12 Years a Slave


12 Years a Slave (2013) is the third feature film by British director Steve McQueen, following on from Shame (2011) and Hunger (2008). Based on the 1853 memoir of the same name by Soloman Northup, 12 Years a Slave follows the story of a free man who, in 1841, is kidnapped and sold into slavery. It is notable for being one of the first Hollywood films to explore the suffering of slavery from a first-hand account. 

BBFC staff viewed 12 Years a Slave for an 'advice viewing' in August 2013. An advice viewing is where distributors send in a work and our team watch it and then give an explanation of the likely age rating a work will receive. The distributor may submit a film or video work for advice at any stage of the production process and sometimes a film may still have significant editing or visual effects missing. The distributor can also request a particular age rating. The distributors of 12 Years A Slave requested a 15. The MPAA had given the film an R in the US, for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.

Compliance Officers at the time advised the distributor that in its current form the film would receive a 15 classification with the BBFC content advice of ‘Contains strong violence, injury detail, sex, nudity and racist terms.’

The strongest scene of violence comes towards the end of the film when a slave owner strips a woman kept as a slave and puts her up against a whipping post. The owner hits her several times across the back and, as the whipping continues and the blows get harder, we start to see blood spray up from her back. Though there is strong violence, there is also a strong focus here on the characters, seeing the distress on their faces rather than the wounds themselves, and some of the impacts were described as 'masked' as they were hidden, or landed out of shot. Towards the end of the scene, we do see the last few blows cut into the skin and her badly injured back. 

This scene goes well beyond the ‘moderate violence’ allowed at 12A. According to the Classification Guidelines at 15: ‘Violence may be strong but should not dwell on the infliction of pain or injury. The strongest gory images are unlikely to be acceptable.’ This is a strong sequence but the camera doesn’t linger on shots of injury, some of the violence is masked or takes place out of frame and much of the detail given is brief. It sits firmly within 15 and lacks the detail and dwelling on injury that would require an 18.

There is also a scene of sexual violence where a slave owner visits a female slave at night and rapes her. She lies motionless beneath him as he thrusts on top of her before slapping her and grabbing her by the throat. It is a strong and shocking scene. Both characters remain clothed and the filmmakers framed the shot to focus mostly from heads to shoulders, meaning the scene lacks any strong visual detail or nudity. In context, this is also a clear display of authority and power from the slave owner, emphasising the relationship of owner and property that defined the era. Classification Guidelines state at 15 ‘any portrayal of sexual violence must be discreet and have a strong contextual justification’.

In 2018 the BBFC launched another large scale public consultation. One of the issues of significant concern to all participants, including teenagers and parents, was the depiction of sexual threat and violence. The consultation and focus groups confirmed that scenes like the one in 12 Years A Slave should be classified as strong, and retain the power to be shocking, even if the visual details were relatively discreet.

There are uses of racist terms throughout the film with characters frequently referred to as ‘n****rs’ and ‘miserable black dogs’. They are, however, used in a clear historical context with the film being set in the Antebellum South and their use is not condoned. The Guidelines at 15 stated that: ‘The work as a whole must not endorse discriminatory language or behaviour’. 

Distributors submitted the 12 Years a Slave for formal classification in September 2013, again with a 15 request. It was unchanged following the advice viewing and therefore we passed it 15 with no cuts.

In 2014 the BBFC received 12 complaints about the classification of the film, mainly regarding the level of violence and sexual violence. Whilst a sensitive subject, 12 Years a Slave tells its story in a considered and responsible manner and contains very little in the way of blood or injury detail. The scenes of violence in the film are strong but are contextually justified. With very few clear images of the injuries inflicted, the depictions of violence serve to illustrate the very real brutality suffered by many slaves at the hands of their masters. The rape of a female slave is shocking but is shown in a discreet manner. There is no nudity and the focus of the scene remains on her impassive face.

12 years a Slave was a commercial and critical success topping the UK box office when released in 2014 and winning a string of awards including Best Picture at the 2014 Academy Awards and Best Film at the 2014 BAFTAs.