That collective gasp you hear is the audience jolted by intolerable cruelty in 12 Years a Slave. Yet if you think the movie offers a terrible-enough portrait of slavery, please, do read the book. The written account is far worse than what the screen can display.
The film is based on, and very faithful to, the autobiography of Solomon Northup, which was published in 1853 as Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, From a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana . “Think of it. For 30 years a man with all a man’s hopes, fears, and aspirations … then for 12 years a thing,” Frederick Douglass wrote. “It chills the blood.”
The chill creeps in thanks in part to the matter-of-fact, often understated prose that Northup and his amaneunsis, a lawyer and newspaper editor named David Wilson, presented. “It has been suggested that an account of my life and fortunes would not be uninteresting to the public,” Northup wrote, a statement as true and believable as the details of his ordeal, which were largely verified by the historians Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon in a 1968 edition of the book.
Northup was born in the New York town of Minerva in 1808, and held numerous jobs upstate, one of which was a violinist. “My fiddle was notorious,” he wrote. His wife, Anne, was famous, and well-paid, as a cook. They had three children—Elizabeth, Margaret, and Alonzo—and settled comfortably, but not prosperously, in Saratoga Springs. As a free man, Northup frequently met with slaves, and without fail he counseled them to strike for freedom. His feelings were clear:
"Having all my life breathed the free air of the North, and conscious that I possessed the same feelings and affections that find a place in the white man’s breast; conscious, moreover, of an intelligence equal to that of some men, at least, with a fairer skin, I was too ignorant, perhaps too independent, to conceive how any one could be content to live in the abject condition of a slave. I could not comprehend the justice of the law, or that religion, which upholds or recognizes the principle of Slaver."
One morning in March of 1841, two men purporting to be with a circus company from Washington proposed to hire him for his fiddle skills during what they said would be a quick trip to New York City. (Northup never saw the alleged “circus.”) Hoping to make a few days’ good wage, and without even saying goodbye to Anne, “thinking my absence would be brief,” Northup consented. It would be 12 years before he saw his family again. Having proceeded to New York, the two congenial men implored Northup to continue with them to Washington, though he would thus enter a slave state. He was cautious, but he consented again, on account that the two men had such friendly and protective dispositions. They even advised him to procure free papers. But once there, the men drugged Northup—he was not intoxicated, he said—and after a night of agony he fainted. “When consciousness returned, I found myself alone, in utter darkness, and in chains,” he wrote. His money and free papers were gone, and “commending myself to the God of the oppressed, bowed my head upon my fettered hands, and wept most bitterly.”
(In the film, the men’s offer was for Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, to go straight to Washington. He bids goodbye to Anne, and there’s no mention of their idea to procure free papers. There are a number of these minor differences, but they have only to do with the inability to fit an entire book into a movie—omitting details, folding one character into another to create a composite—and never alter the significance of the events. There are, however, two big omissions by my count, which we’ll get to.)
At this point, and onward, the viewer might be mistaken that he or she has ended up in the wrong theater, watching a horror film. Even habitués of suspense movies might become startled by the sound of Northup waking up in a dark dungeon, in heavy chains that crash and gash on the hard floor. Dissonant music that might otherwise be found in a Kubrick film portend to the worst. Monstrous faces of his tormentors glide in and out of the light like wraiths. A slave trader tells Northup that he is a runaway from Georgia, and when Northup replies that he’s a free man, Northup’s back is ripped into a ruddy mess, a beating that would make even hardened fans of the slasher genre turn away.
This is no coincidence or misunderstanding. The pounding soundtrack, the eerie shock, the bloody gore—director Steve McQueen has plundered the dark arts to unsettle the viewer. This happens to be the perfect course of action, better to frighten you with the hellish episode of slavery. You are not mistaken—this is indeed a horror story.
It just so happens that it is also a true story, though one with more than a hint of the surreal, so deranged was the treatment of human beings as property. Northup is taken to Louisiana, and even the low thrumming of the riverboat’s paddle wheel acts as an omen to a dark destiny. A slave broker by the name of Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) sets the men, women, and children up inside a showroom as if they were mannequins. “Help yourself to refreshments,” Freeman says in the film, a cruelly appropriate invention of the movie’s screenwriter, novelist John Ridley. The sale is a harrowing scene, one that sees Eliza, a mother of two who’s sold along with Northup, separated from her children. Ridley emphasizes the sadistic pitilessness of the whole proceedings, putting these inhuman words into the mouth of the slave owner's wife: “Your children will soon be forgotten.”
The man who bought Northup and Eliza was William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Baptist preacher with an estate on the right bank of the Red River in Louisiana. Northup wrote that Ford was actually a most kind and fair master. He was the owner of not only a plantation but a large lumber establishment, and treated his slaves well. But being born in the South “blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery,” Northup wrote. “Were all men such as he, Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness.”
Unfortunately, the other half of the bitterness emanates from morally baleful men like John Tibeats (he is spelled that way in the book, but the name is in fact Tibaut in real life). A “small, crabbed, quick-tempered, spiteful” fellow who was at first employed by Ford as a carpenter, he is introduced in the film (where he is played by Paul Dano) as a sadistic coward who delights in tormenting slaves with his rendition of a “run, nigger, run” tune sung like a cursed nursery rhyme—surreal trepidation again highlights the absurdity of real life.
