The book, Twelve Years a Slave, is a traditional American slave narrative told by Solomon Northup to ghostwriter David Wilson. It is one of the most important of the slave narratives because it was published shortly after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s immensely popular and influential novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Twelve Years a Slave validated the claims of slave-owner brutality made in the novel. In addition, Twelve Years a Slave was a best-seller in its own right when it was first published in 1853. The historical accuracy of the book has been exhaustively vetted by Professor Sue Eakin of Louisiana State University. The culmination of her efforts are contained in the recently republished Enhanced Edition of the book which contains more than 100 pages of notes and supplemental materials. With a few exceptions, Professor Eakin has found the Northup/Wilson narrative to be accurate.
The film is a work of historical fiction based on the events set out in Mr. Northup’s book. To create an entertaining story arc and to fit the tale into a two-hour film, a number of events described in the book have been eliminated and others have been telescoped together. On a few occasions actions by one person have been attributed to another or scenes have been added to support the story. Except for the prelude, the scenes before the kidnaping, the murder of a slave by a sailor on the Orleans, and the tea scene with Mistress Shaw, the scenes shown in the film were taken from the book or are reasonable approximations of events that could have happened given current-day understanding of the history of the era.
On the whole, the book and the film are reasonably accurate representations of what life was like for a slave in the American South under one of the best masters (Ford) and later under one of the worst (Epps, who was not only sexually predatory but also extremely violent). The terrible way in which slaves were treated by slave traders and the awful plight of some slave women is also shown.
Set out below are comments on selected scenes in the film. Citations to the slave narrative itself are referred to as “Northup”. Citations to Professor Eakin’s notes are referred to as “Eakin”. Other citations are to articles in the Links to the Internet Section below.
- Prelude: The orgasm scene. This is not referred to in the book and was made up by the screenwriters to show “a bit of tenderness … Then after she climaxes, she’s back . . . in hell.” However, it would seem that Solomon Northup, who claims to have been strictly faithful to his wife for 12 years, would have been scandalized by this scene. Berlatsky
- Before the Kidnapping Northup was not in the middle class nor, in all probability, was he as well accepted by white society as shown in the early scenes of the film. His slave narrative makes no such claims. Northup lived in Saratoga Springs, a summer resort in upstate New York working as a carriage driver for a large boarding house during the summer season. He often had difficulty finding work during the rest of the year. Northup pp. 5 & 7. As shown in the film, he was a talented violinist and would get occasional jobs playing the violin for parties and dances. His wife had steady work as a cook although, as shown in the film, during the offseason she would have to work 20 miles from home, a long distance in those days when inland travel was by foot or by horse. Eakin 261 & 262. Northup himself comments about his life in Sarasota Springs: “Though always in comfortable circumstances, we had not prospered.” Northup pp. 5. Nor would people in New York and in Washington D.C. have been as accepting of a black man as to hail him strolling as an equal through a city park or to allow him to eat at fine restaurants, or shop as an equal without care for the cost in the stores. In the 1840s U.S. society, North and South were extremely prejudiced against blacks. Eakin p. 261. Northup, for example, reports that when he was with the two kidnappers in Washington, D.C., they would order drinks and occasionally hand them to him. He was not necessarily sitting at the table with them. Northup p. 12.
- The Kidnapping: The kidnapping scenes do not follow Northup’s recollections in several ways. He doesn’t report, for example, being cared for in bed by the kidnappers, one of whom seems to regret what will happen to him. However, these scenes in the film add color to the bare historical facts of the narrative and, unlike the false prosperity and acceptance by whites shown in the scenes of Northup’s life in Saratoga Springs and his trip to D.C., these changes are appropriate poetic license in a work of historical fiction.
- In the D.C. Slave Pen: These scenes are realistic enough with touches of details from the book. Northup was indeed put in a dark cell, beaten with a paddle-shaped piece of wood until it broke, and then whipped with a cat-nine-tails. He was stripped naked before the beating. The slave pen was in sight of the U.S. capital. One of the jailers appeared to try to be nicer, as a ploy. A woman name Eliza, her children and several men were held at the pen with him. What the movie omits for lack of time are the fascinating and touching stories of these people. See Northup pp. 16, 19 – 23 and Assignment #1.
