from Steve McQueen’s latest masterpiece.

In 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup, a free black man, is forced to fight two distinct battles. The first one is lost before he even has a chance to fight. Tricked and drugged by two white men, Solomon is kidnapped, sold into slavery and sent to work at a plantation in Georgia. The second battle lasts over a decade and represents the most sordid and horrifying feature of American slavery exposed by Steve McQueen’s new film. Throughout the 12 years during which Solomon spent in captivity, he had to fight against the restless and brutal attempts of his white oppressors to force him to embody the most bizarre of all racist fantasies: the existence of a different type of species – not quite an animal; not quite a human – which they called “niggers”. Certainly, to a great extent, that was the fate of not only Solomon Northup, but of every African-American that lived in the United States during those days.

No other movie before 12 Years a Slave – not even Tarantino’s parody of slavery, Django Unchained, and it’s 115 uses of the most infamous of American racial slurs – has been able to reconnect the word “nigger” to its past in such a genuine way, and to present such a clear and explicit demonstration of what the term actually means and does. More than just an offensive racial epithet used to refer to individuals of African descent, in 12 Years a Slave the word “nigger” symbolizes a subhuman being, a creature incapable of self-rule, doomed to live under the yoke of a master, and whose presence in America represented a necessary and convenient burden with which white folks had to cope.

It is, although, important to acknowledge that however convincing slaves would be when displaying their submissiveness, their ignorance, their servitude, their inferiority and their childlike ways in the face of their “master”, they did it with the sole purpose of preserving their lives. In other words, the existence of a grotesque creature such as a “nigger” could only be real in the racist mind, and the conformation of black slaves to this white fantasy a strategy of survival. To role-play while preserving his true identity was a skill Solomon Northup had to learn the hard way. The strength of spirit African-Americans needed to have in order to endure such a state of psychological warfare was best summarized over one hundred years later in the words of James Baldwin: “you can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger”.

It is, however, curious to see that the echoes of such a horrific white endeavor resonate today through the mouths of black youngsters and hip-hop artists. Is such phenomenon a product of ignorance? Is it the expression of a deeply rooted lack of self-worth? Would it be the result of an ongoing systematic racism in America? Is it internalized hatred transformed into self-hatred? Or is it, as many like to say, just cultural appropriation? Whatever the case may be, after watching 12 Years a Slave, I am inclined to agree that the acceptance of such a trend by some African-Americans does not represent a continuity of the struggle endured by their ancestors in order to preserve and affirm their humanity. One of the most valuable lessons one can learn from Steve McQueen’s film, and its shockingly raw portrait of the reality of slavery in America, is that a “nigger” is not a human being, but a fantasy of the white racist mind. Today, to label someone or allow to be labeled a “nigger” is to be respectively a perpetrator or an accomplice of such a fantasy.  

But, perhaps, as a person who is not from the United States and who is not African-American, I can’t completely grasp the appropriation and contemporary use of the word “nigger” by some Blacks in the US. However, the fact that there are today a significant number of African-Americans who advocate for its abolition, and that repudiate its usage regardless of context, tells me that I should not regard my own position on such matter as a result of a supposed inability to fully understand Black American culture. In any case, I can’t imagine how any American of African descent, after watching 12 Years a Slave, could still be able to call one another a “nigger”, or even a “nigga”, without feeling slightly uncomfortable, to say the least.

*In Brazil, to address or refer to someone using an offensive racial slur is considered a non-bailable criminal offense that can result in 1 to 3 years of imprisonment.

Márcio de Abreu is a Brazilian Cultural Critic and Producer specialized in Afro-Brazilian culture.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged ,



I think we have freedom of speech on this country,having said that,every single emigrant group in America has been called names, I experienced that myself,but I will never call names anyone, because I choose to do so.


