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).