Critical Essay 12 Years A Slave

Drugged and beaten, Solomon Northup was illegally kidnapped from his hometown in Saratoga Springs in upstate New York and taken to Washington, D.C. in 1841. He woke up in the slave pen where he was sadistically remade from a black free man in the North into a slave in the South. Questioning his fate, Northup asked, “could it be possible that I was thousands of miles from home—that I had been chained and beaten without mercy—that I was even herded with a drove of slaves, a slave myself?  Detailing his transformation into “chattel” property, Northup recollected that the slave trader, “would make us hold up our heads, walk briskly back and forth, while customers would feel our hands and arms and bodies, turn us about, ask us what we could do, make us open our mouths and show our teeth, precisely as a jockey examines a horse which he is about to barter for or purchase.”  Forced to accept his new-found status as a captured slave, Solomon Northup was sold “down river” to Louisiana and labored for twelve years, toiling on cotton and sugar plantations in the South.

Set to come out in October 2013, Brad Pitt and Chiwetel Ejiofor star in a movie “12 Years a Slave” directed by Steve McQueen based on Solomon Northup’s Slave narrative.

Solomon Northup’s slave narrative, Twelve Years A Slave; Narrative of a Citizen of New-York, Solomon Northup, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, Rescued in 1853, From a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana, achieved a remarkable degree of success as an abolitionist indictment against slavery. First published in 1853, three years after the Fugitive Slave Act, Northup’s narrative served as an important cultural symbol of slave life on southern plantations during antebellum America before the Civil War.

Born into freedom, Northup was kidnapped into slavery at the age of thirty. Lured to Washington, D.C. in 1841 by the promise of easy employment, fast money, and adventure, Northup was in reality drugged, beaten, and sold into slavery within sight of the nation’s capital. According to historian Ira Berlin, Northup “joined the mass of black humanity—some one million in number—that was forcibly transported South to reconstruct the plantation economy on new ground, as the center of American slavery shifted from the production of tobacco and rice in the seaboard states to that of cotton and sugar in the interior.” Between 1790 and 1860, approximately one million African Americans were transported from the Upper South to the Deep South in the domestic slave trade.

While in captivity, Northup wrote letters to family and friends in the North which later became the raw materials of his slave narrative. From the 1740’s to 1865, approximately sixty-five autobiographical slave narratives were published in book or pamphlet form.  Created as propaganda for abolitionism, slave narratives often conformed to reoccurring narrative structures and literary conventions. Authenticity was considered essential. Most pre-emancipation slave narratives include phrases such as “written by himself” or “herself” on title pages, as well as numerous testimonials, prefaces, and letters of endorsement by white abolitionists and supporters. The narratives usually began, “I was born,” identifying a specific birthplace but no date of birth, since slaves often did not have that knowledge. Many narratives also included a photo or engraved portrait of the author and included appendices— bills of sale, free papers, newspaper clippings, sermons, speeches, poems simultaneously upheld the legitimacy of their story while arguing the case against slavery.  Slave narratives proved that, despite the odds, many slaves managed to escape their degradation and learned how to read and write. After escaping their bondage and making contacts with abolitionists, they were able to tell their tale to others.

When the abolitionist movement identified ex-slaves interested in publishing their stories, white editors conformed narratives to the dictates of nineteenth century sentimental literature in order to appeal to audiences nationwide. Publishers and editors reinforced themes that shocked the nation.

Twelve Years A Slave—The Slave Narrative of Solomon Northup

Even when ex-slaves wrote their own narratives, many struggled to gain full free expression and narrative authority from the restrictions of white editorial control. Solomon Northup’s experience in slavery quickly became national news after his rescue in 1853 from a cotton plantation in Louisiana. Promoted by abolitionist leaders like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and William Lloyd Garrison, Northup’s book quickly became a strong seller, going through half a dozen printings. At three hundred and thirty pages, Northup’s is one of the longest narratives ever written. To counter critics who would have discredited his narrative as fabrication, Northup—unlike Frederick Douglass or other authors of slave life who preferred generalities and employed pseudonyms—loaded his account with specifics. He cited actual names, places and dates so that his readers could identify and bring his captors to trial. Twelve Years A Slave, Northup declared, would “present a full and truthful statement of all the principal events in the history of my life, and…portray the institution of slavery as I have seen and known it.”  Northup wanted to present an accurate, first-hand account of the atrocities and terrors of slavery and to bring his captors to trial.

Violence, Plantation Work, and the Desecration of the Family

Twelve Years A Slave is one of the most authentic descriptions of slavery from the viewpoint of the slave himself.  Extreme violence is central in Northup’s narrative; he emphasizes that the slave owner’s authority was only maintained by terrorizing enslaved black people they owned with relentless physical and psychological violence. Whips, paddles, shackles, and the stocks make repeat appearances, especially in Solomon’s description of his life as a newly kidnapped free man. Stripped of his clothing and nailed to the floor, Northup endured blow after blow to his naked body after he awoke in a slave pen; his enslavers paused only to ask if their prisoner would accept his new status. As Northup recollected,

As soon as these formidable whips appeared, I was seized by both of them, and roughly divested of my clothing. My feet, as has been stated, were fastened to the floor […]. With the paddle, Burch commenced beating me. Blow after blow was inflicted on my naked body. When his unrelenting arm grew tired, he stopped and asked if I still insisted I was a free man. I did insist upon it, and then the blows were renewed, faster and more energetically, if possible, than before.

