"I will Survive. I will not fall into despair!"
A memoir by Solomon Northup, and later a film by artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen (no relation
Solomon Northup is a violinist in Saratoga, New York in 1841. He's a loving husband, a devoted father, a respected man of his community — and a free-born black man. One day, two men calling themselves Hamilton and Brown entice Solomon to come with them on a tour of cities and counties further south, where Solomon would play for circuses and concert audiences, and win plenty of money, if he only just kept going South. A little further South. And in Washington D.C....
In Washington D.C., Solomon wakes up with chains around his ankles and wrists, and is told that his life is no longer his own. He is now "Platt" — nothing but a Georgia runaway slave.
Thus begins twelve years of misery, agony, and punishing work as Platt is sold from master to master, and finds himself traversing the South, and experiencing the horrors of slavery firsthand. Still, he desperately holds on to hope that somehow, he will win his way to freedom and back to his family. But the years drag on...
The original memoir was released in 1853 and, at a time when "bestselling" was defined as two to three thousand copies sold, sold more than thirty thousand
copies. It was and is considered a definitive work of the time, both for the accurate, no-holds-barred depiction of slavery, and for shocking the people of the North, who were mostly ignorant of slavery in the South. It was likely a contributing factor to The American Civil War
, insofar as it caused serious questions to be raised about the practice of slavery and the treatment of slaves.
The film Twelve Years a Slave
was released across the United States in October of 2013 and has received rave reviews, including commendation for its unrelenting, yet straightforward portrayal of slavery, and the astounding performances of its cast, including English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor
as protagonist Solomon Northup, breakout star Lupita Nyong'o
as Patsey, and Michael Fassbender
's harrowing turn as the unhinged sadist, Master Edwin Epps.
It was nominated for, and later won, the Academy Award
for Best Picture of 2013. Lupita Nyong'o
won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and John Ridley won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Tropes found in this work include:
- Anticlimax: Justified as it's more or less how it happened in real life. There was no dramatic escape or revolt. Rather one caring individual who sent a letter to another caring individual who traveled a long distance to prove he is legally a free man.
- Anti-Villain: William Ford. Compared to Epps, he is a saint — he treats his slaves well and worries about their wellbeing, but is still a slaver and justifies his staying in the business because of the financial ruin he'd face otherwise. The director has said he considers him the worst of the three slavers we see, as he has no illusions that what he's doing isn't evil, but does it anyway.
- It could also be argued the film doesn't change Solomon's perspective about Ford at all. He does try to defend Ford as being a decent man "under the circumstances". It's Eliza who, for very understandable reasons, doesn't have the highest opinion of Ford.
- Ax-Crazy: Edwin Epps. If the making his slaves get up and dance in a parody of a gentleman's ball isn't bad enough, there's his violent episodes. When he gets mad, his slaves just move out of sight as though he's a force of nature.
- Bait the Dog:
- Master Ford seems like a nice guy at first. He tries to buy Eliza's daughter before learning that the price is too high. He treats Solomon well and appreciates his talents, but steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that Solomon was ever more than a slave. He seems prepared to defend Solomon's life against attack, yet immediately sells him to a "slave-breaker" to pay off a debt.
- When his wife sees Eliza weeping desperately at the loss of her children, she pities her, and says, "Have some food and rest. Your children will soon be forgotten." It doesn't seem to occur to her that slaves might love their children as much as white people.
- In addition, while she at first seems sympathetic to Eliza's plight (despite not considering that slaves might love their children as much as white people do, as the above point illustrates), she later has Ford sell Eliza because she "makes too much noise," (meaning, she cries over the loss of her children too much for the wife's tastes) which casts some doubt on how genuine her pity was in the first place.
- Armsby, forced into indentured servitude to repay a debt, promises to mail Solomon's letter after claiming that he went through a Heel Realization having been forced to work the fields. He does it in exchange for Solomon's money. Needless to say, he promptly sells Solomon out.
- Berserk Button: Patsey is a living one for Mrs. Epps. Also, Epps flies into a whirlwind of rage towards everyone if Patsey isn't where he wants her to be on the Sabbath.
- Bittersweet Ending: Solomon finally manages to get word to his friends in the North via Bass, and they come to rescue him and bring him home to his family - but nonetheless the pain of those lost twelve years still hits hard, and moreover Patsey and millions like her are still enslaved. What's more, without Solomon in her corner it's unlikely Patsey will survive much longer. The notes at the end of the film reveal that Solomon never got justice against his kidnappers and died under unknown circumstances.
- His book almost certainly contributed to the abolition of slavery in the United States, though. So that was a victory of sorts.
- Born Into Slavery: The background of almost all of the slave characters. Eliza, specifically, bore a daughter to her slave master and hoped that he would free her and her two children in return for her services.
- But for Me, It Was Tuesday: An odd variety. A key thing to remember is that legal slavery was not invented in the American south a few years before the events of this film. It had been going on in the American states and their preceding colonies for a little over 200 years. One of the reasons (other than the obvious ones) the audience sympathizes so much with Solomon is because he and Eliza are the only significant characters who've lost freedom and thus know the hell they're living in. To the other slaves being whipped, beaten, humiliated, separated permanently from loved ones, even lynched was just part of daily life. This is exemplified by the scene where Solomon spends hours on his tip toes to avoid hanging while the rest of the slaves go about their daily business around him as if he weren't there. Slave owners had likely done so their entire lives, as had generations before them. Even the Fords, who were not cruel to their slaves, clearly saw them as nothing more than property. This is lampshaded by Eliza when she tells Solomon that he views him as he would a prized steer. Even Mrs. Ford's callous comment about children being soon forgotten was likely a legitimate attempt to be compassionate based off of likely seeing it happen many times before. Of course the Epps' are just sadistic assholes. Thus, when Samuel Bass, an outsider and a Canadian abolitionist, lets Epps know what he thinks of slavery, Epps is completely baffled at a someone criticizing a labor system he sees as completely normal.
- But Not Too Black: Averted. The black skin tones in this movie range from very light to very dark, with Patsey, who is lauded (and hated) for her beauty having skin nearly ebony-black.
- The slave trader Freeman refuses to sell Eliza's small daughter to Ford along with Eliza, as "there's piles of money to be made" from pimping her out. She is Afro-European mixed-race and therefore considered more attractive to white johns. She's 8-10 years old.
- The Cameo: Brad Pitt has two scenes as the heroic Canadian carpenter. Paul Giamatti has two scenes as the evil slave auctioneer.
- Canada, Eh?: Brad Pitt features as Bass, a Canadian humanist and abolitionist, whose Canadian accent is remarkably nonexistent (of course that's because Pitt isn't Canadian).
- Can't Hold His Liquor: When he's sober, Epps whips his slaves for every slight he can think of. When he's dangerously, deliriously drunk and in one of his "whipping moods," he'll whip them just for his own amusement.
- Chekhov's Gunman: Mr. Parker, a shopkeeper Solomon used to interact with before his kidnapping, is shown early in the film in a flashback. He ends up being the man to identify Solomon to free him
- Composite Character: A very minor case. Epps didn't give the sermon from the Gospel of Luke that he makes in his first scene; it was given by a slaver called Tanner, who was Ford's brother-in-law. Ford sent Northup to stay with Tanner for a night after Tibeats hung him for his recovery and safety.
- Conditioned to Accept Horror: We see slaves on the Epps' plantation quietly working together as the screams of fellow slaves being whipped fills the air. But they aren't accepting of it, so much as they know that the first move they make to help will have them under the lash themselves.
- Contortionist: In the film, Solomon is lured on the offer to provide music for a group of them.
- Corporal Punishment: Tibeats attempts to have Solomon hanged for daring to strike him. Master Epps' plantation frequently sees the use of a whip.
- Crazy Jealous Guy: Epps is a horrific example. Word of God says he's genuinely deeply in love with Patsey (at least in his own mind), but he has an odd way of showing it. Of course it's all the easier to be "clingy" when you legally own the girl...
- Dead Guy Junior: Inverted. After Solomon is freed, he returns to discover that his daughter is married and Solomon now has a grandson who is named after him.
- Deep South: Solomon moves from one plantation to another in the humid and muggy Southern States, spending time in New Orleans, Alabama, and the Red River area.
- Despair Event Horizon: Eliza crosses it after she's separated from her children. Patsey seems to have already crossed it when we first see her.
- Dirty Coward: Tibeats, who flaunts his authority around the slaves, especially on Solomon, but immediately backs away when beaten back or caught trying to kill any slave by his higher-ups.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: The manner in which Solomon is kidnapped is eerily reminiscent of how modern human trafficking works. He is lured into an unsafe situation with the false promises of a job, falls unconscious after his drink is drugged, wakes up to find himself in bondage in an isolated place with no idea where he is, is hidden on a cart under the cover of darkness, and smuggled onto a ship to be sold into slavery. Furthermore, while slavery was legal in much of the United States, what happened to Solomon was illegal even in 1841—not that any of the men who buy or sell him care.
- Driven to Suicide: Patsey at one point tries to pay Solomon to drown her, because she can't bear her horrible life any longer. Solomon doesn't go through with it, and Patsey survives to the end of the movie, though whether she'll live past the movie's events or pay someone else to drown her instead is an open question...
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Not that the ending is by any means completely happy, but the pure hell Solomon goes through for twelve years makes that reunion with his family that much more of a joyous relief.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Ford is horrified and disgusted when the man who sold him a slave cons him out of buying the slave's children as well just to earn more money.
- Evil Is Hammy: Epps, in addition to being an unhinged sadist, also chews up the scenery like there's no tomorrow. However, unlike most examples in which it is done in an amusing manner, his hamminess is on display to show completely evil and deranged he is.
- Fate Worse Than Death: After Robert (Michael K. Williams's character) is killed en route, another slave essentially tells Solomon that he's the lucky one.
- Green-Eyed Monster: Mrs. Epps in relation to Patsey. Solomon even name-checks it in his memoir.
- Historical Beauty Update: In Real Life the abducted black man Robert was not murdered by a rapist-sailor; he died from smallpox. Northup contracted it too and survived, but from then on his face was permanently scarred.
- Historical Villain Upgrade:
- Ford is portrayed as more of a hypocrite here than in the book, and is shown to be somewhat troubled by slavery but to go on being a slaver anyway; in the book, Northup has nothing but praise for him and says that he was totally blind and innocent to the evils of slavery due to his cultural upbringing. Also, he actually sold Northup to Tibeats, so protecting him was more charitable than presented (he's not protecting his own property- except technically, since Tibeats was slow on payment) and it was Tibeats who sold Northup to Epps. The overseer who saves Northup's'life is portrayed as a more merciful man in the book as well.
- In addition, there was no rapist-sailor on board the barge. In fact, one of the sailors actually helped Northup and posted a letter to his family telling them he had been kidnapped.
- Historical Villain Downgrade: Tibeats, Epps and Mrs. Epps were all worse in real life, if you can believe that to be possible. See Hollywood History, below.
- Hollywood History: Mostly averted; the movie is a very accurate retelling of Northup's story (it should be noted that the book itself was actually ghost-written by an abolitionist white lawyer named David Wilson, but historical research has confirmed a great deal of the story) and a brutal and unflinching look at the realities of Southern slavery. That said, it does take a handful of liberties.
- Solomon Northup had three children when he was kidnapped, not two. The film omits his eldest daughter, Elizabeth. He was a carpenter by trade, not a musician, although he did play the violin and was indeed lured to Washington with promises of getting paid to do so, exactly like in the film. Also, it was not until after the book was published that he learnt for certain that the two men he met at the start really had drugged and kidnapped him- he'd thought of it, certainly, but he always had doubts until a judge read his book and recognized them (and it was subsequently found that they had used false names and were actually a pair of known/suspected con men).
- Epps also had children; they are not shown in the movie.
- No sailor raped or tried to rape Eliza or a female slave on the barge to New Orleans- apart from anything else, that would have been considered "vandalism /destruction of property" and could see the sailor fired at the very least. The slave-to-be Robert was not stabbed either; he died of smallpox. He, Northup and Andrew really did consider fighting the crew for the ship, but as in the movie, Robert's death scuppered that plan. Northup himself caught smallpox while on the boat and his face was permanently scarred afterwards. It should be noted this event was included in the screenplay by John Ridley, but was possibly cut and simplified for time or budget reasons.
- The film makes it appear that Northups' family had no idea what happened to him until near the end of the movie; in fact, Northup got a sympathetic sailor to deliver a letter to them explaining his abduction. They weren't able to find him because they had no idea what barge he was on or where it took him. There was also a lengthy and complicated legal process they underwent offscreen to prove that Platt was really Northup, and Bass had to post several letters, not just one.
- Northup wasn't resold by Ford after the assault and hanging by Tibeats; in fact, Tibeats was a slave owner himself and Ford sold Northup to him to repay a debt; keeping Northup safe from Tibeats was thus not Ford protecting his property (somewhat-Tibeats had not paid Ford the full price for Northup), and Ford sent Northup to his brother-in-law to keep him safe and tried to convince Tibeats that killing Northup would gain him nothing. A second, later attack by Tibeats, who ended up chasing Northup with an axe, led to Northup running from the plantation, but couldn't survive the swamps and returned to Ford some time later. Ford didn't sell him to Epps, either- it was Tibeats who sold him.
- Epps was, if anything, far, far worse in Real Life than he was in the movie. For a start, in addition to his "dancing moods", he also had whipping moods where he would start whipping and chasing his slaves randomly for no reason. He was much more abusive to Patsey as well, and the savage whipping he gives her (and makes Northup give her) lasted even longer than it did in the movie. In addition, Epp's didn't slip in the mud when chasing Northup.
- Patsey never had tea with Mistress Shaw; she also never tried to bribe Northup to kill her. The latter is based on a misreading of the book- in fact, Mrs. Epps tried to bribe Northup to kill Patsey and dump her body in the swamp, though Northup muses that had Patsey known about this murderous request, she might have considered it. Ultimately, though, what Patsey wanted was to escape.
- Northup never had sex with another woman while in slavery (or if he did, he never mentioned it in the book); the film also downplays how devoutly Christian he was. Also, although the men who kidnapped him did indeed get away with their crime, he managed to publicly draw attention to the illegal slave trade in the North; and though Northup was forbidden to testify against Burch and co. in Washington (for the record, he was suing them), he did in fact later testify against the two con men (as did a judge who had met the three of them at the time of the abduction and personally knew both men); in the latter case, there were simply several legal complications, such as a lengthy argument about whether they should be tried in Washington or New York, i.e. a place a black man could testify against them versus a place he could not- it was decided it would be tried in New York, where he could and did (albeit at a hearing, they never got a trial), but this meant that three of the four charges against them were dropped as they took place in Washington. There were a number of arguments in their favor such as the plain and simple difficulties that come with the fact that the crime was committed over a decade before; in the event, the two men appealed which ended up going through the lower courts, to the New York Supreme Court, and finally to the New York Court of Appeals. Ultimately the case was simply dropped due to the legal difficulties and insufficient evidence. Had he been allowed to testify against Burch and co., he might have still faced these same legal problems.
- Hope Spot: Played straight the first time Solomon tries to pay a white hired hand to write a letter to his friends and family. The hired hand rats him out to the master, but Solomon manages to convincingly lie and call the white hired hand a liar, thus saving himself from punishment.
- Implausible Deniability: Epps pulls this. He is seen chasing Solomon in a jealous rage over him "being in conversation" with Patsey, only to blatantly deny even speaking to Solomon that day when Mrs. Epps shows up asking what's going on.
- Karma Houdini: With the exception of Tibeats, no bad character is ever brought to account for anything. Even the worst actions of the slave owners are protected by law, and the people who abducted and sold Solomon were never convicted.
- Lead You Can Relate To: Solomon, the cultured, educated free man shares a lot more in common with his audience than the illiterate born slaves that he falls in with. Probably even truer for the original book. Abolitionists tended to promote the stories of the most educated and intelligent slaves to accentuate the horror for their White audience.
- Love Makes You Crazy: Michael Fassbender's interpretation of Epps' character. Read more here.
- Lyrical Dissonance: When introducing the new slaves to their work, Tibeats makes them clap as he sings "Run, Nigger, Run", a song that is reminiscent of African-American folk music but is actually a warning to slaves contemplating running away.
- Made a Slave: The premise of the film. At Solomon's auction, he is made to play the fiddle constantly to prove that he has a fine skill that his future masters might exploit.
- Maligned Mixed Marriage:
- Eliza and her master, by her daughter-in-law, who re-sells them as soon as her father is dead.
- The Shaws. Mr. Shaw married his kept slave after the death of his wife, and now Mrs. Shaw invites slaves from other plantations over to tea, which scandalizes the neighbors.
- Mercy Kill: When Patsey asks Solomon to help kill her, he adamantly refuses because he believes he will commit a sin. Patsey then points out that what he will be doing is an act of mercy and since God is a god of mercy, then He will forgive him.
- Misplaced Vegetation: Water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) appears - it didn't reach the U.S. until 1884.
- Nice Guy: Samuel Bass and Mr. Parker, two personable white men who help Northrup when he's in need.
- Noble Bigot: Solomon views Ford as this. He believes that because he's The Nice Guy, he's simply a slavery under circumstance. Ends up getting deconstructed because a Noble Bigot is still a bigot; while Ford may be nice, he still simply sees slaves as property and end up selling Solomon to an even crueler slaver to get out of a debt.
- The Oner:
- One where after being rescued from being hung by Tibeats, Solomon has to wait with his neck around the noose and his toes on the ground for Ford to come back.
- The absolutely horrific scene where Epps confronts a terrified Patsy for leaving the plantation, has her stripped and bound to a pole, forces Solomon to begin lashing her, and then finishes the lashing himself is all done in a single, four-minute take.
- Punch Clock Villain: The Fords, who are perfectly nice people except for the fact that they willingly participate in the slave trade and ignore all opportunities to realize its horrors.
- Scenery Porn: Steve McQueen and Sean Bobbit took inspiration from the painter Goya, known for depicting horrific events in beautiful places.
- Sex for Solace: The film opens with a variation of this. Unable to sleep, Solomon finds another woman lying next to him in the slave quarters. She forcibly kisses him, then places his hand on her breast and genitals. It's a very sad and depressing scene, as it's clear there is no passion in what is happening and Solomon doesn't move a muscle either to reciprocate or to pull away. It's all just a brief escape from the hell she has to live in, born out of sheer desperation for human contact and a need to feel alive. When it's all over, she turns away from Solomon and cries.
- Sex Is Evil and I Am Horny: It's unclear whether it's his adultery itself that Epps is ashamed of, or the fact that it's a black woman he lusts after (or both), but it's clear that he doesn't like it and he takes it out on Patsey.
- Sex Slave: Master Epps makes very little secret of the fact that Patsey is his toy in bed, and not just his "Queen of the Field." His wife doesn't like it.
- Shameful Strip: The slaves in the Washington, D.C. prison are forced to bathe naked, and there is one room of slaves in the New Orleans auction house where the people up for auction are completely naked. Later in the film, Epps has Patsy stripped naked right before she is publicly, brutally whipped.
- So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Patsey. She's not only beautiful, but she's extremely good at picking cotton, which seems to be another reason why Master Epps lusts after her, ruining her life with his abuse and possessiveness, and the savage jealousy of his wife.
- A Taste of the Lash: Frequently. And shown in graphic detail. And the scars of said whippings are also shown. In equally graphic detail. Master Epps has any slave whipped who picks less than 200 pounds of cotton in one day, and quotes the Bible to justify his actions.
- Villainous Breakdown: Epps succumbs to hysterical fury when Patsey is unaccounted for on the Sabbath. He is so furious that she went somewhere without his knowledge or permission that he has her whipped on the spot. His fury is also great, but not quite as destructive, when Solomon is freed from him forever.
- Win Your Freedom: Solomon's goal. His two best options are very risky: write a letter to his friends up North, while keeping it hidden from his masters that he can read and write, or trust someone else to go and write a letter, and risk that this person will rat him out or simply not follow up for fear of breaking the law. The first option ended in failure as the person he trusted his money to, a former overseer named Armsby, ratted him out and revealed his ability to write to Epps. The second option succeeded with Samuel Bass, who writes and delivers the letter with the intended results.
- Epps, towards Patsey. Most of his more violent actions seem to be centered around her.
- Mistress Epps too, although for...different reasons. Seriously, the things she does to that poor woman!