- The Trip to New Orleans: To shorten the narrative, the stop at a slave pen in Richmond is omitted. The facts of the aborted conspiracy are changed. Northup does not report that Eliza was taken to the upper deck for sex with a sailor as implied in the film. Robert dies from smallpox, not from a sailor’s knife; a sailor would not be so quick to kill such a valuable piece of property as shown in the film. Otherwise, the changes in the scene appear reasonable approximations of what could have happened and are true to Northup’s story.
- The Rescue of a Slave: One of the slaves with Northup on the ship Orleans, a man named Arthur, was reclaimed by his master, much to his delight. This scene is based on that report from the book. Northup p. 38.
- New Orleans: These scenes follow Northup’s recounting of what happened to him including: the scenes in which slaves are instructed to wash and are dressed up and offered for sale; the separation of Eliza from her children; Eliza’s protests and crying, Mr. Ford’s slight and ineffectual effort to convince Mr. Freeman (yes, that was the name of the New Orleans slave dealer) to sell him Eliza’s daughter at a reasonable price; and the characterization of Mr. Freeman the slave-trader.
- Arrival at Ford’s Plantation: Mrs. Ford is not reported as saying, “Something to eat and some rest – your children will soon be forgotten.” but this is a fair representation of the attitude of most plantation owners to the miseries of their slaves.
- The song Run Nigger Run: This is a Negro work song and if a white man ever sang it, it would be with the irony used by the character of Tibeats in the film. These scenes are not in the book but they are legitimate poetic license in a work of historical fiction.
- A Slave Work Party meets the Indians: Northup recounts meeting Native Americans who lived in the woods and watching them dance. Northup pp. 54 & 55.
- Northup Successfully Floats Logs Down the Bayou: This is from the book, including Northup’s success, Ford’s admiration, and Tibeat’s opposition and resentment when Northup is successful.
- Ford gives Northup a violin: Actually, it was Epps, at the request of Mrs. Epps. Northup p. 106.
- Northup’s Conversation with Eliza This is not reported in the book but it is a legitimate literary device to explore issues and develop themes. Eliza is still wailing about losing her children. Northup tells her to get over it. Eliza accuses Northup of being no better than prized live stock and laments that she has done dishonorable things to survive which ultimately did her no good. Northup’s position is that survival is everything.
- The Sunday Religious Service at the Ford Plantation: Eliza cries throughout the service. Mrs. Ford comments that she cannot have that depression about the plantation. This scene is not in the book, but again it is consistent with the cold and heartless attitude of the plantation elite toward the miseries that they caused to their slaves.
- Eliza taken away crying “Solomon”: This particular scene is not reported in the book. It is a dramatization of the fact that Northup was helpless to even protest the profound loss that Eliza was forced to endure. Northup reports that Eliza withered away and died of a broken heart. Northup p. 92.
- Flashback of Eliza Talking: Again, not in the book, but again a legitimate device by writers of historical fiction to bring out themes. “When I say I had my master’s favor – you understand – and for 9 years he blessed me with every comfort.” . . . “Such was our life, and the life of this beautiful girl I bore for him. But Master Berry’s daughter . . . she always looked at me with an unkind nature. She hated Emily no matter she and Emily were flesh of flesh. As Master Berry’s health failed, she gained power in the household. Eventually, I was brought to the city on the false pretense of our free papers being executed. If I had known what waited; to be sent south? I swear I would not have come here alive.”
- Fight With Tibeats – Northup Bound and Almost Hung: Northup reports a fight with Tibeats who was unhappy with nails Chapin had given to Northup. Northup thrashed Tibeats. Tibeats fled but returned with two other men. They bound Northup hands and feet and put a noose around his neck, but it was not strung up to a tree as in the movie. The tiptoes business is poetic license. Chapin, with pistols drawn, did chase off Tibeats and the two men, leaving Northup standing in the sun for hours, still bound hands and feet. Chapin sent for Ford who, as shown in the film, came and cut the cords. Solomon spent the night in the main house, guarded by Chapin, not by Ford. Northup pp.70 & 71. These scenes are basically true to the story. However, Northup relates two fights in which he thrashed Tibeats. Northup pp 63 – 72.