–Solomon Northup (44-45)

It was only after the paddle broke and his enslaver seized a rope to continue beating him that Northup was finally silenced into accepting his new identity as a slave. In these scenes of brutality, Northup insisted such sadistic events were so traumatic that he could still feel them while writing. “I thought I must die beneath the lashes of the accursed brute. Even now the flesh crawls upon my bones, as I recall the scene. I was all on fire. My sufferings I can compare to nothing else than the burning agonies of hell.”

The second major theme in Northup’s narrative is the constant and unrelenting hardship of plantation work. The images that Northup captures in his descriptions of life and labor on the plantations of Louisiana depict the sheer exhaustion, monotony, and fear that each slave struggled with physically and psychologically. As Northup recalled,

An hour before daylight the horn is blown. Then the slaves arouse, prepare their breakfast, fill a gourd with water […] and hurry to the field again […]. Then the fears and labors of another day begin; and until its close there is no such thing as rest. He fears he will be caught lagging through the day; he fears to approach the gin house with his basket-load of cotton at night; he fears, when he lies down, that he will oversleep himself in the morning. Such is a true, faithful, unexaggerated picture and description of the slave’s daily life, during the time of cotton-picking on the shores of Bayou Beouf.

Northup’s rendering of the daily life of slavery captures the incessant emotional and physical toll of slavery’s imprisonment.

Solomon Northup also detailed the experiences of the slave women he encountered during his twelve years as a slave, and especially elaborated on the experience of Patsey, a twenty-three year-old slave who was the victim of a licentious master and a jealous mistress. Caught between her white mistress’s jealous wrath and the sexual abuse of her master, Northup recalled that Patsey lived her life in torment and fear,

If [Patsey] uttered a word in opposition to her master’s will, the lash was resorted to at once, to bring her to subjection; if she was not watchful about her cabin, or when walking in the yard, a billet of wood, or a broken bottle perhaps, hurled from her mistress’s hand, and would smite her unexpectedly in the face. The enslaved victim of lust and hate, Patsey had no comfort of her life.

Although Patsey was a faithful slave and worked in the cotton fields for her master’s profit, she became the helpless victim of her master’s lust. Pasty’s mistress took her jealous anger out on her female slave instead of finding fault in her husband. “Nothing delighted the mistress so much as to see [Patsey] suffer,” noted Northup. He continued, “more than once, when [master] Epps refused to sell her, has she tempted me with bribes to put her secretly to death, and bury her body in some lonely place in the margin of the swamp.”  Doubly abused by the sexual terror and physiological torment of her master and mistress, respectively, Patsey’s story represented the brutality of slavery experienced by bondswomen. At the hands of white men, Northup made clear, black women were sexually and physically exploited with impunity during slavery. This normalization of sexual exploitation of slave women reflected the racist perceptions and stigmatization of black women.

Female slaves also faced the separation of families and children. In his account, Northup noted the intense emotions of female slave mothers at the auction block. Relating the remorselessness of white slave traders who disregarded the feelings of slave mothers separated from their children, he recalled the intense grieving of a female slave named Eliza after she had been forcibly separated from her two young children. Eliza was overwhelmed with grief when a new white master purchased her children and not herself. As Northup noted,

All the time the trade was going on, Eliza was crying aloud, and wringing her hands. She besought the man not to buy [her child], unless he also bought herself and [her other small child]. She promised, in that case, to be the most faithful slave that ever lived. The man answered that he could not afford it, and then Eliza burst into a paroxysm of grief, weeping plaintively.

Forced to confront with the realities of fleeting motherhood as a slave, female bondswomen suffered terribly from the emotional separation of themselves and their children in the uncertain world of the American slave trade. By displaying the abuse black women suffered during slavery—from sexual terror, physiological torment, and the separation of families—Northup’s narrative was able to evoke sympathetic antislavery feeling in the Northern states in the decades before the Civil War by exposing the horrors upon its innocent victims.


The Process of Writing Solomon Northup’s Slave Narrative

Northup’s story was written immediately after his rescue while still fresh in his mind. His book had fewer romanticized memory errors which other slave narratives suffered from, such as the oral history interviews conducted by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of surviving ex-slaves during the 1930s. These narratives are used sparingly by historians since former slaves were interviewed in their old age and in many cases, the interviewer was white, who would either intimidate the former slave they were interviewing or the former slave would feel uncomfortable because of lingering racism prevalent during the 1930’s Jim Crow south.

To emphasize the narrative’s authenticity, Northup and his editor dedicated the 1854 second edition to Harriet Beecher Stowe, in recognition of her widely successful antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Northup’s experience as a slave depicted a “striking parallel” to Stowe’s fictitious account of the slave named Uncle Tom under the hands of his tyrannical master. In response to the critics who had denounced Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a sentimental, overly exaggerated portrayal of slavery, Stowe published A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1853 to prove that her novel was a truthful depiction of antebellum slavery. She wrote in A Key, “it is a singular coincidence, that Solomon Northup was carried to a plantation in the Red River county—that same region where the scene of Uncle Tom’s captivity was laid—and his account of this plantation, and the mode of life there, and some incidents which he describes, form a striking parallel to that history.”  The publication of Northup’s narrative, a year after Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, gave credibility to both of their works. Northup’s rendering of daily life on a Louisiana plantation served as an authentic parallel to Stowe’s fictitious story of Uncle Tom.

