The movie “Twelve Years a Slave” was based on the slave narrative written by Solomon Northup. His abduction as a free man, his resulting transformation into a slave and his detainment as a slave irreversibly altered the course of his life. Many aspects of the story highlighted in the movie are common themes in other slave narratives. This movie adaptation of the slave narrative highlighted many aspects of the slave narrative that stand out when depicted in film as opposed to in print. I felt that of all the slave narratives we have read to date, Solomon Northup’s story is the best suited to the medium of film.
His story starts in America, and as a free man. This appeals to film makers for a few reasons, one of which is the lack of middle passage or the home in Africa. Not having to film the middle passage helped the film makers avoid having to enlist too many people on serve on the set, and helped them be able to avoid filming in the difficult setting. This absence also effects the narrative by helping to emphasize the powerless black people had in America, even when free. emphasis on Solomon’s unique origin is presented in a way that seems so ordinary, so routine, that it draws attention to his method of abduction.
Because Solomon is unable to produce papers that prove he is a freed man, his assertions on his actual identity and his pleas for freedom are ignored. He is beaten to silence him, and is not even given a chance to produce his papers. This failure to see him as a real person even though he was a free man, highlights the racism at the time. I really enjoyed the importance placed on the fiddle. When he was a free man, Solomon played the violin as a profession, and it was a wonderful thing for him.
Playing the violin allowed him to support his family, and it was something that made him special. After he was taken, his skill with the fiddle made him special, but only as a commodity. It made him worth more money when he was sold, and it allowed him to bring a part of his life as a free man into his life as Platt the slave. While serving as a tangible link to his freedom, it also served as an object reminding him of his humanity, while his humanity was stripped from him. It was also a tool that helped to dehumanize him through forced entertainment.
It made his choice of profession change into a mode of his enslavement; so that instead of willingly performing an action and being paid for it, he is being made to perform an action under penalty of beatings or death. This denial of choice through a medium that is so familiar to Solomon helps to show the magnitude of what freedoms the slaves are missing out on. One aspect of the slave narrative that this movie emphasizes well is the presence of religion. This theme is popular in many other slave narratives, as one of the reasons white people gave for the enslavement of black people was under the pretense of education of Christian values.
Both of Solomon’s slave masters read verses of the bible, and hold church services on their populations. Northup’s first slave master, Ford, is seen reading “I am the God of Abraham” to his slaves and to his family. This helps to characterize Ford’s role as the “good” slave master, the slaves sit with his family for their church service, and Ford reading this section of scripture helps to establish himself as the lord and shepherd of his family, and of all the slaves. In the film, this scene is layered with the white overseer singing a song about catching and hanging a runaway.
This also helps to establish Ford’s role as “the protector” as he is the only force standing between the slaves and the cruel overseer. Even though he is portrayed as the “good” slave master, when Solomon confronts him about his former freedom, Ford refuses to intervene, and sells “Platt” so he can save his investment, and Solomon’s life. Solomon’s second slave master, is almost an exact opposite of Ford – Edwin Epps openly displays cruelty to his slaves. At his plantation, we see some of the most shocking scenes in this movie.
Whippings, beatings and public shaming were graphically displayed on film. If they are hard to read about in textual slave narratives, watching it was almost unbearable. On film, these acts of brutality were like seeing a tornado, a horrible force of nature, terrifying, and the audience is unable to look away because of how incomprehensible it is. Epps justifies this violence through the use of the bible. He quotes lines emphasizing that there is no sin in whipping a slave, because they are his property, and he owns them. This type of cruelty is straightforward, brutal and unforgiving.
This film narrative does a wonderful job of exemplifying the resilience displayed by Solomon and the other slaves. Even through their immense hardships, the slaves subtle resistances in everyday life really helped to draw attention to their struggle to retain their humanity. By aiding each other and by continuing to work as a support system, the slaves resolve to treat each other as people helps to establish that idea of self in their own minds, and in the minds of the audience. These acts of goodwill towards each other really help to cement the humanity of the slaves.
This is contrasted and emphasized with the appearances of two white male workers. The first of these workers heavily contrasts this idea. This worker was a drunk, and a former slave foreman. He took advantage of Solomon’s trust, and sold him out to his slave owner. He connected with Solomon, and Solomon quickly began to trust him. Solomon begged for materials to write a letter, and for this worker to mail it for him. Solomon offered to help with work, and offered payment for his services, which was taken. Then, this worker told the slave master that Solomon could read and write, and told of his plan to leave the plantation.
Luckily Solomon was a quick thinker, and evaded the direness of that situation. The second white worker was a Canadian by the name of Bass. Bass had a view on slavery that wasn’t shared by many of the other white men in the area. One of the most notable scenes with Bass, is when he challenges Epps, asking what the difference “in the eyes of god” there was between white and black people. When Bass hears Solomon’s story, he helps to contact well known people from his hometown to take him away from the plantation. To me, the saddest part of this narrative was the amount of time Solomon lost with his family.
He was taken, and his life was suddenly not in his control anymore. The idea that this could happen to anyone, and at any time showcases how much fear there must have been in every day after he made it home. I thought that this style of slave narrative was very effective. I think that seeing something take place, even if it is staged and acted, has an impact that can’t quite be captured with words alone. While slave narratives provide a lot more information, I feel like the video-graphical representation helped me to connect more emotionally.
When something is hard to watch, I think about how it is hard to watch, and in turn what about it makes it hard to watch. The parts of this narrative that were hard to watch, were hard to watch because of how believable the violence is. In seeing that, I can’t imagine one person administering a beating like that to another person, and in my disbelief to be able to understand that this type of behavior historically occurred, fills me with shame, not just for those people, but for all people.