- Sale to Epps: At this point in the narrative, the movie skips several incidents in Northup’s career as a slave, including the second fight with Tibeats and Northup being hired out to other plantations to cut sugar cane. It is Tibeats rather than Ford who sells Northup to Epps. Northup pp. 75 – 93. The conversation with Ford in which Northup tries to tell Ford that he is a free man but Ford wouldn’t listen did not occur. Northup never reports trying to tell Ford that he was a free man. While generally complimentary of Ford in the book, Northup never trusted him enough to tell him the truth. This scene, while it didn’t occur, rings true. No matter how good a slaveholder might be, he was still a slaveholder.
- Epps preaching to the Slaves on Sunday “That servant which knew his Lord’s will and prepared not himself neither did according to his will shall be beaten with many stripes. . . . 150 lashes. That’s scripture.” This is an example of how religion was bent and perverted to support the interests of the slaveholders.
- Scenes in the Fields Picking Cotton: These scenes, some of which are not specifically in the book, are consistent with Northup’s description of life on the Epps plantation. See e.g., Northup pp. 94 – 99, 105. The authenticity of some of these scenes are doubted by Professor Eakin, specifically (1) “It is doubtful that [Patsey] possessed the skill to pick 500 pounds [of cotton per day].” Eakin p. 301, note 127; (2) it is unlikely that slaves were whipped in the fields from morning till night because this would violate the the “Plantation Survival Code” and harm the property of the plantation owner, Eakin pp. 300 – 301, notes 125 & 126; see also Note 112, pp. 295 & 296 for more on the Plantation Survival Code; note however, that Northup states that Epps was, except for one other master, the most violent master on the Bayou Boeuf, p. 108, and the question is not whether this was usual but whether it would be tolerated by other slaveholders; (3) Northup complains of being given a foot-wide board to sleep on with wood blocks for pillows “seems to stretch credulity” according to Professor Eakin because scraps of cotton were always left in the fields and could be used to stuff mattresses and plantation owners would want their slave to get rest. Eakin, Note 130 p. 302. Professor Eakin also notes that no one could live on small portions of corn and pork as described by Northup. Ibid This is correct but in several places Northup states that slaves had access to other food, such as raccoon, possum and fish. (Northup pp. 117 & 118. Professor Eakin attributes these likely errors to Northup’s ghost writer, David Wilson.
- Patsey making dolls and singing to herself: This scene, again not in the book, is to show that Patsey was still just a child in her development despite the fact that she was in her twenties during the years when Northup knew her.
- Epps Making Slaves Dance at Night: This is reported by Northup. Northup p. 107.
- Patsey’s Sexual Abuse by Epps/Jealousy by Mrs. and Mr. Epps:
- Northup also describes the fact that Epps required Patsey to submit to his sexual advances as well as the jealousy of Mrs. Epps and her general persecution of Patsey. He also described the jealousy of Mr. Epps when Patsey went to the Shaw plantation, for what he imagined was sex with Mr. Shaw. The abuse of Patsey shown in the film, including the whippings, the bottle hurled at Patsey, Epps’ refusal to sell Patsey, and Mrs. Epps’ humiliation are all derived from episodes in the book. See pp. 111, 116, 117 and 151 — 154.
- Getting paper: When sent to purchase goods at the store, Northup appropriates a piece of paper on which to write a letter home. This is in the book. Northup p. 136.
- Run-in with a Gang of Patrollers: Called Pattys or Patty Rollers by the slaves. See generally Northup pp. 130 & 131. The hanging by a patrol is not mentioned in the book, however, hangings of slaves planning an insurrection is mentioned.