There is no way to verify who actually wrote Twelve Years A Slave, but historians speculate that it was a collaborative project between Solomon Northup and his white editor, David Wilson, who was a minor literary figure from a town in New York’s Hudson Valley.  Even if Northup was not the sole author, he was very involved in the creation of the book’s content. Wilson, trying to generate sales for his book, said that Northup “carefully perused the manuscript,” correcting even “trivial inaccuracies.” Over the years, Northup’s account has held up to all verification efforts.  In the “Editor’s Preface” to Twelve Years A Slave, Wilson refers to himself as the “editor” and mentions that due to “all the facts which have been communicated to him,” the work ended up being longer than originally anticipated. Northup wrote in the first person, and asserted in the first pages that his purpose was “to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage.”  In the wake of newspaper reports of his rescue from slavery, Henry Northup (a white attorney and lifelong friend from New York whose family had once owned Solomon’s father), Solomon Northup, and David Wilson collaborated and published his story within the first few months of his return to the North. Henry Northup gave Wilson an incentive to publish the book as quickly as possible in the wake of news reports of Solomon’s rescue. The attorney rightfully figured that information from the book would quickly reach readers who could, and who eventually did, identify the kidnappers.

A number of northern newspapers, such as TheNew York Tribune, Buffalo Express, Cincinnati Journal, and Syracuse Journal, praised the publication as a credible depiction of southern slavery and its degradation. Former slave and leading abolitionist Frederick Douglass praised the book in his northern newspaper, The North Star, as “a strange history; its truth is far greater than fiction. Think of it! For thirty years a man, with all a man’s hopes, fears, and aspirations—with a wife and children to call by the endearing names of husband and father—with a home, humble it may be, but still a home […], then for twelve years a thing, a chattel personal, classed with mules and horses, […] It chills the blood to think that such are.”  Press reviews from William Lloyd Garrison, (whose newspaper, The Liberator, called the book “a deeply interesting and thrilling narrative”) contributed to its success and convinced Northup to give lectures and turn it in to a play. Northup’s Twelve Years A Slave was on par with other best sellers of the day. In the years before the Civil War, nearly 30,000 copies of Northup’s book were sold.

The publication of slave narratives in the antebellum and postemancipation eras challenged former slaves to face their experiences in slavery, and demanded that the nation remember it as part of a collective history. As Frederick Douglass warned in an 1884 speech, “It is not well to forget the past. The past is…the mirror in which we may discern the dim outlines of the future and by which we make them more symmetrical.”  Recollecting and remembering slavery not only served as a national project to acknowledge its brutality, but it also placed former black slaves at the center and emphasized their agency in the drama for emancipation. By publishing the traumatic aspects of his life in captivity as a southern slave, Northup brought to light the sadism of American slavery, raised awareness in Northern audiences, and brought national attention to the injustices brought upon him. His book served as a tool for redemption, while raising the consciousness about the barbarity of slavery—the inhumane separation of families, the beatings and torture of overseers and masters, and the sexual exploitation of slave women. Whether we view these narratives as wholly factual or not, they serve as important cultural reminders of an ugly part of American history that left its imprint on those who were its victims as well as on American society as a whole.

For more information:

There were the highest expectations for the film 12 Years a Slave (2013), the motion picture about the enslavement of Africans in America by the black British visual artist and film director Steve McQueen. Known for his imaginative and rigorous sensibility, McQueen, the son of Caribbean parents, was born in Ealing, England, and attended the Chelsea College of Art & Design and the University of London’s Goldsmiths College, before making the films Hunger (2008), about the prison hunger strike of Irish Revolutionary Army activist Bobby Sands, and Shame (2011), about loneliness and sexuality, both featuring the actor Michael Fassbender. With screenwriter John Ridley, a lover of international culture, and a writer of fiction as well as film, McQueen worked on 12 Years a Slave, focused on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free northern black man who was captured, beaten and brought to Louisiana to work enslaved. McQueen and Ridley have not disappointed, the film has beauty, thought and power, and won critical and popular acclaim and the American cinema industry’s highest honour, its 2014 Academy Award for Best Picture. TheWashington Post’s film critic, Ann Hornaday, said of the film: “Intense, unflinching, bold in its simplicity and radical in its use of image, sound and staging, 12 Years a Slave in many ways is the defining epic so many have longed for to examine—if not cauterize — America’s primal wound. But it’s also a crowning achievement of a filmmaker whose command of the medium extends beyond mere narrative and its reductive, sentimental snares to encompass the full depth and breadth of its most expressive and transforming properties. 12 Years a Slave isn’t just a cathartic experience that happens to be an astonishing formal achievement: It works its emotional power precisely because it’s so elegantly constructed, from the inside out.” (1)

Solomon Northup was a man of gifts but he was one man among many. Negroes arrived in America with the Spanish explorers, as they had been sailors and soldiers in Spain and Portugal. Some Negroes were indentured servants, but in the seventeenth century the enslavement of Africans would take root in America and grow with the encouragement of King George III of Britain. Black men would fight on the side of the American colonies in the revolutionary war (1775-1783) against the British, the war for independence, but the resulting country’s written Constitution would count the enslaved being as only three-fifths of a person. The work of black men, women, and children would be one of the great foundations of American industry, especially in agriculture (such as cotton and sugar) and the economy would be built with and on the backs of blacks. Enslaved Africans and African-Americans were prized assets, used as the basis of mortgages and bonds. Negro Americans were forbidden from organization, self-defense, education and prohibited from voting and taking on certain kinds of skilled work. There were about two-and-a-half million enslaved persons in the United States in 1840 and more than three million in 1850. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 inaugurated the kidnapping of free blacks, as well as the return to chains and whipping posts of those who had escaped. However, despite almost everything against them, some African-Americans managed to prosper as free people and even as the enslaved: some were helped by other Negroes, free and enslaved, and some were helped by abolitionists and groups like the Friends Society. Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner attempted revolution. Harriet Tubman escaped bondage and helped others become free. It is forgotten, too often, that some struggling southern white farmers were against slavery (they may have felt empathy for the thankless toil—as well as recognized the disadvantage slavery provided themselves in relation to large, slave-holding landowners). In the civil war between the American north and south (1861-1865), southerners felt no shame getting blacks to do work that supported the racist war efforts, provoking President Lincoln toward emancipation and allowing northern black enlistment in the war to preserve the union that would free them. One of the most eloquent—descriptive, honest, intelligent, moral, and sometimes witty—testimonies about what enslavement meant can be found in Solomon Northup’s memoir, Twelve Years A Slave, in which a free northern Negro recounts his capture in 1841 and enslavement in the American south until January 1853, a book published, with the help of lawyer and poet David Wilson, in 1853 by Henry W. Derby and associates, in Auburn, Buffalo and Cincinnati, and republished in 1968 in an edition edited with an introduction by scholars Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon, from Louisiana State University Press. The book Twelve Years A Slave contains an editor’s preface by David Wilson, and Northup’s twenty-two eloquent chapters, with appendices and index; and it—a work that by telling the truth demolishes all kinds of clichés about the nature of gender and race—makes for compelling, rewarding reading.

