Historian at the Movies: 12 Years a Slave reviewed
As part of our new series, Dr Emily West, an associate professor of history at the University of Reading, reviews 12 Years a Slave – a true story about a free black man from upstate New York who is abducted and sold into slavery
Q: Did you enjoy the film?
A: The subject matter made 12 Years a Slave a very uncomfortable film to watch, although some of the actors gave astonishing performances.
I thought Chiwetel Ejiofor (as Solomon Northup) acted with incredible intensity, as did Michael Fassbender, who played Northup’s violent and sadistic master, Edwin Epps.
Steve McQueen’s unique direction used lingering close ups and poignant imagery of rural Louisiana in the days of slavery, which only added to the great tragedy of Northup’s harrowing story.
Enslaved people commonly described having ‘trees of scars’ on their backs – the result of brutal whippings they received from their masters or other people, and this film shockingly displayed the regularity of such treatment.
Moreover, we also witnessed, in truly horrific fashion, the myriad of circumstances under which enslaved men and women’s ‘trees of scars’ came into being. In one incident, Edwin Epps forces Solomon Northup at gunpoint to whip another slave, Patsey, until she collapses from pain. Yet Patsey’s only ‘crime’ was to leave her plantation in search of a bar of soap to clean herself.
Overall, I was pleased to see the highly realistic depictions of enslaved women’s lives in this film, especially the often-brutal sexual assaults they endured at the hands of white men. For example, Edwin Epps rapes Patsey and takes a sadistic pleasure in seeing her whipped. Mrs Epps, the plantation mistress, reacts in a typically jealous fashion by ‘blaming the victim’, and lashing out violently against Patsey.
White women rarely sought to help their enslaved women enduring sexual abuse.
Q: Was the film historically accurate?
A: I have never seen a film represent slavery so accurately. The film starkly and powerfully unveiled the sights and sounds of enslavement – from slaves picking cotton as they sang in the fields, to the crack of the lash down people’s backs.
I found the scene in the New Orleans slave market especially moving because of the juxtaposition between the refined, mid-19th-century house, from which a trader sold enslaved people, and the raw nakedness and commodification of the black bodies within it.
The trader made men and women strip naked for potential purchasers who looked inside slaves’ mouths to check the quality of their teeth. Buyers also ran their hands down slaves’ backs and arms to check for physical strength and agility, and no doubt they also viewed the naked enslaved women in terms of their sexual attractiveness and childbearing ability.
It was heartbreaking to see Solomon Northup’s friend, Eliza, so cruelly separated from her two children, Emily and Randall, as they were all sold to different owners.
We also heard a lot about the ideology behind enslavement. Masters such as William Ford (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and Edwin Epps, although very different characters, both used an interpretation of Christianity to justify their ownership of slaves. They believed the Bible sanctioned slavery, and that it was their ‘Christian duty’ to preach the scriptures to their slaves.
Q: What did the film get right?
A: The film depicted the overall slave regime and all its horrors extremely well, but it also added depth and nuance to our understanding of slavery’s complexities. Masters such as Edwin Epps commonly hired out their slaves in times of economic need, and in the film we see Solomon Northup and other enslaved men being hired to a man to chop sugar cane – a crop grown primarily in Louisiana in the United States.
I was also impressed by the film’s awareness of social class: Solomon Northup comes into contact with various white men of lower social standing, some of whom are paid by Epps to labour alongside slaves. Indeed, it is one of these men, known only as ‘Bass’ (played by Brad Pitt), who helps Northup escape his ordeal. Bass brings an acquaintance of Solomon Northup to the plantation to confirm his free status, after which Northup returns to his family.
The film also got the smaller details right. For example, all enslaved people leaving their plantations had to have a written pass, in case they came across white patrollers (people employed to track down runaway slaves). When Solomon Northup leaves his plantation on an errand for Mrs Epps, he wore such a pass around his neck.
The film also succeeded in highlighting the stark visual contrast between the opulence of plantations mansions and the dingy, cramped, over-crowded quarters of the enslaved.
Q: What did it miss?
A: This is a minor point, but I felt the film possibly over-emphasised Solomon Northup’s social standing in New York state prior to his enslavement. In the film, Northup appears as a wealthy, successful individual, making a good living as a carpenter and musician. He wears smart clothes and appears to live in a tolerant, racially integrated community where skin colour does not matter.
But in reality, Northern black people were everyday victims of white racism and discrimination, and in the free states of the North, black people were typically the ‘last hired and first fired’. Notably, in his autobiography Northup himself describes the everyday “obstacle of color” in his life prior to his kidnapping and subsequent enslavement.
Nevertheless, I can understand why the filmmakers wanted to present a strong juxtaposition between Northup’s life as a free man in the North and the physical and mental trauma he endured while enslaved in the South.
How many stars (out of five) would you award the film?
For enjoyment: *****
For historical accuracy: *****