Last night, Jon and I went to the movies. Admittedly, we aren’t big movie goers (who can afford to be!), but we both saw the previews for this film and were instantly hooked. You have to see it. I won’t give all the details, but if you are like me and don’t want to know the story before you watch it, then don’t read on…
12 Years a Slave is based on the true story and book written by Solomon Northup in 1853. Northup was a free black man living in Saratoga Springs, NY, with his wife and three children. He made a living working various construction jobs, and supplementing his income working as a violinist. The book details his experience of being lured to Washington, D.C. with the promise of an employment offer, and his subsequent kidnapping and sale into the slave trade. Northup was taken to Richmond, VA and sold as a slave, where he spent the next 12 years working on several Louisiana plantations.
The film begins with Northup’s life as a free man, and then quickly escalates to his luring and kidnapping. His free papers are stolen, and he is stripped and dressed in rags, effectively making it impossible for him to convince anybody that he is actually a free man. He is beaten violently each time he tries to protest and insist on his freedom, and his name is changed to Platt Hamilton to prevent him from being traced. Eventually he concludes that the best course of action is to keep his cool and stay alive until he can formulate a plan to escape.
Sadly, keeping his cool and staying alive puts him in the same no win situation that most slaves faced. First he is sold to a reasonably benevolent preacher who owns a plantation, where he is treated fairly well. That isn’t to say that the preacher doesn’t have his flaws; another kidnapped free woman is sold away from the plantation when she can’t contain her grief over having her children stolen from her. Soon enough though, the overseer’s contempt for Solomon’s intelligence gets him into trouble – the preacher sells Solomon in order to prevent the conflict from ending in tragedy (in reality, the relationship was more complicated than that; with the overseer owning a significant share of Plat and indebted to the preacher for the remainder).
His next owner is a harsh, religious lunatic. While spouting Bible verses, Edwin Epps drinks heavily, sexually assaults Patsey, one of his female slaves, and forces the slaves to participate in bizarre middle of the night dances. He frequently beats and whips his slaves, and his lunatic wife, who can’t contain her jealousy, is an active participant in abusing Patsey. The brutality in the film is raw and realistic.
Years in, Solomon meets a traveling carpenter from Canada named Bass, who voices his concerns about the institution of slavery. Solomon decides to take a huge risk and tell Bass his story, and asks him to write a letter to his family and friends back in New York, so they can rescue him. Bass is aware of the risk to himself and Solomon, but agrees to help.
Solomon is rescued, but the reality is that very few free blacks and mulattoes who were kidnapped and sold into slavery ever regained their freedom. We’ll never really know, but by some estimates thousands of free blacks were kidnapped and sold each year. When you understand that a slave sold for prices of $400 on up, which was more than a many people earned in a year at the time, it seems less surprising. Not less revolting though…
The movie is very well done – but it is not for the faint of heart. The portrayal is honest and violent, and leaves little to the imagination. You can feel the pain and desperation. Do see it and bring the tissues.