“Having all my life breathed the free air of the North, and conscious that I possessed the same feelings and affection that find a place in the white man’s breast; conscious, moreover, of an intelligence equal to that of some men, at least, with a fairer skin, I was too ignorant, perhaps, too independent, to conceive how any one could be content to live in the abject condition of a slave,” Solomon Northup states early in his testament Twelve Years A Slave (2). Solomon Northup’s book is supported by the historical record (affidavits, bills of sale, newspaper articles, and court transcripts). It is a book of difficult experiences but it is not difficult reading. It is strangely enriching: Northup describes the intelligence, emotion, skill and wisdom of the people he meets, distinguished personalities, some enslaved, some free, as well as the cruelty of his experiences. Northup describes the fateful men he met in Saratoga Springs, one about forty, the other no more than twenty-five, men who tell Northup they seek music for circus performances, enticing him with the money to be made. Northup travels with them from Saratoga Springs to Albany to New York to Philadelphia to Baltimore to Washington, D.C., but they only perform once—in Albany, a performance that did not impress Northup, but he is generously compensated for his time. In Washington, they bring Northup to saloons and offer him drinks and he is soon ill, with headache and nausea and thirst, and he wakes to find himself in chains. He is stripped and beaten with a paddle and whip: “My sufferings I can compare with nothing else than the burning agonies of hell!”(3). Northup’s Twelve Years A Slave presents a contemplative portrait of his transport from Washington to Virginia to New Orleans; his purchase by planter William Ford; his conflict with carpenter John Tibeats; the cultivation of cotton and cane, and the making of white and brown sugar; the punishment of the enslaved, with and without cause (twenty-five to five-hundred lashes); the commonness of fighting in white southern life; music as social entrée, personal pleasure, spiritual consolation, and a money-making endeavour; his own time as a slave driver (a driver is mostly a coach and time-keeper, though sometimes a whipper too; and an overseer is a policeman and punisher—and Northup would pantomime whipping); and how he experimented making inks for writing, particularly an ink from boiled maple bark; and the effort of Solomon Northup’s wife Anne Hampton Northup and acquaintances Henry Northup and John Waddill to find and free him.

Director Steve McQueen, working from a script by John Ridley and with the notable contributions of production designer Adam Stockhausen, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and editor Joe Walker, has turned the book Twelve Years A Slave into the film 12 Years a Slave, interpreting Solomon Northup’s story with accuracy, exquisite craft and significant understanding. What makes 12 Years A Slave remarkable are the consciousness, skill and experience of Solomon Northup, his being an embodiment not of potential but of actual value—value (valued formed by liberty, knowledge, accomplishment and family relations) that was denied by those who captured him.It is a laudable adaptation by Ridley, whose novels are Stray Dogs (1997), The Drift (2002) and What Fire Cannot Burn (2006), and who has worked on the films Three Kings (1999) and Undercover Brother (2002): there are few changes of detail, and those that exist do not violate the ideas or spirit of Solomon Northup’s book.

It is the second audio-visual interpretation of Northup’s recollections: Gordon Parks directed a well-received version for television in 1984, called Solomon Northup’s Odyssey—also known as Half Slave, Half Free—starring Avery Brooks as Solomon Northup, for the National Endowment for the Humanities and PBS. Television used to provide more of an educational service: projects that focused on the enslavement of Africans and their quest for freedom include the celebrated series Roots, which premiered in 1977, a story of history and family, and A Woman Called Moses (1978) with Cicely Tyson as Harriet Tubman. Some of the theatrical films about American slavery are Amistad (1997), Beloved (1998), Glory (1989), Jefferson in Paris (1995), Mandingo (1975), Nightjohn (1996), Ride with the Devil (1999), and Sankofa (1993). The most noteworthy motion pictures are probably Haile Gerima’s Sankofa, about a modern African-American model who is transported to the past and slavery; Charles Burnett’s Nightjohn, a work focused on a black girl on a southern plantation who wants to learn to read despite it being forbidden, a film that I saw in a Manhattan theatre (it has been screened at various festivals), although it first was conceived for and shown on television; Jonathan Demme’s Beloved, an interpretation of Toni Morrison’s significant novel, focused on a woman haunted by slavery and the murderous choices she felt compelled to make; and Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil, a view of partisan conflicts at the time of the civil war, presenting a rather unique perspective of slavery—not only that of the slaveholders but of a black character who fights with the slavers (he has a white brother and is fighting to protect him). Yet, two older films, aesthetically important and politically conservative—D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind (1939)—continue to cast large shadows. 12 Years a Slave may be the most truthful, most important, film of all.

