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12 Years A Slave

R16: graphic violence and sexual violence

Spoiler alert

This page outlines how the classification criteria were applied. We do our best to discuss the content while avoiding spoilers, but please avoid reading this information if you do not want to learn anything about the content of this movie.

12 Years A Slave poster

Date registered: 17/01/2014

About the film

Set in the mid-19th century, 12 Years a Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York State. He is tricked into travelling to Washington with the offer of work. Once there he is abducted, transported to the south, and there sold into slavery.

A still image from the film - Solomon with a group of other slaves out in the fields

Classification criteria: Violence and cruelty

In one inordinately long scene Solomon is left hanging by the neck with just the tips of his toes touching the ground. Solomon supports himself this way, while others in the background go about their business as if he was not there.

Another slave, Patsy, is treated with callous cruelty. By far the most graphic scene of violence occurs when Patsy is tied to a tree and lashed. The horrific bloody wounds inflicted on her back are briefly shown as they occur. The horrific wounds are again shown as she has her back tended to after the lashing.

The violence and cruelty (both physical and psychological) has a high impact on the viewer. However, it is very well contextualised by the accomplished film making, and plot, which is an important historical dramatisation.

A still image from the film - Solomon is forced by cruel planter Edwin Epps to lash his friend Patsey

Classification criteria: Sexual violence and coercion

There is a rape scene in the film. The camera focus remains on heads and shoulders throughout. The scene is intense and devoid of any form of eroticism.

A still image from the film - Edwin Epps makes unwanted advances towards Patsey as she stands in with other slaves in the woolshed

Classification criteria: Degrading, dehumanising or demeaning physical conduct

Slaves in the film are routinely treated as property, without human rights. An example of this occurs when a group of slaves are made to stand naked while being inspected by prospective buyers as if they are livestock.

A still image from the film - slaves - some semi-naked and shacked - wait to be sold

Decision summary

The dominant effect of the film is of a beautifully crafted and complex film about slavery in 19th century America. The callous and brutal nature of the slaves' oppression also gives the film its dominant effect. The film has considerable artistic merit, having won numerous prestigious awards. The film also has considerable social merit, as it examines the under-told story of slavery in 19th century America.

The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act states that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form. With 12 Years a Slave the right to freedom of expression needs to be restricted due to its strong and at times brutal depictions of violence and cruelty. While very well contextualised, these remain likely to greatly shock and disturb children and younger teenagers.

The scene of sexual violence is long and difficult to watch, and is likely to disturb children and younger teenagers who are still in the process of forming sexual behaviours and attitudes; and to re-traumatise victims of sexual assault.

For these reasons the film is restricted to people 16 and over, and must carry the descriptive note 'graphic violence and sexual violence'.

Contact the Information Unit if you require further information on a classification decision.

R16 label
R16: graphic violence and sexual violence