How old are you people? You are disrespectful to older black Americans. Although you know our sacrifice and what we survived it doesn't stop you from offending us. Young people insult us while enjoying the fruits of our labor. Our relatives and friends suffered and died. We were denied freedom, beaten, jailed, abused and called the N-word by whites, not you. We are the ones that marched and knocked down doors that locked us out; The same doors you have no problem walking through while disrespecting those that sacrificed so that you could be free. We know what the N-word represents. 12 years a slave and 42 defines exactly what the N-word means. To say that we "haven't moved on" is self-serving comment from those that sold out the Robinsons, Kings, Evers, and Merediths. The use of the N-word has not brought money into the black community. This music is sold by white record companies and 70% of the sales are made to young white males. Those dollars stay in the white community. Racism still exists and those that you say "haven't moved on" are ones that are still being beaten and abused because we refuse to bow our heads to racists. In my day we called you house negroes, Uncle Toms and sell outs. We behaved circumspectly because we knew that our misbehavior would reflect upon all black people. If we did use the N-word, it was because a black person was ignorant, disrespectful, and didn't know how behave.


Maya Angelou to Dave Chapelle…

“I believe words are things,” she says.
She begins to describe a bottle that has the word “poison” written on it.
On this bottle, we know that what’s inside is poison.
It’s evident. But then, she says, if you put that same poison in Bavarian crystal… that doesn’t mean it’s not poison. “The ‘n’ word was created to divest people of their humanity,” she says, “Words are things.” –

samm jay

"Thank you so much for telling me you age, CJ. Now I understand your inability to have an honest debate"

That is the most blatantly intellectually dishonest thing you could pull. Using a obvious logical fallacy to disregard another person's comments, do you realise how pathetically ironic your statement is?

"I am also qualified to talk and write about it since I have a Master's Degree in Critical Theory and Cultural Studies"

You have a thing for arguments from authority don't you?


All right CJ, let's change the tone of our conversation and hopefully we can learn something from each other. The reason I say you are not being honest with the way you present your arguments is because, from the beginning, instead of sticking to what I wrote in my article, you keep making flawed assumptions about what I believe and stand for without knowing anything about my background and who I am. Here are some examples:

You said in your first comment, "I'm curious as to how you can see the ugliness of the N word in 12 Years a Slave but not in Djungle Unchained?" I never said I didn't see the ugliness on the N-word in Djungle Unchained. You assumed that. I basically said that Tarantino's movie did not transmit what the N-word actually means and does with the same eloquence that 12 Years did. Please, ready the article.

You also decided to assume that I only have a problem when African-Americans use the N-word: "If you were really sincere and despised the N word you would have an issue with the word being said at all, your problem is you don't like Black people saying it otherwise you would've included how can anyone say it not just African-Americans".

CJ, did you really read the article? Did you not notice my attack on white supremacy? Do I really need to literally spell, word by word, that I do have a problem with the white use of the N-word. I thought that was pretty explicit in the article.

These are just a couple of examples. For instance, you kept suggesting that I have a problem with the black empowerment and agency embodied by Djungle, even after I compared him to Sweetback. Have you ever watched or heard about the groundbreaking 1970s black film Sweet Sweetback's Badass Song? If you had, then you would have not insisted on another false assumption.

That is why I think you are not being honest, CJ. Here is another one: "Your points are similar to Anne Coulter, Bill O Reilly…" Really, CJ? You really think that the article I wrote is the type of material that would feature on a Bill O Reilly website or that would be supported the FOX network?

CJ, I'm not trying to convince anyone to stop using the N-word, or any other word for that matter. I was just expressing my views. You could have done the same without having to try to paint a picture of me based on your own assumptions and that has nothing to do with who I really am or stand for.

Finally, as a Latino who lived in the US for four years (including living with an American family in Michigan and going to high school in upstate NY), who has worked with African-Americans for over eight years, and who is engaged to an African-American woman, yes, I believe I am entitled to talk about race relations in the US. I am also qualified to talk and write about it since I have a Master's Degree in Critical Theory and Cultural Studies with a focus on Black representations in mainstream American media. And before you even try to go there, no CJ, that does not make me an expert on African-American culture, which I never claimed to be. In any case, all of that doesn't necessarily explain why Shadow and Act decided to post my article. What really does is the fact that they thought it was relevant and a well-written piece of work. Fortunately, the great majority of people posting here seem to agree with them.

