Two Hours Watching “Twelve Years a Slave”

We saw “Twelve Years a Slave” last night as the next step in our Oscar best picture run-up.  As everyone says, a very good film.

The story by now is pretty well known.  Solomon Northup, a free black living in Saratoga NY, is hired to accompany two entertainers (actually, as it turns out, con artists) on a tour to Washington, where he is drugged, described as a runaway Georgian slave, and sold back into slavery.  For the next twelve years, he is a field slave on two different Louisiana plantations, until he finally has the opportunity to get an itinerant white man contact his family and friends in Saratoga, who rescue him with appropriate papers showing that he is a free man.  That’s the outline of the story.

Well, it’s not really a story, because it is true.  And Northup, once he returned to upstate New York, with the assistance of a white writer, put together a book, called ‘Twelve Years a Slave”, published in 1853.  For various reasons, the book was not considered a true slave narrative (in part because of the co-writer), and not much read over the years.  In 1968, there was a critical edition of the book published.  Scholars have traced the narrative and (I have read) thought that it accurately depicted slave conditions in Louisiana, or at least the conditions that Northup faced.

After Northup returned to his family (wife, son and daughter – his daughter had married during his absence and had a son), wrote his memoir, and apparently was involved for a while in abolitionist activities, and the Underground Railroad.  But then something mysterious happened.  Northup disappeared from the historical record.  His wife appeared in various census records through 1875, at one point described as a widow.  And her obituary appeared in the local newspaper. Northup himself appears nowhere.  What happened to him can only be speculated; it is rumored that he wound up somehow living on the streets.  But I am not sure that there is any actual evidence of that.

There was, of course, a tremendous amount of research done for this film.  The slave quarters and the plantation houses, the clothes and the field operations.  And while the amount of violence obviously varied slaveholder to slaveholder, there certainly were landowners such as Epps, and there were slave dealers (perhaps most of them) who refused to permit mothers and children to remain together because he could get more for them separately.  Consequently, there are many things to be learned from this film – as an educational tool.

But this brings up the point of whether the brutality was necessary.  There is one rape (or sex) scene – but visually, it is handled tastefully, I thought.  But there are a number of beatings – beatings of Northup, and beatings of Patsey, a young female slave who is Master Epps’ best worker, favorite sex partner, and most loved and hated slave.  The beatings, done with whips, raised enormous bloody welts on the backs of the slave victims.  Watching the beatings was difficult, but probably necessary to tell the story, but looking again and again at the blood, the welts and the scars was probably not at all necessary, and detracts from the ability to use this film as a teaching vehicle for younger viewers.  As least I think so.

I have read that the films fairly closely follows Northup’s book.  But also that there were certain things changed, as there always are, for cinematic reasons.  What we don’t know, is how much Northup’s book changed the report of his experience in order to make a better book.  Therefore, we really don’t know how close to reality the story line really is.

But you can see how close it is to the book.  The book, “Twelve Years a Slave” is on-line; you can read the entire thing.  I read the last few chapters (his trip home and homecoming) and spotted a couple of other points, and it did look like the film to me.

One more thing – you have to credit the actors with the unpronounceable names for the work they did, particularly Chiwetel Ojiofor and Lupita Nyong’o for their portrayals of Northup and Patsey.  Of all the sad scenes in the film, perhaps the most poignant was when Northup was able to leave the Epps’ plantation, leaving Patsey and the others, who had no possible way out, behind.

The film is definitely worth seeing.  But, for what it’s worth, I am still rooting for “American Hustle” for the Best Picture Oscar.



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