Like Haile Gerima’s Sankofa and Charles Burnett’s Nightjohn, 12 Years a Slave puts the most brutal facts of enslavement at its centre. With a sense of history and affirmation of the metaphysical, the film Sankofa tells the story of a modern woman, Mona (Oyafunmike Ogunlano), who visits a Ghana site that had been a slave pen, and is sent back to the past as the enslaved woman Shola by a griot-priest named Sankofa (Kofi Ghanaba); and it is a past—on a Louisiana plantation—that includes indifference to human feeling, and a branding, shackling violence, and self-deceiving religious justifications, as well as the courage of those beleaguered. Haile Gerima, an Ethiopian-American, had made the mid-1970s film Bush Mama and the more recent Teza (2008), the latter set in Ethiopia and Germany, and he has been associated with artists such as Julie Dash and Charlie Burnett (Bush Mama and Burnett’s 1979 filmKiller of Sheep are both set in Watts, Los Angeles, and are about struggling people). Sankofa was a memorable work for those who appreciate black cinema. “Gerima and his film are emblematic of how important it is for people of colour to tell their own stories, which is not to deny that a number of significant films about blacks have in fact been made by whites. But so much of the African experience is horrific to the point of absurdity that it takes a strong African aesthetic, steeped in cultural and spiritual awareness, to evoke from it a sense of the tragic rather than the merely melodramatic,” concluded Los Angeles Times writer Kevin Thomas (4). Nightjohn was first a book by Gary Paulsen, an American writer for young adults, before it was made into a motion picture by African-American filmmaker Charles Burnett for Disney, and it is about an enslaved girl named Sarny (Allison Jones) who is tutored in learning the alphabet and reading by a scarred but resolute man named Nightjohn (Carl Lumbly) who realizes that knowing and wanting are aspects of liberty, a man who had escaped bondage but returned to help others. For transgression of the master’s rules, some are whipped and some have their fingers cut off. The film review of Nightjohn by Stephen Holden in The New York Times, at the time of a Lincoln Center exhibition of the director’s work, called the finished photoplay both “powerful” and “pretty” (5). The film that has been made of Solomon Northup’s story by McQueen and his collaborators is gorgeous and painful too. “Harrowing, raw and unapologetic, 12 Years a Slave is the most unforgiving and crucial account of this horrific era that I have witnessed onscreen,” wrote Film Journal International’s film reviewer Tomris Laffly, noting that while other films—such as Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) and Amistad—had an element of redemption, McQueen and Ridley’s treatment of Northup’s story is a return to the original, outrageous wound, the terrifying and tragic facts of enslavement; and the reviewer Tomris Laffly commended the film for “the vision and skill required to do justice to such historically complex material.” (6)

At the centre of the film is Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup. Chiwetel Ejiofor, a black British actor—born in London, the son of Nigerian parents—was a participant in the National Youth Theatre, attended the Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and made his film debut as a language translator in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, the remarkable film about the enslavement of Africans, their rebellion aboard ship, and subsequent capture by Americans, and the legal trial that ensued to gain their freedom—or send them back into slavery. Obviously, in theme and value, that film is an antecedent to 12 Years a Slave. Ejiofor has done diverse and interesting work: although he may have received the most attention for Dirty Pretty Things (2002) and Children of Men (2006), Ejiofor has appeared in Love Actually (2003), Melinda and Melinda (2004), Serenity (2005), Kinky Boots (2005), Inside Man (2006), Talk to Me (2007), American Gangster (2007), Endgame (2009), and Half of a Yellow Sun (2013), among other films. In Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, Ejiofor is Okwe, a trained doctor and immigrant without official papers who works as a hotel receptionist in London and becomes entangled in dangerous practices, but a decent and gentle core is perceptible in him. In the bleak future world of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, in which human reproduction has become endangered, Ejiofor plays an activist, Luke, someone of apparent virtue but whose morality becomes in doubt and his manner ferocious. In Woody Allen’s exploration of comic and tragic sensibilities, Melinda and Melinda, Ejiofor, like Daniel Sunjata, plays a romantic ideal, a musician named Ellis Moonsong. In Julian Jarrold’s Kinky Boots, Ejiofor is Lola, a transvestite shoe designer, with moments brash and sad. Ejiofor is Odenigbo in Biyi Bandele’s Nigerian civil war film, Half of a Yellow Sun (2013), an adaptation of a book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Unfortunately, Half of a Yellow Sun has received limited screening. No doubt, Ejiofor’s performance as Northup—for better and worse—will remain the role by which many will know him.

12 Years A Slave begins with a few short scenes: an instruction in cane-cutting in Louisiana, a communal sleeping room, a shared meal in which berries (potential ink) and a whittled stick (potential pen) are noticed, and worked with, but found inadequate to the desired task of being tools for writing a letter to friends in search of help for getting out of bondage. A woman, sleeping next to Northup (a man also known as Platt), puts his hand on her breast and engages him in a brief, joyless sexual act, an act that seems more spiritual relief than one of desire or pleasure (the woman, though she initiated the act, cries once it is over)—and Northup remembers a tender scene with his own beloved wife Anne. That is the beginning of the film, but not the beginning of Northup’s life as a free man or as an enslaved person: the film will show us how he came to where he is, and what happens after.