I hope it is now clear why I think you were being dishonest in your comments and in the way you responded to my article. We do not need to agree with each other, CJ. Neither we need to leave this debate felling either victorious or defeated. That's not the purpose. I have my views and you have yours, and I respect them even if I do not agree with them. So, please, next time you post a comment, limit yourself to expressing your views on the subject, and try not to paint a picture of me based on your mere assumptions. Thank you!


I would like to ask the folks who don't have a problem with the glamorization of the N-word by some hip hop artists what they think of Nicki Minaj's new album cover. I'm pretty sure some of you think it is problematic. But is it problematic because it associates Malcolm X with the N-word, or because it was done by Nicki Minaj? Would it be ok if it was a Tupac's album cover? Would it be ok to use Malcolm's picture associated with the N-word in that way if the album's content was revolutionary? Would it be ok if it was a picture of any other African-American rather than Malcolm X? If so, why is it disrespectful towards Malcolm X but not towards any other African-American? From my limited understanding of African-American culture, and given the consequences of the glamorization of the N-word, would I be completely off to say that "the chickens are coming home to roost"? Btw, I'm not trying to be offensive or sarcastic. I hope some of you will agree these are legitimate questions. And yes, we are still talking about the use of the N-word.


This discussion feels like the ones that arise whenever non-European blacks comment on African European culture, and when non-Latino blacks comment on Latino African/South American culture. We should accept that although our experiences in the African Diaspora are similar, they are not equal. We should learn to mind our opinions about each other. Let's focus on what holds us together, instead of searching for what sets us apart.


So of all the lessons that could be applied today from "12 years a slave"– the parallels with modern day mass incarcerations, the revisionists historians vehement attempts to say "slavery wasn't all that bad, how black bodies are still being brutalized by police and "authority figures," the white paternalistic attitude toward black America, the silencing of black struggle, the education systems failure to bring these messages to black and white youth alike, the foolish idea of post-racial society, the economic destruction of the black community as a direct result from slavery– you chose to write about oppressed people's language choices. Because that's what's really ailing black America. It was our use of n!gga that killed Trayvon Martin guys. N!gga's the reason for stop & frisk. You solved it! Thanks, Marcio!


Marcio, let's do a 360. Let's disregard our previous conversations and go directly to what I believe is the crux of your argument, the use of the N-word in today's culture. See, like the reader, Rocket, I just can't buy into the implication that your new found interest in the word was inspired solely from watching 12 Years a Slave. I believe the movie was merely a vehicle for your message to be heard by a broader audience… and presto-whamo, it appears on a popular black movie blog in The United States. Hey, I'm cool with that, no harm, no foul. Anyway, I'm going to bite the bait. The following is my position on the word "Ni**er". Maybe you can use it in your next discussion with your cultural critic's crowd.

Listen, I am going to propose the argument that the word "Ni**er" is not a bad word.

"Oh lord, CareyCarey has lost his mfking mind!"

Nope, not in the least, I took my meds today. I am just going at the word from a different angle/perspective. Now check this, at one time in a not too distant past, those of us with dark skin would come to blows upon being called "black". I am serious (and Sergio can attest to that. He reads a lot of stuff and thus knows a lot of stuff (inside joke, you would have to have been here a few months ago to know where that came from), and he has been around longer than any writer (and possible reader) at this blog) fights would brake out when one African American (we were called colored back then), had the nerve to call another "dark" person, BLACK. But of course it's accepted now, from blacks and whites. So let's go back about 400 years to look at the evolution of the word "Ni**er.

When the white man was on the shores of Africa gathering his cargo, he picked his products from various tribes throughout the continent. So, accordingly, many who were captured spoke different languages. Consequently, not only did the Africans speak in different dialects, the merchants (Europeans, Dutch, Portuguese, etc) at the many trading places didn't speak, nor understand each others language. Now, it's important to note that slaves were not the only imports being traded. So I am proposing that a name that everyone could understand had to be given to the Africans to distinguish them from the other chattel owned by the white man. Since the names pigs, cows, mules, aardvarks, sugar, gold and salt were already assigned to other merchandise owned by the merchants, someone (some slime bag) came up with the name "Ni**er* (don't ask me why or how). There was no history of the word. There was no record of that word in the list of bad words like "aZZhole", dumbazz, idiot, chink and motherfu*ker, etc. Nope, it was just a name given to the dark-skinned hard working men who were captured and sold into slavery.