- Northup Running Away to the Swamp The time when Northup ran away from Tibeats through the swamps is related at pp. 77 — 83.
- Northup is Sent to Retrieve Patsey from her Visit to Mistress Shaw, a Black Woman This scene is not realistic and is a bit of tongue-in-cheek to provide comic relief. However, the scene is not quite as unrealistic as it may at first seem. Plantation owners, with a few limitations, were seen as the lords of their manor and had complete discretion about how the ran their plantations. A few white plantation owners lived openly with their black concubines. On occasion, these men acknowledged their mulatto children, freed them, sent them north to be educated, and left them property. See Eakin Note 115, second paragraph, page 297. However, much more often than not, children of Master/Slave unions were treated as slaves. For an example of the unnatural lack of fatherly feeling of slave owners for their children, see the second anecdote taken from the life of Thaddeus Stevens in TWM’s Lesson Plan on the End of America’s Nightmare Dance With Slavery Using Spielberg’s Lincoln. It is hard to believe that other plantation owners would allow one of their fellow slave owners to install a black woman as the mistress of a plantation as shown in the tea scene in this film.
- Patsey asks Northup to Kill Her: – She says, “I ain’t got no comfort in this life.” He turns his back; she cries. This is apparently based on a misreading of the book at page 111, although with all that Patsey endured, a wish to end it all seems understandable. However, it was Mistress Epps who tried to bribe Northup to murder Patsey.
- The Caterpillars Eating the Cotton and Slaves Being Hired Out This comes from the book at pages 112, et seq.
- Armsby Incident: Northup did ask a white man who was working in the fields to help him, gave the man his savings, and was betrayed. Northup saved himself by lying to Epps, claiming Armsby just wanted to be his overseer, stressing that Northup had no one to write to, etc. Northup then burned the letter to avoid his lie being found out. The film’s rendition is reasonably accurate. Northup pp. 136 – 139.
- Death of a Slave — & “Roll Jordan, Roll”: This is fictional but realistic. Northup begins to sing accepting the fact that he is going to be a slave for a long time, perhaps forever.
- Northup Asks Bass for Help: This is a reasonable approximation of what occurred as reported by Northup. For more on Bass, see pp. 325 & 326.
- Liberation from the Field: This is a reasonable approximation of what occurred. Patsey’s Last Word to Northup “Oh! Platt,” she cried, tears streaming down her face, “you’re goin to be free — you’re goin way off yonder where we’ll neber see ye any more. You’ve saved me a good many whippins, Platt; I’m glad you’re goin’ to be free. — but oh! de Lod, de Lord! What’ll become of me?” Northup p. 187.
- Omitted from the film: No movie of reasonable length can include everything in a book of 200+ pages. Some of the incidents and scenes omitted include
The smallpox outbreak on the boat, Northup’s illness when he contracted smallpox, his stay in the hospital and recovery; Chapters V and VI;
Ford’s financial embarrassment which caused Ford to sell Northup to Tibeats; Chapter VIII;
Northup’s flight from Tibeats through the swamps back to Ford’s plantation; Chapter X;
The New Years celebrations and the few days that slaves didn’t have to work; XV;
The months’ long wait for Bass’ efforts to bring someone down from the North; Chapters XIX and XX;
The careful groundwork laid by Henry Northup to make his rescue of Solomon a success; for example, Henry Northup secured declarations from people who knew Solomon and took them to the governor of New York; as a result, under the authority of a ten-year-old law designed for the retrieval of kidnapped free blacks, Henry secured an appointment as an official agent of the state to reclaim Solomon; he then went to Washington D.C. and convinced a senator from Louisiana to write letters of recommendation to local officials; Northup p. 177; once in Louisiana, Henry hired a highly respected attorney to represent him; Ibid; they secured a court order and the cooperation of the sheriff before going to the Epps plantation. Northup pp. 181 & 182.
Henry Northup’s search for Solomon and the lucky chance that he found Mr. Bass who directed him to Northup’s location; the rush to liberate Northup before word of the rescue effort got to Epps who would have hidden Northup so that he could not be liberated.