’12 Years a Slave’: The Movie vs. The True Story

Published 1 year ago by , Updated November 4th, 2013 at 5:32 pm,

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12 years slave ejiofor dano 12 Years a Slave: The Movie vs. The True Story

Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Tibeats (Paul Dano)

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).

12 years slave cumberbatch ejiofor 12 Years a Slave: The Movie vs. The True Story

Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor)

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…

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  1. I know this is five months old, but I just saw the movie and wanted to tell you that I heartily agree with you’re estimate of the important things left out. However, I would like to add two more to the list.

    1) The film completely expunged any reference to Solomon as a driver, which was the capacity in which he served Epps.

    2) The film also entirely ignored the slave community, pretended it didn’t exist. Frankly, for all the hardship, I feel the film did itself a disservice by cutting out any notion of the slaves having an existence outside their work.

  2. While I liked the movie a lot, the book was wonderful! It gave me goose bumps in three places and made me cry in two. It is possibly the best book I have ever read (and I am a big reader) and it is definitely the best autobiography I have ever read, and that includes Ann Frank’s and Nelson Mandela’s.

  3. Solomon Northup’s 12 years a slave is a compelling story about a kidnapped freeman sold into slavery. As an educator I do not have lots of time on my hands except in the summer months. It has been a pleasure reading the novel before embarking on the journey of watching the film; that has been raved about for months. To my dismay, the film was somewhat disappointing. In regards to allowing the true story to come alive. Often times readers are let down, because the imaginations that we portray in our minds while reading books does not amount to what producers…produce. Don’t get me wrong, 12 years a slave as a movie was portrayed somewhat decent; if I had not yet read the autobiography. There were a lot of details that were misplaced in the movie; that really illustrates to the reader the intensity of what slavery really was…and what it still is. Unfortunately, to individuals who still suffer from the consequences in present day 2014. I would have loved to see the Christmas holidays that were written about in his autobiography; to depict other perspectives of the daily life of a slave. Also many key details that climaxed to the retrieval of Northup’s freedom was missing. Unfortunately, this film is another missed target in regards to a reader vs. a movie goer. With all of that said and done; whether it be a missed target or not…the story of Solomon Northup has been brought back to life, and should be passed down from generation to generation. In the efforts of not allowing history to repeat itself in the same form. Best Regards!

  4. The irony is that hollywood stars like Brad Pitt are the new slave masters, hiring illegal aliens slave labor wages to tend their kids, cook, clean their plantation like giant mansions. Not much has changed except the color of the slaves.