But then, a white man came along and decided to put the word in a thang called the dictionary. But he was met with a mighty challenge of how to define the word. He could have called him a strong enslaved warrior. He could have even described him a diligent worker, albeit a person forced against his will to work for free, but he was the best worker on any plantation that I've read about. But that would never fly in the minds of whites. There's no way in hell a man who was consider less than human could ever be describe as being "better" than any white person. So now we have the definition of "Ni**er" as it's presently defined in the dictionary, and that in which you and others have given it –> "an offensive racial epithet… a subhuman being, a creature incapable of self-rule… submissiveness, ignorant, inferior… In other words, a grotesque creature".

Marceo, I am suggesting that just as many people of color have moved on from being offended by being called "black", the same goes for the word "Ni**er*. But as long as you (and others) continue to trot out this same lame argument/debate and the snide belittling of those who have found a way to move on, you have in essence bought into Webster's definition of a hard working black man who some prick gave the name "Ni**er".

Now add that bit of insight into your next discussion group or article and listen to the feedback from the audience. In the interim, your thoughts?


Good for those of you who were already hip to Solomon Northrup's story. Consider yourselves incredibly informed and ahead of the curve. That being said, you don't have to put down the rest of us who were unaware. It's not as though we need to be shamed. Arguably, there IS a lot of black history that many Americans — black and white — are NOT taught; and is not published. OR, sometimes people are so overwhelmed that they simply don't know where to start beyond the obvious (MLK, Harriet Tubman, WEB DuBois, Rosa Parks, et al) to dig deeper into our history and learn about people who aren't as well known throughout the culture.

Arguably, Dr. Henry Louis Gates with his articles on TheRoot, and last year's documentary on PBS, "Africans in America" provided a great deal of context and was a real conversation starter for where people can find more information and learn more about this rich history that OUR ancestors created.


A parody is an imitative work created to mock an original work. Django Unchained is an original work, not a parody. Get your facts right. Spike Lee never criticized Django Unchained for its use of the N word. He criticized Tarantino in the past for using the N word in the way you say Black youth do, glamorizing it. If you were not hypocritical you would have a problem with Tarantino use of it like you do with rappers. Lee criticized Django Unchained because he felt as you do that it is a parody of slavery, which is factually incorrect.
I never said you disliked Django Unchained. I never put your words in your mouth. I pointed out the inconsistency of your argument on the use of the N word period. The N word is a variation of Negro, overtime used as a term to disparaged Black people, that’s what it means.
Your beef is the glamorization of the N word by Black youth. If you dislike that than you should recognize the N word is bad whether it’s in 12 Years , Django or coming out mouths or anyone not just Black youth.


I agree with CC and others when they say people are acting like the story of Solomon Northrup is new. Its not. I first heard about Northrup and his story back in my 9th Black History class. That was over 20 years ago. I read the Northrup's book before I was even old enough to drive. I don't need "12 Years a Slave" the film to give me some kind of enlightenment on the N-word.

I feel this whole "Hipster" phenomenon building around this film. You know, when people "discover" something that's been there for the longest and want to act like its NOW special because THEY are now aware of it. Yes, how much more of a message will I get from "12 Years" that I didn't get from "Rosewood", "Roots", or "Malcolm X"?

I respect the writer here for his opinion. I think it is important for us to have dialogue. But the folly here is thinking this film is more than what it really is. It is the dramatization of one man's story. A story that has been around for a LONG time. But it is not some kind of magical experience that will make black Americans stop saying the N-word. That's assigning more power to a film than it deserves. It is also showing a gross lack of understanding of an entire culture (American) and its history.

It is also amazing that the implication here is black Americas are the only group of blacks in the Diaspora that needs to be enlightened by this film. So when it comes to telling this story any black person of the Diaspora can do it (preferable non-American based on Sergio's beliefs). But when it comes to being corrected as a result of seeing it only black Americans need that correction. I wish people understood how these kinds of assumptions and generalizations make them look.