It is left unremarked in the film, but by a cruel twist of fate, Tibeats becomes master to Northup when Ford, who had to bail out the debts of his brother, couldn’t pay his bills to Tibeats. Tibeats naturally mistreated Northup any chance he could. One day he attacked Northup, who overpowered his owner and, seizing his whip, struck him—an act punishable by death in Louisiana. Tibeats tried to lynch Northup for it, and would have succeeded if not for the interjection of the plantation’s overseer. Northup was left bound tightly, with a rope around his neck, under the blazing sun for an entire day. In the film he dangles from the tree with only one foot touching the ground, which is an invention perhaps a tad overreaching. In fact, the book reveals even stranger circumstances, since after the incident Tibeats continued to own Northup, and tried to kill him yet again, until Ford demanded that Tibeats sell him once more. Northup would end up the property of Edwin Epps, a man even the greater evil.
Epps, played by a Michael Fassbender who looks ever a handsome prince of darkness even as he becomes unhinged, was known as a “nigger breaker,” “distinguished for his faculty of subduing the spirit of the slave,” Northup wrote with seething hatred, “as a jockey boasts of his skill in managing a refractory horse.” He loved to lash his slaves with his long whip, and when drunk, which was often, he delighted in dancing with his “niggers.” To load the film with a decade of so much suffering would crush its lungs. But it is regrettable that one of the major omissions in the film should be some of Northup’s most detailed descriptions of slave labor, conditions, and violence under Epps. For every shot of back-breaking labor, McQueen installs a scene of the slaves seated and arrested by numbing boredom or even leisure. There was no such leisure. In a remarkable chapter in the book about the particulars of cotton picking, Northup is clear that slave hands are required to be in the field as soon as day breaks. “With the exception of 10 or 15 minutes, which is given them at noon to swallow their allowance of cold bacon, they are not permitted to be a moment idle until it is too dark to see.” Rarely a day goes by without one or more whippings, and Northup reports that “it is the literal, unvarnished truth, that the crack of the lash, and the shrieking of the slaves, can be heard from dark till bed time.” During a full moon, slaves are often required to labor until midnight.
Each slave then attend to the respective chores given—feeding the mules, cutting wood, etc. They then kindle fire, ground corn, prepare dinner and lunch for the next day. “Each one receives, as his weekly allowance, three and a half pounds of bacon, and corn enough to make a peck of meal. That is all.” They usually eat dinner at midnight, and go to rest with the fear of oversleeping in the morning, which is an offence punished by 20 lashes. The log cabin in which they sleep has no floor or window, and wind and rain pour in during the stormy days. Northup slept on a plank 12 inches wide and 10 feet long, with a stick of wood as his pillow. “Moss might be used, were it not that it directly breeds a swarm of fleas,” he wrote. “With a prayer that he may be on his feet and wide awake at the first sound of the horn, he sinks to his slumbers nightly.” If McQueen’s commanding and superb film has a weakness, it is that the viewer might forget that Northup lived this horrid life for 10 years—and that born slaves lived it for their entire existence.
The mode of Northup’s deliverance might seem shrouded in mystery in the film, and it happens too quickly for our eyes to believe. In truth, the process took many months, and it was indeed thanks to a good man named Samuel Bass (played like a teddy-bear messiah by Brad Pitt), a Canadian who was hired as a carpenter by Epps. One day he debated Epps on the subject of slavery, and openly and passionately deplored the practice. “The more I saw of him, the more I became convinced he was a man in whom I could confide,” Northup wrote, though he proceeded with caution, having been betrayed by a confidant previously. Eventually Northup told him his story, and Bass, admitting that “I’m tired of Slavery as well as you,” promised to write a letter to Northup’s friends and relations in Saratoga, imploring them to forward free papers and secure his release. The letter reached Anne Northup in the summer of 1852, was forwarded to the governor of New York, and after a few months it was finally ascertained by the state that Northup was indeed a free man. Henry B. Northup, a lawyer who was a relative of the former master of Solomon’s father, was dispatched to Louisiana to liberate him. After much difficulty, Solomon is tracked down at Epps’s estate, and delivered to liberty once more.
“My narrative is at an end,” Northup wrote in his conclusion. Yet on the final page he reminded us that his was not simply an extraordinary story, but an account of the life of a great many ordinary people. And this institution to enslave Northup labels “peculiar.” It is certainly that, as Northup pointed out to us that slavery makes no sense. Not only is it an abhorrent slander to the human soul, but those who defend it as a necessary mode of economy are fools who cannot see that it makes for the most unproductive system imaginable. “It is a fact I have more than once observed,” he wrote, “that those who treated their slaves most leniently, were rewarded by the greatest amount of labor.” The plantation model could never be as efficient as labors of free will. Northup’s commentary cannot be easily or gracefully transferred to film, but it is a precious warning that only the book can offer.
McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave already towers over other attempts to dramatize slavery on screen. His previous features, 2008’s Hunger, about Bobby Sands’s torturous 1981 IRA hunger strikes, and 2011’s Shame, about a New York executive who indulges in sex without seeming to have any fun in it, both star the coolly simmering Fassbender, and they were oddly austere immersions in extreme sensory experiences. The same approach characterizes 12 Years a Slave—it’s like dipping a smoldering iron in glassy water. McQueen’s camera is chilling and unflappable, while every viewer is agitated inside, seething at the condition of slavery. Predecessors Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, or last year’s Django Unchained are hysterical fantasies by comparison, whereas 12 Years a Slave is powerful yet precise. The film is stupendous art, but it owes much to a priceless piece of document. Solomon Northup’s memoir is history.