Twelve Years a Slave “I don’t want to survive, I want to live” Solomon Northup, main character of Twelve Years a Slave, perhaps spoke of what all slaves felt. The Missouri Compromise followed by the Compromise of 1850 created a divided nation of some free black people and some slaves. Unfortunately, the free weren’t necessarily safe. Southerners were constantly trying to get more slaves and strongly believed all blacks should be slaves. Most times, it was not good enough to present the paperwork that stated freedom. Twelve Years a Slave depicts the cruel nature and unfair society of slavery.
Northup’s portrayal of the inhuman treatment coincides with most other accounts of this sour time in U. S. history. Twelve Years a Slave stays faithful to a real story in undeniably portraying the worst excesses of slavery. Twelve Years a Slave portrays the brutality of the life slaves lived. The New York Times says this film is different than all other movies about slavery because it is “one that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century” (Dargis).
Solomon Northup was born a free man and lived in New York with his children and wife. His family was out of town when he was offered a very profitable job in Washington D. C. where he would skillfully play his violin. However, the seemingly generous white folks were actually conspiring to have him sold into slavery. The movie follows Northup’s horrific journey from a free man into slavery that begins in D. C. and ends in Louisiana. According to the 1860 census, in Louisiana the percentage of slaves was 48% of the state’s population which shows Northup was in one of the harshest slave states.
He spent twelve long years as a slave during which time he made many attempts to regain his freedom. Finally with the help of an abolitionist from Louisiana, Bass, Solomon was free. The ugly truth of the day to day hardships of a slave’s life is first verified in the film through the selling process of slaves. Hollywood doesn’t try to change the treatment to spare the audience. Slavery was incredibly cruel and it was evident in the way Solomon was treated. At the beginning of his slavery journey we saw Solomon getting harshly beaten for telling the truth of who he was, a free educated man.
There were laws that made it illegal for blacks to read and write in the south so they had to hide their education in order to survive. The auction of slaves was very accurate to what we have learned. The slaves were supposed to show off their skills and healthy bodies. This is depicted when Solomon was playing the violin and the domestic salve trader was showing off a black boy with healthy teeth to interested buyers. We also saw the bargaining process, when a young mother, Eliza, pleaded not to be separated from her children.
Solomon Northup wrote Twelve Years a Slave as well as “It Was a Mournful Scene Indeed” where he tells the same story with more detail than is in the film, the slave trader was not afraid to beat Eliza, “and unless she ceased that minute, he would take her to the yard and give her a hundred lashes” (Northup, Canvas). Masters either didn’t have enough money or didn’t care to buy the children. This demonstrated how slavery tore families apart. It also highlighted that slave owners had no regard for the sanctity of family. Another classic example of how slaves were treated was clear in the movie when they were constantly referred to as property.
Mistress Ford told a recently separated from her children slave “something to eat and some rest; your children will soon enough be forgotten” treating her like she had no need to be crying for her children because she wasn’t a real person, she was property. Bass is a character that speaks for all the people that realized how horrid and unjust slavery was, “because the law states your liberties are undeniable? Because society deems it so? Laws change. Social systems crumble. Universal truths are constant. It is fact, it is a plain fact what is true and right for all.
White and black alike”. Bass believed everyone should be equal and it was wrong for the white people to call African Americans their property. We know from historians that slave owners listed slaves in their wills along with other valuable possessions. They bought and sold slaves like they were physical property. The poor working conditions also played a major role throughout a slave’s life. In the film there was a short scene when a man in the field dropped dead in the middle of picking cotton, he probably had been working all day with little to no food or water.
Solomon and the other slaves were beat at the end of the day if they did not pick enough cotton compared to the number they had picked the day before, “The drivers, overseers, and masters were responsible for plantation discipline. Slaves were punished for not working fast enough… the punishments took many forms including whipping, torture, mutilation, imprisonment” (pbs. org). Solomon contemplated running away but quickly saw the consequence of getting caught, being hung. Northup experienced several punishments, such as being hung to being whipped on a frequent basis to being threatened of being stabbed.
None of which were uncommon. The accuracy of Solomon’s stories are indisputable and knowing they are true leaves you horrified. Hollywood’s attempt to portray Patsey as a slave that is favored and overly admired by her master, Edwin Epps, seems accurate to what we discussed in class. Harriet Jacobs stated in “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” her feelings towards her master”] turned from him with disgust and hatred. But he was my master. I was compelled to live under the same roof with him” (Jacobs, Canvas). Jacobs was constantly fearing for her safety when around her master. He was persistently watching er and meeting her at every corner, wanting her to agree to have sex with him.
The other slaves knew but wouldn’t dare to say anything. Not only was her life hard enough as a slave and having to be terrified of her master but the mistress also wanted her dead. The mistresses were aware of these transactions; they saw how their husbands looked at the slave girls. Harriet tells us she was hated by the mistress due to anger and jealousy. Harriett Jacob and Patsey have parallel stories. In Twelve Years a Slave all the slaves could see that their Master had a special liking toward Patsey.
In the film, Patsey was terrified of Master Epps and he took advantage of her against her will. Mistress Epps was not blind by the interactions between her drunken husband and the slave girl. In fact, her jealousy causes her to want Patsey beaten and sold. Hollywood doesn’t change much from Northup’s story to spare the audience from watching a horrible scene that speaks the truth about slavery. The whipping scene with Patsey tied to a wooden pole is almost unwatchable. Mistress Epps encouraged Master Epps to punish Patsey. However Epps can’t beat her at first and forces Solomon to do it.
Patsey’s back is almost torn to shreds by the end. This film helps us realize this was a very common relationship between masters and young slave girls. As Twelve Years a Slave is based on a true story, the accuracy of Solomon Northup’s experiences is evident by the way he was treated and how Patsey was admired by her Master which lead to her being tormented by the Mistress. We must remember that most free black men who were sold into slavery died as a slave. Northup’s case is unusual and inspiring. Solomon joined the abolitionist movement once he returned to New York.
Solomon Northup brought the men that tricked him into slavery and his master to court. Unfortunately in the courts in the south as a black man he was not permitted to testify and lost this case. Even in the North where he sued the men who initially tricked him he could not win his case. This demonstrates that there were different degrees of freedom even in the North. As a country there have been great strides made toward equality, however even today justice is still challenged along color lines. Therefore, much more is still needed if we hope to live in a truly justified America.