I have long understood the evils of slavery on an intellectual level – that is to say, I kind-of, sort-of, in-a-way understood them. But seeing the movie, 12 Years a Slave, and reading the book has helped me to understand it in a deeper and more visceral way than I did before.
12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who lived in Saratoga, N.Y., who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, and who survived to tell the story of what happened to him. The movie is true to the book. Some details are left out, and some are changed in unimportant ways, but anybody who sees the movie will get the essence of the book.
The movie is a powerful evocation of the slave-holding South. The movie helps me imagine, as much is possible for me to imagine, what it would be like to be ripped out of my everyday life, and suddenly thrown into a situation in which I had no rights and no identity, subject to people with the power to commit rape, torture and murder without any consequences. The scenes of everyday slave life are as powerful as the scenes of whipping and abuse.
Northrup experienced the extremes of slavery. His first owner was William Ford, a sincere Christian, who sought to treat slaves as humanely as possible without giving them freedom. Under him, slavery was probably as endurable as it was anywhere in the South. But Northrup spent 10 years of his servitude subject to the power of the half-insane sadist and sexual predator, Edwin Epps.
Epps’ chief victim was a young slave woman named Patsey, whom he used as a sex object, then allowed his jealous wife to abuse and have whipped. It culminates in a scene that is almost too painful to watch. Epps, to please his wife orders Northrup to whip Patsey half to death, and then takes the whip himself.
While the movie is true to the Northrup’s experience, Northrup’s book gives you insight into his mind. He accurately describes not only what happened to him, but what he observed—the conditions of life, how the system worked, how sugar cane and cotton were grown. He judged people, even white slave-owners, as individuals, and he never gave way to hatred of white people in general. I don’t think I could have done that in his situation, even assuming I would have survived in the first place.