Solomon Northup did different kinds of work, but he had a special skill with the violin and in the film we see him, as a free man, performing music at a formal dance, where his work is appreciated by the well-dressed Americans of European descent in attendance. His own daughter, at home, plays the flute. Northup seems to have a warm, loving family and a comfortable life. On an excursion, he meets two men—Misters Brown and Hamilton (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam)—who claim to be looking for a musician to perform with a circus. Their extravagant talk includes a casual reference to civilization and darkest Africa. (In the book Twelve Years A Slave, Northup describes one of them as effeminate.) In the film, as in life, Northup goes to Washington with the two men and is given food and drink and falls ill, waking to find himself in chains. Northup tells the prole slaveholder who he is—but that brute denies the facts and beats Northup to get him to accept his new identity and status, a whip tearing his shirt, the blood splashing on his back. “Help me,” Northup cries in the nation’s capital. (In the book, Northup makes much of his abuse occurring in a city that represents democracy and liberty.) The captured—in life as in the film—are frequently placed in groups, a denial of privacy that is also a denial of individuality. With Solomon Northup are Eliza (Adepero Oduye) and her two children, and two other black men—one who expects to be saved and another who has evolved strategies for survival. They are put on a ship headed south, and the film viewer sees the red boat wheel turning through river water reflecting the sky (a beautiful image with a changed and charged meaning here, a movement toward trouble, not pleasure). On ship, Northup and other captive men—after making a distinction between those born free and those born enslaved, knowing those born free know the full value of liberty—discuss whether to fight the crew. “I don’t want to survive. I want to live,” says Northup. When a black man seems to quietly object to the sexual abuse of Eliza, he is quickly killed, his shrouded body thrown overboard. Dead, he’s better off, better off than the living slaves, one of the men—Clemens (Chris Clark) —says. Yet when Clemens is rescued by his plump white master, the shrewd, tough Clemens acts the grateful darky. (In Solomon Northup’s memoir, it is John, played in the film by Craig Tate, not Clem, whose master reclaims him; and, later, Clem is brought back to Washington by Burch, one of the slave dealers, with Clem escaping later to Canada—stopping on his way to visit an acquaintance of Solomon Northup with news of where Clem last saw Northup (7). As well, a sailor agrees to take a letter to an acquaintance of Solomon, but that acquaintance—though he contacts the New York governor—cannot proceed, not knowing where Solomon is). (8)

In the film, Solomon, now part of the slave market, recalls being free and shopping with his own wife, and himself becoming the fascination of an enslaved black man surprised to see an elegant black family. Solomon’s memory is brief and his new reality asserts itself. A slave merchant named Freeman (Paul Giamatti) claims his purchases, among them Northup, insisting—with a slap—that Northup accept the name “Platt”. In a finely furnished room, with refreshments, naked and clothed blacks are offered for sale; and the once pampered, now abject Eliza asks not to be separated from her children, but the slave merchant says her son will grow into a fine beast and sells him separately, before selling Eliza and Platt to planter William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), while refusing to sell Eliza’s beautiful daughter who, in time, may become a concubine for a white man. “My sentimentality extends the length of a coin,” the slave-dealer says. Eliza cries as she and her children are separated and Northup plays the violin as consolation and distraction. The word nigger is casually and cruelly used there and later, and it is part of the refrain of a humiliating song—about escape and violent punishment—sung by John Tibeats (Paul Dano), a Ford plantation carpenter who insists on being called master. The Red River plantation owner William Ford gives religious readings to work folk and family. Ford attempts to be a decent man: when Solomon devises a scheme for transporting lumber by water rather than over land, Ford gives him a violin, saying he hopes it gives them both joy over the years; but it is a reference to time passing that is a blessing that contains a curse, an intimation of lasting enslavement. Of course, Solomon’s music is not the only music. Music, of different kinds, recurs: Native Americans—possibly Chickasaws—met in the woods have their own songs, and dance; and Northup is fascinated by their music. The blacks have work songs and spiritual hymns; and one can see the roots of black music in America (when Solomon joins a funeral song, it is an acceptance of sorrow and of community). “Fortunate was the slave who came to his possession. Were all men such as he, Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness,” wrote Solomon Northup of William Ford in his book Twelve Years A Slave (9). Ford, to console Eliza, tells her that her duties will be light, confined to the house, according to the written account; and she may confuse his polite power with her own liberty. Her constant mourning will force Ford and his wife to send her away (Eliza will be put to work in the field on a plantation owned by Ford’s wife, and will remain sad and become emaciated).

The carpenter John Tibeats is outraged by Solomon’s successful idea regarding the transport of lumber: that kind of intelligence is perceived as transcendent, transgressive. “Are you an engineer or a nigger?” asks Tibeats in the film. The dignified, intelligent Solomon Northup, known on the Ford planation as Platt, works dutifully (he is the kind of man who knows how to solve problems with inventions); and his work is interrupted by the ignorant and spiteful Tibeats, and Solomon is called a brute and a dog by Tibeats. (In the Northup book, William Ford’s brother Franklin has debts that affect William, causing William Ford to engage in a financial relationship with Tibeats for Solomon, and Tibeats and Solomon work on Mistress Ford’s Bayou Boeuf plantation, away from William, making Northup vulnerable). (10) Infuriated by Solomon’s competence, Tibeats attacks Solomon’s work and body—and Solomon fights back: Solomon’s whipping of Tibeats is a thrilling and satisfying moment. It is rare when violence has a genuine spiritual root but it does here: it is an affirmation of self and spirit. “I will have flesh, and I will have all of it,” declares Tibeats, meaning to kill Platt. (The spoken language in the film is sometimes colloquial and crude and sometimes very eloquent, an eloquence explained by the significance of the holy scriptures in people’s lives. The visual language of the film combines the beauty and cruelty that Northup described in his book.) Tibeats says that Platt will not live to see another day and he returns with two men and they begin to hang Platt, but the overseer, guns out, interrupts them and tells them they have no right to destroy Ford’s property: the attackers leave, and Platt is left hanging by rope and tiptoe until the plantation owner’s return.

