There’s no doubt that Oscar nominations (and possibly some wins) lie ahead for director Steven McQueen’s acclaimed drama, 12 Years a Slave. The film is based on the memoir written by Solomon Northup, which reveals what happened after Solomon (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) – a free black man living in New York in pre-Civil War America – was kidnapped and sold into slavery, before he was able to regain his freedom more than a decade later.
If you’ve read my review, then you’re aware that I’m more lukewarm on the 12 Years a Slave film than many other critics and moviegoers – many of whom have proclaimed that McQueen’s adaptation is a masterpiece (or, if not quite that perfect, the next best thing). My overriding complaint about the film is that it’s an unflinching look at the atrocities committed by American slave owners – but not so much a movie that sheds additional light on how this (as the euphemism goes) “peculiar institution” worked – and, therefore, feels a bit like “‘torture porn’ made for arthouse moviegoers.”
Question is, does Northup’s original memoir offer that kind of insight on American slavery? Or does it foremost strive to document the traumatizing events that Solomon bore witness to, even as he struggled to keep himself alive (like the 2013 film adaptation)? Are the intents of movie and memoir one and the same – or vastly different?
It almost goes without saying that you have to allow room for some creative leeway and exaggeration/changes for dramatic effect – something I addressed last year with an examination of the truth vs. fiction in Argo – but my argument here is that those difference between 12 Years a Slave the book and the movie add up in a way that shouldn’t be overlooked.
NEXT: The Book vs. The Movie [SPOILERS]
Perhaps the best illustration of what I’m talking about is an important turn of events in 12 Years a Slave, which occurs near the end of the first act/beginning of the second act. Solomon defends himself from a slave handler named Tibeats (Paul Dano) – who is embarrassed after Solomon has proven himself to be the smarter man – by fighting back and getting the best of his assailant. Tibeats retaliates by gathering his thugs and attempting to hang Solomon, but is stopped at the last moment. However, Solmon is left half-hanging (standing on his tip-toes) as a punishment, until his Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) rushes home and cuts him free. Thereafter, Ford is forced to sell Solomon, in order to protect him from Tibeats (who still wants his revenge).
In real life, these events played out differently. Ford had sold Solomon to Tibeats when, one day, the latter – being described in Solomon’s memoir as “even more morose and disagreeable than usual” – unwisely tried to beat his servant in the way that the film portrays. However, the reason Tibeats was stopped from hanging Solomon was because Ford still held a mortgage on him and, therefore, Tibeats had no right to kill Solomon until Ford’s debt was settled (let that sink in for a moment).
Solomon was thereafter left in place tied up and unable to move while exposed to terrible heat from the sun (not half-choking, as in the movie), until Ford arrived and set him loose. Solomon even continued to work for Tibeats in the days that followed; though, the latter tended to stay quiet and keep his distance from then on (having learned his lesson).
Mind you, in his memoir Solomon does not skimp on the harsh details where it concerns how exhausting and punishing his experience working for Tibeats was. The thing is, this chapter in 12 Years a Slave (the book) is a fascinating, yet also simple illustration of how the institution of slavery worked – and just what a deplorable, self-perpetuating machine it was. Even more so, it drives home the reality that slavery – back in the mid-19th century – was seen as being a normal part of everyday life, even by people like Mr. Ford (whom, in his memoir, Solomon still admires as a good man and Christian).
In the film, however, the highlight of this event is the 1-2 minutes of sickening footage that shows Solomon half-hanging to death. Does it show the brutality of slavery? Absolutely. Does it make a profound statement that helps us in the present to really understand how and why this was allowed to happen (and just how much your average non-slave American was culpable in letting it happen)? Well…
NEXT: List of Differences between Movie & Book…
Here are a handful of additional examples, comparing/contrasting scenes from 12 Years a Slave the movie vs. the true story depicted in Northup’s memoir:
- In the book, Solomon described a number of incidents that occurred when he was being transported to the Southern U.S., like how he and his fellow prisoners planned an Amistad-style revolt, before one of them fell ill and died from smallpox – or, how Solomon encountered a sailor who helped him and wrote a letter to Solomon’s friends in the North. However, although you might think the sailor would treat this as his moral responsibility, the way Solomon described it, the sailor regarded what he did for Solomon as a simple favor. By comparison, in the film we see the slaves being harassed, raped and murdered, as one of Solomon’s peers advises him to keep his head down.
- Mr. Epps (Michael Fassbender) – the man who owned Solomon for nearly a decade – is described in Solomon’s memoir as being just as detestable and menacing as he is portrayed in McQueen’s film. However, when detailing his interactions with Mr. Epps, Solomon also paints the man as being neurotic, pompous, disillusioned and even (bizarrely) gratified by Solomon’s relentless hard work and polite manner. Similarly, Solomon reveals that – in a twisted way – he formed a personal relationship with Mrs. Epps (Sarah Paulson), by doing her many biddings. In fact, Mrs. Epps seems genuinely sad and is moved to tears at having to bid farewell to her beloved slave (again, let that sink in), when Solomon is finally rescued. In the film, though, we’re only shown how the Epps’ tormented and brutalized Solomon along with his fellow slaves (out of jealousy, anger and lust).
- Solomon, in his memoir, explains that he was empowered to survive his nightmarish ordeal by dwelling on the thoughts of his ancestors, his father, his family, his own personal spiritual beliefs – even by memories of the idle pleasure he got from playing the violin, when he was younger. Likewise, Patesy (Lupita Nyong’o) – the hard-working slave that is frequently abused by Mr. Epps and a jealous Mrs. Epps – told Solomon how she’s inspired to live on by her belief in goodness elsewhere in the world, and dreams of finding her freedom in the Northern U.S. In McQueen’s film, we get very few details about how Solomon sustained his spirit – save for a scene where he symbolically smashes the violin given to him by Ford (does that count?) – and we get a scene where Patesy asks Solomon to mercy-kill her.
- The film 12 Years a Slave skips a very intriguing chapter from Solomon’s memoir, where he recounts how Henry B. Northup – a lawyer and the “relative of the family in which my forefathers were thus held to service, and from which they took the name I bear” – was the one contacted by the Canadian Bass (Brad Pitt) and ended up being responsible for Solomon’s rescue.
In particular, the story of how Henry had to deal with so much red tape and other government roadblocks – in order to address the crime committed against Solomon – is a highly insightful look at U.S. history all its own – one that is as relevant today as ever, with regard to the ongoing conversation about the U.S. legacy of slavery and institutionalized racism. The same goes for information and aspects of Solomon’s memoir that are excluded (or not explored) in the movie adaptation, but would’ve helped to drive home just how real the people and events depicted therein are.
Again, it goes without saying that you have to allow some room for artists to change the facts of history (as McQueen and Ridley did on 12 Years a Slave), in order to produce an engaging piece of storytelling. However, when you add up the many deviations in McQueen’s film – more importantly, how the facts were altered – I would argue that it demonstrates that the movie version of 12 Years a Slave doesn’t hold up as the ‘statement’ about slavery that many people have argued it is. (The devil, as they say, is in the details.)
Instead, McQueen’s project is a technically well-made film about a man’s quest to survive, which tends to (over-)indulge in showing the ugliness of slavery. Yet, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave forgoes teaching some of the most important lessons to be gained from looking back at history (which are the true reasons we should never forget what happened in the past).
Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments section (and, as always, keep it civil).
12 Years a Slave is now playing in limited release and will continue expanding to more theaters over the forthcoming weeks.
To learn more about Solomon Northup, read his original memoir Twelve Years a Slave:Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 (available online here).