How Brazil treats its black people: Naked black male found pinned to a post by his neck in Rio


I can’t imagine how anyone of any race can call another person the N word with or without seeing 12 Years a Slave. You wanna know why? Because I don’t have to imagine it, because I, like most Black Americans know that White people are gonna call you an N word regardless, if not treat you like one.
I’m curious as to how you can see the ugliness of the N word in 12 Years a Slave but not in Django Unchained? I love how you can give props to 12 Years a Slave for somehow showing the true ugliness of the N word but refuse to give the same credit to Django Unchained. Why is that? African-Americans in both films take racial and physical abuse, what’s the difference? Rhetorical question, I know why. It’s because 12 Years a Slave is about a powerless Black man and Django Unchained is about an empowered one.

c i r o

Wonderful essay, and the first I've seen that really connects the use of the word to film criticism in a meaningful way (that's probably not fair–let's just say it's my favorite). And I say this as someone who does not subscribe strongly to an opinion in the black-use-of-the-n-word debate.

However, I was put off by the comment "supposed inability to fully understand Black American culture". Perhaps you do have some outside perspective to talk to the fish about the water it swims in, but I think it is safe to say you almost certainly do not fully understand it. It's true that some of Black American culture gets exported along with the rest via American cultural imperialism, so that some of the same arguments that allow blacks to tell whites about whiteness apply (i.e. those oppressed do not lack perspective on the oppressor), but the picture this presents is both distorted and largely incomplete; what it does not represent is where you are on shakier ground.

My point is not that you do not have the right to speak, or that your understanding is too flawed to make a good argument, but that I worry that comment was too dismissive of a very real difference between you and the people you are writing about. Your understanding is not "supposed[ly]" incomplete. It is very likely incomplete. I can't remotely guess how material that is, but I think it's worth remembering.


I agree with this article. Every single point that was made. I have no additions

Good reading, Marcio.


Thank you for your response! I am sorry if you felt offended or attacked. It was definitely not my intention to offend or attack anyone, neither to present myself as an expert. In fact, I believe I was pretty clear when I said that perhaps I do not fully understand the contemporary use of the word. However, since there is a great number of African-Americans who fight for its abolition, I might not be so out of track after all. As you said yourself, "this debate … is a never-ending-story". It is however interesting to see how some people get so angry and bent out of shape by anyone who brings up the subject (I always feel it's time for some critical self-reflection when someone's critique of my own culture makes me angry). But it is always easier to rationalize and give an explanation on etymology and the "CHANGES in form and MEANING of a word" rather then to look at it critically. Maybe we should just forget about being critical and be okay with the contemporary uses of terms such as "bitches", "faggots", "spics", and so on, for instance.


OH LORD… here we go again, the same ol' same ol' debate on the word "Ni**er. What's new!?

Well, today the message or preaching, comes by way of a Brazilian Cultural Critic and producer specialized in Afro-Brazilian culture who saw the film "12 Years A Slave". But wait, he qualified his right to preach to us and disrespect us and back-hand pimp slap some African-Americans (those intelligent black youngsters and intelligent hip-hop artists and those who fully understand the meaning and significance of the word "etymology": "The origin and historical development of a linguistic form as shown by determining its basic elements, earliest known use, and CHANGES in form and MEANING of a word" by saying he lived in the US for 4 years. OH BOY! So surely he's qualified and has the right to reign blows upon our heads by implying (slipping it in) that those who understand the evolution of the word "ni**er", and how word's (many words) meanings change over time, especially in the context of which said word is being used, are products of ignorance, lack self worth and has internalized hatred transforming it into self-hatred, isn't he?

Well, yes, he can say whatever he pleases. However, if it's good for the goose….

Listen, personally I don't like being pimp-slapped nor disrespected, so please spare me (us) the insult of being talked to like we are the 3 monkeys.

"I can't imagine how any American of African descent, after watching 12 Years a Slave, could still be able to call one another a “ni**er”, or even a “ni**a”, without feeling slightly uncomfortable, to say the least." ~ Marceo de Abreu

Fine. That's all you had to say before rendering your verdict of "ignorant" and "self hating African Americans". Then, it's possible, if your goal was a debate on the word "ni**er, those who don't feel "uncomfortable" like you, might pull your coat (school you) and tell you why. But really, as I said, this debate is played and is a never-ending-story.


great article… it boggles my mind why in this day and age black americans are the prime promoters of the word "n!gger". they give all kinds of reasons why they use it and none of it ever washes with me.


