Every great script has a central antagonist that’s primary goal is to prevent the protagonist from accomplishing whatever they are set out on doing. There have been many significant antagonists throughout the years, some fiction, others based on real life. Specifically, no script or film tells a real-life antagonist better than 12 Years a Slave.
12 Years a Slave is a 2013 biographical period drama film directed by Steve McQueen and is an adaptation of the 1853 slave memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup. Northup was a New York State-born free African-American man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C., by two conmen in 1841 and sold into slavery.
The film follows Northrup’s real-life closely, showing how Northup was put to work on plantations in the state of Louisiana for 12 years before being released. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave is a masterful film that showcases the true evil of an antagonist and their role in a story.
Still from '12 Years a Slave'. Photo credit: IndieWire
Edwin Epps is the primary antagonist of the film. Played by Michael Fassbender, Epps is a genuinely evil man and plantation owner. Epps made a name for himself as one of the cruelest slavers in the nation due to his ferocious cruelty. He’s unforgiving, a true sociopath, and his portrayal by Fassbender will send shivers down any person’s spine.
As a character, Epps has a deep fascination for a female slave Patsey whom he abuses, and Northup (who is known by Platt then), to break his whip in. Although there are many antagonists and overarching themes of evil preventing Northrup from returning to his family, Epps is the central character under the antagonist umbrella.
Hamilton and Brown
Although they aren’t in the film much, Brown and Hamilton are the first antagonists of the film for their role in kidnapping Northrup. The two offer Northrup short-term employment as a musician if they travel with them to Washington, D.C. However, once they arrive and everything appears to be going as planned, they drug Northup.
Northrup is then delivered to a slave pen that Burch runs. Even though Northup claims to be a free man, none of that matters. Here is where Northrup is savagely beaten for the first time in the film, a troubling viewing and not for the faint of heart. Hamilton and Brown represent two characters who introduce Northrup to the awful world he’s entering, just so Hamilton and Brown can make a quick buck.
Armsby represents a character who betrays the central protagonist solely due to fear. Initially, a beacon of hope to free Northrup, Armsby goes against his word to Northrup, revealing the letter Northrup asked him to mail. Armsby even takes the payment from Northrup, a true act of betrayal and furthering conflict against Northrup.
Although Epps was convinced that Armsby was a liar from Northrup, the sheer closeness of the incident deepened Northrup’s effect. He’s farther away from becoming free, worrying he’ll be caught and punished for any plans to escape or inform others about where he is.
Slavery As an Overarching Antagonist
12 Years a Slave is more than just an evil plantation owner preventing a man from being free. The overarching theme of slavery is a natural antagonist in and of itself. Every plantation owner was inherently evil, no matter how “kind” they were to their slaves. It’s a deepened layer of what was wrong with the world at the time.
Northrup was lucky to return to his life in the end, but the entire experience greatly impacted his quality of life. It’s a reminder that there are many negative and evil aspects of history, some of which can be portrayed for us to understand in a film truly. Every character who kept Northrup as a slave, no matter how they treated him, was at fault for being an antagonist.
Truth and Justice
The antagonism and conflict of 12 Years a Slave demonstrate the complexity of telling the truth in history. Northrup’s repeated claims of being a free man didn’t matter because, at that time, a slave was deemed worthless. Slaves couldn’t seek justice, furthering the notion of how dangerous it was for anyone who wasn’t white at the time.
Although the film centers around Northrup’s struggle as a slave for 12 years, it represents a man being separated from his family. If Northrup didn’t have a family, would he have tried to alert authorities as hard as he did? It also goes off the idea of family being more than just blood, but rather anyone who shows love and compassion to someone.
Musical Impact on Antagonism
Northrup’s sole enjoyment as a slave is his violin, an instrument that brought him brief and treasured moments of joy and comfort. Thus, when Northrup destroys his violin in a fit of rage after beating Patsey, it’s a moment of pure terror. Hopelessness led him to the bottom until he could find a trustworthy figure to send his letter out.