In an essay for online magazine Grantland, film critic Wesley Morris describes the interrupted hanging of Solomon Northup, which leaves him in suspension: “It is a grim sight, the man hanging from a tree. His neck is noosed. His arms are tied behind him. The toes of two booted feet tap, tap, tap in the mud, neither foot firmly on the earth…I’ve never seen a sequence that so elegantly uses duration to lay out an ecosystem of power and powerlessness, one that ripples across time, from the 1840s to the 21st century. 12 Years a Slave manages to do that again and again. It coolly clarifies the United States’ lasting social underpinnings: the seeds of black anger, black self-doubt, black resilience, white supremacy, and white guilt. The director is Steve McQueen, a 44-year-old Englishman. The screenwriter is the American entertainment-industry veteran John Ridley. Both men are black, and the movie they’ve made radically shifts the perspective of the American racial historical drama from the allegorical uplift to the explanatory wallop.” (11) It is an essay that commends the film for its honesty and its restraint.

While Platt, hangs there, the beauty of the land—its greenery, its serenity—is perceptible, as are the chores and play that continue around him. One woman brings him a cup of water. William Ford arrives and cuts him down. “You are an exceptional nigger Platt, but I fear no good will come of it,” Ford says, acknowledging his own debt, and Platt’s difficult reputation, and the necessity of conveying ownership of Plattto the nigger-breaker Epps, with whom Platt will spend ten years. (In the book, Solomon Northup has a few other experiences—with masters Peter Tanner and Mister Eldret—before he gets to Epps.) The cotton planter Edwin Epps is played by Michael Fassbender, an interesting actor who has quickly risen in prominence over the years, having appeared in the films 300 (2006), Inglorious Basterds (2009), Jane Eyre (2011), A Dangerous Method (2011), Shame (2011), and The Counselor (2013). He is red-haired, lean, ferocious, and funny—impressive and scary, as compelling as a cobra. Epps, a cruel, drunken, demanding man, quotes the holy bible to support great and daily punishment, punishment given when the cotton yield is less than wanted. Platt is not good at cotton-picking, though the dark, slim girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) is very good: while Patsey picks more than five-hundred pounds a day, Platt cannot pick two-hundred pounds, which is standard. Patsey hums, and makes little dolls out of ordinary materials, signs of imagination, inner life. According to Solomon Northup’s written account, Patsey, of Guinea heritage, was slim and straight, pleasant and obedient, and ignorant but virtuous (12). Her value to Edwin Epps—her work, her appeal—infuriates his watching wife, incarnated by actress Sarah Paulson. Mistress Epps hits Patsey with a heavy liquor bottle during an impromptu evening dance her husband has called (interrupting their sleep, he does not care that the workers need rest). Mistress Epps threatens to leave her husband if he does not get rid of Patsey: he tells his wife, in front of all, that if he had to choose between the two he would choose Patsey (yet Patsey’s hurt and crying are ignored). The women in the film—the mournful Eliza, the abused and exploited Patsey, and the disrespected wife of Epps—have a very difficult time, exposed as they were to the ideals and hypocrisy, the desires and perversity, of male society. “I won’t have my mood spoiled,” the master says, insisting on continuing the dance.

“It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him,” wrote Solomon Northup in his memoir (13). In the film, Edwin Epps has a rage for Patsey and has Platt interrupt her visit to a neighbour, Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), and bring her back to his estate. There, the three sit down to tea and Mistress Shaw, a black woman, explains to Patsey and Platt her luck in getting the plantation owner to favour her; and still she imagines divine justice coming to all the plantation owners. (In the book Mistress Shaw is variously named Charlotte in one passage and Harriet in another.) Alfre Woodard featured in Health (1980), Cross Creek (1983), Go Tell It on the Mountain (1984), Grand Canyon (1991), Passion Fish (1992), Bopha! (1993), Crooklyn (1994), Follow Me Home (1996), Love & Basketball (2000), Something New (2006), and many other films and television movies and serials, is honest and wise, onscreen and off. Upon returning with Patsey from the Shaw plantation, Platt is accosted by Epps, who is even jealous of Platt with Patsey. Epps chases Platt with a knife and is reprimanded by Mistress Epps, who has no power to control or change her husband. The rape of Patsey by Edwin Epps is a sharp, perpetual fact: and her indifferent but painful submission to his lust inclines him to slap and choke her. The valuable Patsey is endangered. At another dance, Mistress Epps offers cookies, accusations, and insults against all, and then deeply scratches Patsey’s face. Patsey asks Platt to drown her: “I ain’t got no comfort in this life,” Patsey says. “Do what I ain’t got the strength to do myself.” Patsey’s treatment may be the most excruciating to watch. When Epps goes crazy looking for her on the Sabbath (Sunday), her day off, after Patsey has gone to Mistress Shaw to get the soap that Mistress Epps will not grant her, Patsey is tied to the whipping post and beaten by Epps—“Strike the life from her,” Mistress Epps insists—and Patsey’s back is deeply ripped by the whip—which gives Edwin Epps pleasure.

There are cotton worms in the cotton, ruining the crop and Epps sees that as a divine plague, but he looks not to his own behaviour but to that of the blacks as the cause of misfortune. Epps leases Platt and others to a neighbour, a judge, the owner of a cane plantation, and it is here—with the instruction of cane-cutting—that the film had begun: cane-cutting, and a meal with berries, and a joyless sex act with a fellow female slave. The judge loans out Platt as violinist for a costume party and allows him to keep the money he earns. When he returns to Epps’ planation, he will offer that money to a white indentured servant if the man will send a letter for him to northern friends.

