On 12 Years a Slave

twelve-years-a-slave-book-cover-01-379x600While watching a documentary about the photographer Gordon Parks, I was surprised to learn that he had directed a film adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years a Slave. In all the publicity surrounding the 2013 Oscar-nominated movie, I had not heard a mention of the earlier film, a 1984 American Playhouse television production. I already had the recent film adaptation in my Netflix queue. Interested in why the movie needed remaking, I immediately added the 1984 film Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey to my queue. Gordon Parks had tried his hand at film-making previously with Shaft and The Learning Tree.

The first adaptation arrived first. Although I think Avery Brooks gives a creditable performance as Solomon, the southern slaves are dressed far too well and their speech is unrealistic. Their dialect has more in common with American English north of the Mason-Dixon line than with the dialect of the southern plantation slave. Uncle Noah, who may have been created with the thought of Stowe’s Uncle Tom in mind, speaks more like Solomon who was born and raised in the north than he speaks like his fellow slaves. Reading Northrup’s book later, I learned Noah is an invented character, although other episodes in the autobiography are followed faithfully. Despite my objections to its unrealistic portrayal of slave conditions, I was moved more than I could remember ever being moved by any account of slavery in America. White masters propagating themselves upon their female slaves and then keeping their own offspring in bondage–even separating their own flesh and blood from the mothers who bore them–were two atrocities that brought home to me the utter depravity of slavery. Color was no barrier to enslavement, for slaves nearly the color of their white owners populated the plantations. Northrup’s narrative and both film adaptations of his book focus on the tragedy of children being torn from their mother’s arms. He vividly recounts the desperation of women who thought they had obtained immunity from the horrors of the slave market because they were the mistresses of slave owners.

Steve McQueen did not shy away from showing the full brutality of the slave system–the merciless floggings, the back-breaking field work, and the sexual exploitation of the women. Gordon Parks in 1984 tip-toed around these issues. He has Solomon only pretend to beat a fellow slave in a shed out of view of Edwin Epps and Mrs. Epps. In the 2013 adaptation the characters and the historical conditions are rendered more realistically. The entire cast deliver outstanding performances, not just the lead character.

I followed up my viewing of both film adaptations with the reading of the Northrup’s book, published not quite a year after the appearance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. Coincidentally, at the same time I was watching the movies, I was already engaged in the project of reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I had started for the purpose of determining how well Stowe’s writing stood up to the standards of novel-writing today. As I read, I wondered if Stowe had access to Northrup’s account, because many points of similarity are evident. In the Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin she published later, she does cite Solomon Northrup as one of her sources. She was acquainted with escaped slave narratives through her association with people involved with the underground railroad and the abolitionist movement. In comparing Stowe’s novel with Northrup’s narrative, ghost-written by David Wilson; the novel falls short. Stowe, although at times she writes some believable dialogue and dramatic scenes, is too preachy and lapses into authorial intrusion often. David Wilson shows more facility with narrative elements and has a pleasing prose style. Twelve Years a Slave also has the benefit of describing in detail the cultivation and production of cotton and sugar cane. It contains much information about antebellum life in Louisiana. David Wilson weaves some nice literary effects into the story. Steve McQueen’s camera shot of the Capital dome in Washington as seen from the slave pen is taken from Wilson’s written description of this juxtaposition.

After his flogging in the Washington slave pen, Northrup vows never to reveal his true identity. It takes him twelve years to build enough trust to tell another white man his real name. It is difficult to imagine how he could have maintained his secret, considering he definitely did not speak like a Southerner or an uneducated slave. In addition, his musical ability, carpentry skills, and ingenuity make him conspicuous as well as valuable to his owners. He grants that his first master William Ford was a kind slave owner who protected him from abuse on more than one occasion. Mrs. Epps realizes he is different from the other slaves and questions him where he is from. Surely, Ford and Mrs. Epps suspected the slave Platt could have been a kidnapped free man. I suspect that they did know, and did nothing. They didn’t say anything–probably because they wanted to protect their ownership right. I’m still puzzled why Northrup did not risk telling William Ford that he was a free man, kidnapped, and sold into slavery; yet he did not. Twelve years is a long time to wait for a white man who can be trusted. An economic system founded upon slavery and brutality terrorized Solomon Northrup into silence for twelve years. In 1853 he had to tell his story to the world.

And the movie of his story needed to be made again because the legacy of slavery is still with us. The violence committed upon a race is deep-rooted and is perpetuated in what seems like an ongoing violent strain in American society. A less overt racism, but nonetheless an aversion for the dark complexion, persists in our country. The brutality practiced over several centuries in American history, and not just confined to the southern plantation, had to embed itself in the consciousness of a people and is not easily eradicated. It becomes almost part of the national DNA, and only centuries of the races living in mutual respect can expunge it.


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