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

Published 1 year ago by , Updated November 4th, 2013 at 5:32 pm,
12 years slave ejiofor fassbender 12 Years a Slave: The Movie vs. The True Story

Solomon (Chwetel Ejiofor) and Mr. Epps (Michael Fassbender)

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).
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Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) and Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor)

  • 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.

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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).

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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.