12 Years a Slave is a film adaptation based on the slave narrative written by Solomon Northup. Steve McQueen directed the acclaimed film that was released in 2013. A myriad of people credited for the production include Brad Pitt, Steve McQueen, Bill Pohlad, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Anthony Katagas, and Arnon Milchan. Notable stars in this movie include Lupita Nyong’o, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Brad Pitt.
The film follows the story of Solomon Northup, a free African American violinist residing in New York. Solomon is approached by two men, and an opportunity arises for Solomon to temporarily travel to Washington D.C. for a large sum of money, in which he takes. He says his farewells to his wife and children and sets off to Washington with the two white men that invited him to perform. Solomon is deceived by the two men, who catapult him into the treacherous world of slavery. His introduction to slavery was a brutal one; once in the custody of a slave dealer, Solomon pleaded to be freed, for he was born free. The slave dealer beat him profusely in return. The free man along with a group of other African Americans of varying ages are forced to migrate to New Orleans, where they would be sold off in the slave trade. Solomon is sold to a wealthy plantation owner, under the false pretense that Solomon was previously an escaped slave from Georgia named Platt. Solomon maintains an effort to keep a compliant behavior on the plantation farm, and even shares an amicable acquaintanceship with the plantation owner that bought him, William Ford. However, Solomon finally breaks this effort and gets into an altercation with one of the hostile men in charge of the plantation. Consequently, Solomon is hanged, but his life is spared, for the men who attempted to hang him were not authorized to do so. William Ford then sells Solomon to another plantation, but before Solomon leaves Ford’s plantation, he reveals his true identity as a free African American from New York. However, Ford does not take any action towards freedom for him.
Solomon’s new master, Edwin Epps, does not value or keep a benevolent attitude towards his slaves, and even sexually assaults a female slave. When the cotton is ruined on the slave owner’s plantation, Solomon and the other slaves are forced to move to another man’s plantation. On the new plantation, conditions improve, and Solomon is even permitted to play his violin at a party for pay. With the money he earned, Solomon pays a white man on the plantation to send a letter to New York, and almost gets caught by his master. Nothing comes out of the letter, and Solomon remains a slave. Following this event, Solomon confides in a white worker named Samuel, who he exposes the truth of his situation to. Solomon gives Samuel another letter to send to New York, but this time his efforts are successful, and he is soon freed. He reunites with his family after twelve years of forced labor, hence the film name 12 Years a Slave. Solomon later seeks legal actions for his unjust situation but is not victorious in his efforts.
The characters in 12 Years a Slave were based on existing people. The film’s protagonist, Solomon Northup, was a real man who was forced into slavery after being born a free African American man. Yet, a few depictions of Solomon’s life as in the film do not parallel with his actual life. In the film, Solomon’s character fathers two children, whereas in actuality he fathered three children with his wife. There is a scene in the movie in which Solomon engages in intercourse with a fellow female slave; this is fictitious and did not occur while he was enslaved. Another inaccuracy in the film is when a slave is murdered on the boat journey from Washington to New Orleans. This was likely not probable and was not mentioned in Solomon’s narrative. Solomon’s experiences with plantation owners William Ford and Edwin Epps, however, were historically accurate, as well as his experiences on the plantations represented in the film.
The supporting characters in the film were also portrayed in a manner that was historically accurate. The men that deluded Solomon into thinking he was going to Washington for business were real people, and instead handed him off to a slave trader. The slave trader who held Solomon is captivity used the same brute force against him in reality as he did in the film. Solomon’s pleas were ignored, and he was beaten when he attempted to tell the trader he was born a free man; this account shared in Solomon Northup’s slave narrative is delineated in the movie. The acquaintanceship shared between William Ford and Solomon was genuinely pictured in the movie. Solomon appreciated the mercy and kindness Ford exhibited while he was Solomon’s master. Particular details of Solomon’s life are shown in the film, such as his musicianship and the change of his name from Solomon to Platt by a slave trader. Solomon’s journey to freedom as portrayed in the film is also historically precise. A white man named Samuel Bass that was working for pay on Edwin Epps’ plantation aided Solomon by writing and sending letters to New York for him. The men responsible for Solomon’s twelve years as a slave were never held accountable for their actions, and unfortunately Solomon’s legal losses in the film mirrored reality.
The time period in this film was not romanticized. The film was directed in a historically accurate sense and did not sugarcoat the actuality of the political climate of the mid 1800s. African Americans were not respected as humans, and slavery was still very much prevalent. Plantation owners’ unjust and inhuman behavior towards their slaves was made lucid in the film. The lives of enslaved blacks were portrayed in a realistic way that did not desensitize their struggles, but instead showed the raw reality of their treatment. From savage beatings to sexual assault, the film did not hold back on illustrating the marginalization and abuse of slaves. The film represented the mid 1800s as a time full of hatred and cruel beliefs and behavior, rather than romanticizing that time period.
Although it was extremely accurate, the film contained a notable historical misconception about the time period it was set in. To further elaborate, in the film when Solomon is traveling by means of boat to New Orleans to be sold, a sailor attempts to rape a female slave. A male slave attacks the sailor, subsequently causing the sailor to murder him. A sailor would not have been authorized to murder a slave; the sailor would have been more likely to punish the slave, rather than kill him. The slave traders would have been infuriated, for a slave murdered was on less person that they could gain profit from. Nevertheless, the murder of the slave in the movie goes unnoticed, and the sailor is not punished.
12 Years a Slave was set in varied locations, including Saratoga Springs, New York, Washington D.C., and New Orleans, Louisiana. It covered a span of twelve years, beginning in the year 1841. The architecture presented in the film accurately representing the antebellum south’s style of housing and furnishing. Plantation owner Edwin Epps’ home featured classic antebellum features, such as giant pillars, balconies, and a myriad of windows. Clothing worn by both the plantation owners and their wives, as well as the slaves were accurate to the time period the film was set in. Slaves wore loose clothing tattered from the extensive labor they were forced to perform every day. The wealthy white women on the plantations wore expensive dresses, their hair always styled neatly. The food served to the slaves in the film was true to their lives. While in captivity of the slave trader at the beginning of the film, Solomon is given a scarce serving of cornbread, meat, and berries. Cornbread and pork were popular foods given to slaves. Props in the movie that were accurate include candle lit lanterns, and cooking utensils relevant to the time, such as a pot cooking over a campfire tripod. The film expressed the time period accurately in these aspects.
After watching the film, there are a few mentionable weaknesses and strengths. A notable weakness in this film would be the lack of music, despite the fact that Solomon is a musician. Solomon was a violinist; it would have been enjoyable to hear the dramatic and emotion provoking sound of the violin that he found joy in playing. Nonetheless, the film had many strengths, including the production and filming. The New Orleans plantation looked extremely authentic, as well as the choice of attire and dialogue of the characters. Every actor did a sensational job at transforming into their characters, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor, who played Solomon Northup, and Michael Fassbender, who played Edwin Epps. The movie was paced in a way that ensured the watcher would be able to grasp Solomon’s full story, without being too slow or too quick. The plot was well expressed and was not vague. The climax of the film occurred at an appropriate time and was logical. Solomon waited twelve years for an opportunity to gain his freedom back and as soon as he found one in Samuel Bass, he took it. In the last few minutes of the movie, Solomon is reunited with his family, which allows the film to reach a resolution. Although he does not win his legal cases against the men who kidnapped him in the resolution, it depicts the corrupt legal system of the time, making it logical. Solomon’s arduous trek through the slave system to freedom kept the viewer engaged and entranced in the film. From watching Solomon’s freedom stripped from him and his adapting to life as a slave, the film evoked many emotions in the viewer. If the movie was done long ago, a newer, contemporary version would be done in a different way. The cinematography would not have been as quality as the 2013 film. The props and resources used in the film may not have been as historically accurate, or detailed. Due to the excellent choice of casting, an older version may have lacked the remarkable acting the actors performed.
Stereotyped or cliché characterizations in the film include the merciless slave owner, and the Christian/religious slave owner. Edwin Epps embodies the idea of what we believe a slave owner would be like; savage, hateful, and relentless. William Ford, although a religious and a more merciful slave owner, displayed the hypocritical slave owner who respected his slaves, yet kept them enslaved. These descriptions of plantation owners are very prevalent in history, thus causing them to be stereotyped in films about slavery.
To make the film better, I would have excluded a minor detail. The fictitious scene in which Solomon engages in sexual behavior with another slave does not seem to fit, for he deeply loved his wife, and would not want to betray or hurt her in any manner. Although the woman weeps afterwards, showing that any pleasurable experience as a slave is fleeting, it does not accurately represent Solomon as a person. In contrary to this minor detail, the rest of the movie was remarkable and i would not have changed anything.
A new awareness of mid-1800s society was gained after watching this movie, whether it be through the choice of clothing, the setting, or the lives both plantation owners and enslaved African Americans lived. The watcher witnesses brutal beatings and terrible living conditions of slaves and the disturbingly racist prejudice they underwent. The film represents the merciful plantation owner through William Ford, and the vicious plantation owner through Edwin Epps. It shows the North’s accepting of African Americans, and the South’s contrasting impudent attitude towards them. In spite of the fact that the film follows the story of a single slave, it educates the watcher on the political climate of the pre-Civil War era.
Overall, I would recommend this film to a fellow peer. The cinematography along with the phenomenal acting makes the film intriguing. The subject matter is presented in a way that is easy to understand that leaves you more knowledgeable on the struggles and life of a slave. Based on these factors, I would personally rate 12 Years a Slave 4.5 stars out of 5.