Ugh, can we end this n!gga debate already? If you don't like the word, then don't use it. Don't try and shame others into stopping. Don't use our history to criticize us. Those black youth you're referring to are the most victimized by our history. They have more insight into black strife than any bougie NAACP negro.

Black Cinema Philosopher

I'd have to to disagree DJANGO Unchained far better slave movie merely for the escapism revenge fantasy factor.

Being an African-American Male who has endured slave, civil rights, oppression, and "the first black_________" films and television shows for the majority of my 45 years on this earth: I can honestly say 12YAS- didn't affect me at all- it left me numb and disgruntled at the fact that after all this we: African Americans ( well let me say black people because Chiwetel is not american) are still playing slaves, subordinates, and all the typical parts we've always been allowed to play. What I saw in 12YAS was 2 hours of cliche', and a missed opportunity to tell a more interesting story about what happened to Solomon Northrup AFTER his ordeal.

We, most educated African-American people ( more emphasis on those who went to HBCU's) were already aware of Northrup and his story as well as there'd already been a film on the story starring Avery Brooks in the 70's. So I've heard McQueen speak about the film candidly a couple times and he's under the belief that he and his wife "discovered" this story. The story wasn't lost; in his interview with Arsenio Hall, he said he wondered why there hadn't been more films about Slavery- And that's when I realized he was much like the Ike the lyrics of the Song by Sting, "An Englishman in New York" and he doesn't really get OUR culture. If you put room full of Black Americans in a room and asked what movie theyd want to MAKE – the last thing they'd want to see is a movie about slavery! This is a brief film history as African Americans with the Oscars; see a trend.

Hattie McDaniel- 1st Oscar Winner- played a Slave in "Gone with The Wind"
Cicely Tyson/Paul Winfield – blithe nominated for Sounder in which they played Sharecroppers under a white boss
Sydney Poitier -playing an itenerant worker working for a gang of white nuns in LILLIE'S OF THE FIELD
Denzel Washington- 1st Oscar in Glorywas for Playing for a runaway slave who joined the army during the civil war, as well as playing two Civil rights leaders, and a boxer falsely accused of a murder Due to racism.
Morgan Freeman-nominated for being a White Woman's servant in Driving Miss Daisy and former slave in Glory
Octavia Spencer- OSCAR- as A servant in THE Help- A movie I haven't seen and won't see especially since I saw the sequel called THE BUTLER.

The list goes on and luckily just a few actors of color have managed to win awards in films where race was not a factor and they were judged on the merit of their talent rather than the Year's political agenda or political correctness. If you want some more food for thought:Check out the movie Savannah on NETFLIX, 12YAS is the second time Chewitel played a Slave LAST YEAR!

I realize you were here in the US for I believe you said 4 months – there's no possible way you could understand the nuances of our culture, and probably not even the reason I would dislike this movie so much( and a reason a large number of blacks have no desire to see it at all) . We've seen it before and seen it before.

As for the N- word, it bothers me but I can accept it as a term of endearment " within the confines of my community" much like in some Latin cultures the words "Negro" and "Azul" are acceptable nicknames. I'm pretty sure most African Americans either know or ( ir you were raised in an urban environment) grew up with someone called "Black" or "Blue" or possibly even a "Blue-Black". It's simply how one race can take pride in a word while the same word to another race could be derogatory.

Take "Mexican" for example a proud people with a vibrant heritage. Someone who looks at them as servants might say, " Hey you need some help with that wall go to home depot and grab a Mexican to do it." Somehow in that sentence "Mexican" ends up being derogatory. N-word operates the same way from culture to culture.

Just my 3 cents


Thank you; this article is so concise in describing the horrors of black American identity formation and its utility for survival. It's also beautifully conveyed. I really appreciate your bringing an outside sensibility to something, if one is not careful, can be forgotten or taken for granted.


Good artilce, some black folks believe it's somehow empowering to make the n word a form of endearrment. The n word is an ugly word and we need stop using it in that type of form. it's nothing endearing about that word.


nice writing man, loved it!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *