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Artistic License History / 12 Years a Slave

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12 Years a Slave is a very accurate retelling of Northup's story (it should be noted that 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 learned 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).
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  • 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 Northup's 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.
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  • 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.
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  • Patsey never had tea with Mistress Shaw; she also never tried to bribe Northup to kill her. The latter may be 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 note  while in slavery (or if he did, he never mentioned it in the book).
  • The film also downplays how devoutly Christian Northup was. The most religious character in the movie is Epps, who uses the Bible to justify slavery and racism, but it was actually a different slave owner that Northup attributes that habit to, and Northup talked about God in his book far more than he mentions Epps doing.
  • Although the men who kidnapped him did indeed get away with their crime, Northrup 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.


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