Oct 28, 2013
Twelve Years a Slave is not an easy movie to watch; it powerfully and realistically shows part of the true story of slavery in the United States. The movie is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northrup, a free black man from Saratoga, New York, who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. in 1841 and spent 12 years as a slave in Louisiana before he was freed and returned to the North.
The movie emphasizes the slavers’ attempts to dehumanize Northrup and the slaves around him. He is a violinist, brought to Washington, D.C. to perform, only to be drugged, chained, and thrown in a dungeon. When he protests that he is a free man, he is brutally beaten. He is stripped of his name, and later traded to pay off a debt. In one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, we see Northrup strung up by the neck, almost hung to death, but left dangling for hours, his toes just able to touch the ground. Northrup also sees a woman suffer near the point of death when her children are sold away from her. He sees the best worker on a plantation, Patsy, raped by her master and abused by the master’s resentful wife. And he is forced to participate in a cruel whipping of Patsy after she goes to a neighboring plantation to get some soap.
Through the friendship that develops between Northrup and Patsy, the movie also shows how slaves relied on each other for support and comfort even though they were forced to submit to outrage after outrage.
And it shows the work slaves did to build this country. They were the ones who constructed beautiful houses and outbuildings, grew sugar and cotton, cleared woods, and transported lumber for sale while plantation owners reaped the profits of the slaves’ labor.
However, the movie does have problems. The biggest problem is that it shows the North as a happy land of racial equality. In reality, Northerners could erupt in racist fury as violent as anything in the South, as they would prove by the New York draft riots of 1863 that turned into a mass lynching of black New Yorkers, including an assault on a black orphanage.
Though the movie does show Northrup and two fellow slaves talking about an insurrection, and shows Northrup fighting back against a hired white man who tries to whip him, the movie also downplays the fights that slaves and abolitionists made against slavery. When Northrup got back to New York, he became a fighter against slavery, which is why he wrote the book originally. But except for a brief message flashed across the screen, this doesn’t make it into the movie.
Nonetheless, Twelve Years a Slave gives an unflinching picture of the horror of American slavery.