May 29, 2023

12 Years A Slave – Hollywood Vs History


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Steve McQueen’s universally acclaimed masterpiece 12 Years a Slave portrays the harrowing and real story of Solomon Northup (Chitewel Eijofor) a free African-American man living in Saratoga, upstate New York who is kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery.

The film caused controversy, debate and educated many on the issues of slavery in America. With the upcoming home entertainment release, we take a look at how accurate the film is to its history:


Soloman Northup was a free man living in upstate New York with a wife and two children before being enslaved
Soloman Northup was indeed a free man who played the violin. He had a wife and three children, not two: Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo, who were 10, 8 and 5, respectively, at the time of his kidnapping. Sent to Louisiana, Northup is given the name Platt and is beaten when he protests he is a freeman. As a result of the incident, he hides his true identity for years.

Did two men really trick Solomon into going to Washington, D.C. with them?

Yes. Solomon met the two men in the village of Saratoga Springs, New York. The men had heard that Solomon was an “expert player of the violin”. They identified themselves using fake names and told him that they were part of a circus company that was looking for someone with his precise musical talent. The two men, later identified as Joseph Russell and Alexander Merrill, asked Solomon to accompany them on a short journey to New York City and to participate with them in performances along the way. They only delivered one performance to a small crowd, and it consisted of Russell and Merrill performing some elementary tricks like tossing balls, frying pancakes in a hat, ventriloquism and causing invisible pigs to squeal.

Once in New York City, Russell and Merrill encouraged Solomon to go to Washington, D.C. with them, reasoning that the circus would pay him high wages, and since it was the summer season, the troupe would be travelling back north anyway.

On the South-bound ship, one of the slave traders murders one of the slaves

As in the movie, Northup and two others try to plan an escape from the ship. They got very close to executing their plan, but then one of Northup’s co-conspirators got smallpox and died. He was not knifed to death trying to save a woman from being raped as they show in the film.

Northup is sold to Edwin Epps after he gets into a fight with plantation overseer of his first owner

As shown in the movie, Northup’s first master, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a much more lenient man than the other plantation owners in the film and holds some affection for Northup. However, Northup had to be sold to a much crueler master, Epps (Michael Fassbender), when he got into not one, but two, conflicts with the overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano). The first one—in which Tibeats attacks Northup, and Northup is able to overcome him in the attack by hitting and whipping Tibeats—is depicted accurately in the film: Tibeats tries to hang Northup for revenge, but Ford stops him. The second incident, not in the film, involved Tibeats chasing Northup with an axe.

Armsby betrayed Northup by telling Epps that Northup was trying to write a letter to his friends in New York

Armsby (Garret Dillahunt) was trying to obtain a position as an overseer with Epps, which is presumably why he ratted out Northup’s attempts to write home. As in the film, Northup is able to convince Epps that Armsby’s story is a lie. What the movie doesn’t show, though, is that this wasn’t the first time Northup had asked someone to send a letter for him. A sailor on the ship that brought Northup south sent a letter to Northup’s friends (but was unable to share Northup’s whereabouts).

Mary Epps injures Patsey in a jealous rage

Northup does write in his autobiography about Epps’ affection for Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) — and the jealousy aroused in Epp’s wife. However, he never writes anything about Mary (Sarah Paulson) becoming moved to violence or, as the movie shows, hurling a decanter at her face. Patsey did, however, suffer greatly from Epps’ alternative affection and rage, getting both raped and beaten, especially when Edwin was trying to prove to Mary his lack of affection for Patsy.

Was Northup forced to whip Patsey ?

Yes. Patsey leaves the plantation to borrow a bar of soap from a neighbour. Epps did not believe Patsey’s story and compelled Northup to whip her as punishment.

Northup is saved, thanks to a letter written by a kind-hearted carpenter named Bass

Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt) did have a discussion with Epps about slavery as portrayed in the movie, leading Northup to believe he could trust Bass with a letter home. Bass sent the letter and had several night-time meetings with Northup to report back on the letter’s progress. For a good deal of time, the letter received no response, and Bass even offered to go up to Saratoga himself and tell Northup’s friends about the situation once he could afford to do so. However, Northup’s friends received the letter sooner than that: they make the trip South and save Northup.

12 Years a Slave is out on Blu-ray & DVD 12th May 2014, courtesy of Entertainment One
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