Mistress Epps had given Platt a grocery list, and when he instinctively looked at it, she inquired about whether he can read: he denied it. On his way to pick up supplies, Platt thinks of running away and walks into a lynching party, with two black men as the dishonoured guests. On a subsequent shopping trip, Solomon took a sheet of paper from the Epps bundle for himself, to write a letter for help. After the white indentured servant Armsby (Garret Dillahunt)—who is bad at picking cotton, the worst, though he is not whipped, as the blacks are—agrees to take his letter, Solomon writes a letter but the servant betrays him to Epps: when Epps finds Solomon, accusing him of deviltry, he denies the accusation, saying the servant Armsby merely wanted to be promoted to overseer and has invented the lie. Another man, a travelling Canadian carpenter, Bass (Brad Pitt), earthy and liberal, lined and bearded, looking like an old-time Quaker, does work on the Epps plantation, and criticises slavery and speaks of universal rights. In the Solomon Northup book, Bass is described as being of light complexion and hair, between forty and fifty, cool and thoughtful: “He was that kind of person whose peculiarity of manner was such that nothing he uttered ever gave offense. What would be intolerable, coming from the lips of another, could be said by him with impunity” (14). In other words, Bass has charisma—making Brad Pitt a perfect choice. Brad Pitt, who seems to have been dynamic from the start of his career, has become a significant actor and filmmaker: from Thelma & Louise (1991), A River Runs Through It (1992), Legends of the Fall (1994), Twelve Monkeys (1995), and The Mexican (2001)to Babel (2006) and The Tree of Life (2011) to Moneyball (2011) and World War Z (2013) and much more. His company Plan B produced 12 Years a Slave. Bass argues against slavery with Epps, who laughs (in the book Twelve Years A Slave, Epps describes Platt’s popularity and inventiveness to Bass, calling Platt a genius, while also defending slavery). (15) The free-thinker Bass hears Solomon’s life story, and Solomon asks Bass to send a letter to Solomon’s northern friends—and Bass agrees to do so; and does what he promises.

Inspired and informed by Solomon Northup’s accounting of his life, 12 Years a Slave may be a great film. It is a report of one man’s experience, but it represents the suffering and survival of many. It is a correction to the false reports of others. It is a work of beauty and thought: knowledge is brought to the film viewer through word, deed, and image. After commenting on the excellent quality of the film—and its damaging but lucrative antecedents The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the WindThe New Republic’s film critic David Thomson declared that the film should be seen: “It is a film that necessity and education demand seeing” (16). In an article for The Denver Post on a Telluride Festival screening of the film, Lisa Kennedy called 12 Years a Slave a “transcendent, searing saga” (17). Following the film’s Best Picture win at the industry’s annual Academy Awards, Esther Iverem, the editor of the cultural web site Seeing Black said, “Perhaps the long-lasting value of this award-winning film extends beyond its depiction of the brutality of slavery to its depiction of the ECONOMIC TENTACLES of slavery in the building and foundation of the United States—and that foundation is a reality that escapes many Americans, including many so-called lawmakers today in the nation’s capital” (18). Yet, the film has worth as more than a record of a punishing history or evidence of contribution to the financial wealth of the country. It is a document of how humanity is threatened and preserved. Solomon Northup was a particular human being, a man of perception and special skills and it is that kind of individuality that injustice exploits, obscures, and perverts.

In a film review that registered the unique perspective of Solomon Northup as a free and thoughtful black man, the efficacy of Ejiofor’s performance, and the here classical technique of Steve McQueen, the New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis noted the lead character’s journey from master to master: “It’s a desperate path and a story that seizes you almost immediately with a visceral force. But Mr. McQueen keeps everything moving so fluidly and efficiently that you’re too busy worrying about Solomon, following him as he travels from auction house to plantation, to linger long in the emotions and ideas that the movie churns up. Part of this is pragmatic—Mr. McQueen wants to keep you in your seat, not force you out of the theatre, sobbing—but there’s something else at work here. This is, he insists, a story about Solomon, who may represent an entire subjugated people and, by extension, the peculiar institution, as well as the American past and present. Yet this is also, emphatically, the story of one individual” (19). Having respect for our own minds and spirits, cultivating ourselves, brings joy and strength and wisdom—and can allow us the imagination and skill to renew ourselves after we have been hurt, insulted, used: and the cultivated Solomon Northup had a unique story to tell as he was a unique man. Solomon Northup did more than suffer while he lived.


1. TheWashington Post, edition of 17th October 2013.

2. Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, David Wilson (Ed),Introduction by Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon,Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968, p. 10

3. ibid., p. 25

4. Los Angeles Times, edition of 12th May 1995.

5. The New York Times, edition of 31st January 1997.

6. Film Journal International, edition of 14th October 2013.

7. Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, p. 34 and pp. 39-40

8. ibid., p. 49

9. ibid., p. 62

10. ibid., pp. 75-80

11. Grantland, edition of24th October 2013.

12. See pages 141-143 and 152 in Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, David Wilson (Ed),Introduction by Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon,Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968.

13. ibid., p. 157

14. ibid., p. 204

15. ibid., p. 219

16. The New Republic, edition of 22nd November 2013.

17. The Denver Post, edition of27th October 2013.

18. Seeing Black, edition of 30th March 2014.

19. The New York Times, edition of 17th October 2013.


0 thoughts on “Critical Essay 12 Years A Slave

Leave a Reply

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