12 Years a Slave: the movie and the book

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.

Northrup’s book reminds me of accounts by survivors of the Soviet Gulag and the Nazi concentration camps—the shock at being ripped out of familiar surroundings, the realization that you are in a world without rules and then learning to survive by your wits and by luck.  Northrup came close to being killed several times, not just once as shown in the movie.

B&N.12YearsaSlaveThere is much in the book that could not have been squeezed into the movie—for example, the story of the young black man who went AWOL to visit his girlfriend on an neighboring plantation, overslept and was literally chewed to death by bloodhounds as he was caught on the way back, or the fact that, in the Lousiana bayous, slaves were forbidden to learn to swim as well as to learn to read.

Northrup was a remarkable individual—a talented musician, a skilled carpenter and all-around craftsman, and a writer who could express himself with clarity and precision.  He suggested and planned a way transport lumber by water that saved William Ford a lot of money.  Later he ingratiated himself with Edwin Epps, so that he became a junior overseer and learned to crack his whip so that it snapped an inch away from his fellow slaves’ flesh, while they cried out in pretended pain.

The movie shows Epps quoting Luke 12: 45 to the slaves to persuade them that slavery is God’s will.  In the book, Northrup tells of his own Christian faith and how it sustained him through his ordeal.

Slavery was not a minor aberration in the forward march of democracy.  The historian, David Walker Howe, estimated that during the period depicted in this movie, the amount of capital that Americans had invested in slaves exceeded the total amount invested in railroads, canals and factories.  Cotton was the main U.S. export, and cheap slave labor gave the United States its competitive advantage.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn described the Gulag, the network of Soviet prison camps, as a country within a country, an archipelago of camps and prisons overlaid on the land mass of the USSR.  The world of the slaves also was a country within a country, and the movie gives us a glimpse of that country.

I think 12 Years a Slave is a movie that every American, and in particular every white American, should see, and it would be good thing if many of us also read the book.  It is not that I, as a white person, feel personally guilty of something that happened.  It is that I, as an American citizen, should have an accurate knowledge of my country’s history — just as Germans and Russians need accurate knowledge of theirs.  If you don’t understand the past, you can’t understand the present.


The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.

               ==Thomas Jefferson


The video at the head of this post is about the making of the movie 12 Years a Slave.  Roughly the first 20 minutes is a documentary of the making of the movie and interview with the director Steve McQueen.  Then there is a trailer for the movie, and then interviews with Chiwetel Ejiofur, who plays Solomon Northrup; Michael Fassbinder, who plays the slaveholder Edwin Epps; and Lupita Nyong’o, who plays the young slave Patsey.

It is interesting to me that none of them is an American.  Steve McQueen is British.  Chiwetel Ejiofur is British, born to Nigerian immigrant parents.  Michael Fassbinder is of German and Irish parentage, born in Germany and brought up in Kenya.  Lupita Nyong’o, who makes her debut as a movie actress, grew up in Kenya.   But they capture the reality of American slavery as well could be done.


Click on Solomon Northrup, The Full Story for a web page devoted to Solomon Northrup.  [added 12/13/13]

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3 Responses to “12 Years a Slave: the movie and the book”

  1. tashqueedagg Says:

    Jacobin has a nice article on this film, which puts it in dialogue with some of the recent scholarship on slavery.



  2. Atticus C. Says:

    I appreciate works like this to serve as a reminder of how far we’ve come and where we should never return to, but I also wonder if works like this ultimately serve to divide the U.S. by race even more than before.

    We obviously have a race issue as a country and I wonder if Hollywood capitalizes on that wound for profit – deepening the divide between black people and white people in America. Reinforcing the hatred and betrayal felt by black people and further reiterate white people’s role in it all.

    In the South the black culture is riddled with misbehavior and the “gangster mentality”. I wonder if the media’s constant attention on our terrible history provides black your with the fuel and the justification to continue such behavior. (While also acknowledging it is a real socioeconomic issue too.)


    • philebersole Says:

      A couple of observations.

      The movie (like the book) is anti-slavery, not anti-white. The white characters include William Ford, the kindly Christian slaveowner; Bass, the abolitionist carpenter; and Northrup’s loyal white friends in Saratoga, N.Y.

      My guess is that very few black Americans will be surprised or shocked at what is depicted in this movie. Most of them are well aware of the history of slavery and Jim Crow, if only from family tradition.

      I think the main thing that divides white and black Americans is our differing experience of American life and our inability to imagine ourselves in the other person’s place. This movie helps me to imagine, as much as is possible from a movie, what it would be like to be a slave.

      The other great thing about the movie, for me, was the heroism of Solomon Northrup, who never stopped trying to regain his freedom, never stopped using his keen intelligence and never lost his religious faith or sense of self-respect.


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