12 Years a Slave: The History of The Enslavement of Solomon Northup

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About this sample

About this sample


Words: 2524 |

Pages: 6|

13 min read

Published: Jun 7, 2021

Words: 2524|Pages: 6|13 min read

Published: Jun 7, 2021

Table of contents

  1. Discrimination of the slaves
  2. Between submission and hope
  3. Conclusion

“12 Years a Slave” is a harrowing drama film, directed by Steve McQueen and based on the real life events of an African American freeman. The movie is an adaption of a narrative of the same title that was published in 1853. The story takes place in 1841 in the US and recounts the tragedy of the kidnapping of the prestigious violinist and freeman Solomon Northup by two men, Hamilton and Brown, and selling him into slavery.

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The sorrows of Northup last for 12 years and finally end when he gets freed and reunites with his family that already has two new members, his son in law and his grandson. As stated at the end of the movie, Northup was one of the few victims of kidnapping to regain his freedom and bring the slavers to trial. Due to the few rights black people had back then, Northup unfortunately lost the case, unable to testify against whites.

Historically, slavery in the US began by bringing Africans to the New World's labour in the 17th century. Today slavery still plays a big role in what we stand for such as equality, freedom and justice for all. This paper is an analysis of the film '12 Years a Slave', which illustrates the concepts of the institution of slavery in the US. An institution that in my opinion replaced morals and religion into a brutal social Darwinist concept; the survival of the fittest. In the US slaves were not just unable to determine themselves, but also had no rights. Above that they were treated brutally, dehumanized and were subjected to degradation by the white dominance.

 “My object is to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration.”

The opening scene of “12 Years a Slave” presents a group of slaves receiving instructions to cut sugar cones. Perhaps this beginning is an overview of what the audience will learn later about the conditions and the mood of the slaves on the plantations. The look of pain and suffering, the sadness in the eyes are very obvious to us from the very beginning of the movie. Solomon Northup’s life changes dramatically with the blink of an eye. The freeman who lived happily with his family turns into a slave who is subjected to various types of humiliation and torture. The man who goes to Washington DC as a violinist, wakes up in a cell chained to the floor, in vain trying to proclaim that he is a freeman. He is subjected to the indignity of being stripped of his identity. From now on he is a runway Georgian slave. He tries to protest but it is useless. He is beaten with a wooden paddle then a leather strap with no mercy, then sent to a slave pen with others. The next day, Northup is shipped to New Orleans with other Africans. On the way he has a conversation with two men, Robert and Clemens. They tell him that if he wants to survive he must hide his identity and not tell anyone that he is an educated freeman and that he should adapt to being a slave. “I don’t want to survive, I want to live” Northup replies. He probably did not know what is awaiting him.

Eliza, a slave and a mother who loses her children and her freedom papers gets raped by the slave’s trader. Robert who tries to intervene gets killed by the trader, which makes Northup understand that resistance is not a solution. In a very touching scene Robert’s body is thrown into the sea, while Eliza and Northup stand idly by with the other slaves in the face of such tragedy.

Returning to Northup who is now given the new name, Platt, and is sold with Eliza to Mr. Ford. He now maybe starts to surrender and realizes that “speech is silver but silence is gold”. The scars on his back remind him that it’s useless to talk, as he tells Eliza. On the plantation of Mr. Ford, Northup obeys orders, but he is still a man of dignity. He shows intelligent techniques on the plantation which impress Mr. Ford.

John Tibeats, a man with power on the plantation, tries to beat up Northup out of jealousy and a tension between them starts but the magic turns on the magician. Northup resists and beats John with his own whip. Quickly and in an inhuman way John with other thugs have the noose around Northup’s neck. He is hanged on the tree, barely able to support himself on his tip toes for hours until Mr. Ford finally rescues him. He pays an arm and a leg for striking a white man. Mr. Ford saves his life but on the other hand, he sells him carelessly when he has a financial crisis.

Discrimination of the slaves

For about 100 years slaves in the US had to suffer from brutal treatment in terms of not just physical but also psychological. “Among the first objects of the planters’ assault were the names Africans carried to the New World, and with them the lineage which structured much of African life.”

The inhuman treatment of slaves is evident throughout the movie in different scenes. The slavers justified their treatment with the biblical texts, such as Mr. Ford, who gathers his salves and quotes Luke 17:2: “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.”

Due to Ford’s financial crisis, Northup is now one of the properties of Mr. Epps, who is known for his merciless behaviour, whose heart is full of hate. Even he justifies his acts with religion and quotes Luke 12:47 to his slaves on their first day in his plantation: “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. That is scripture.”

Mr. Epps takes these words literally and whips his slaves, who don’t perform well on the plantation and pick the least amount of cotton. In contrary and to show his racism, when a white farmer picks the least amount of cotton, Mr. Epps tells him that he should not worry about it and that he can still improve.

The women of “12 Years a Slave” are subjected to peculiar suffering; a slavery full of sexual, psychological and physical sorrows. Mothers are separated from their children, as in the case of Eliza, who is separated from her children, despite the kindness of Master William Ford (scene 31:00). Not family or the individual human did matter, but only the economic profit of slave traders. This marketing was the frustration of African family life. This phenomena is not just a scene in “12 Years a Slave” but it was acknowledged in the apology of the House of Representatives in 2008: “Whereas enslaved families were torn apart after having been sold separately from one another.”

The oppressive Mr. Epps enjoys committing sadistic acts on his slaves. Perhaps the circumstances on his plantation make Northup doubt that he will ever have the chance to feel free again.

One of the most influential characters in “12 Years a Slave” is Patsey, the beautiful joyous creature, a very hard and industrious worker who collects the highest amount of cotton on the plantation. Patsey is raped by her master and hated by his wife. She is deprived from the simplest rights and she is painfully broken. Although Patsey seems to be a very quiet and patient girl at the beginning, she has the most emotionally effective scenes in the film. The audience will naturally shed tears when she begs Solomon with trembling voice to take her life and to end her pain as an act of mercy, because she is not strong enough to do so herself. She is the most tragic figure in the story and is a reflection of the slaves bitter lives who prefer death and going to the “merciful god”, as she says, over the life of slavery. Northup asks her, how she can fall into such despair, he has also asked Eliza before but later on in the film the audience realizes that he himself has started to give up.

Between submission and hope

Full of hope Northup takes advantage of the white farmer, Armbsy who newly joins them on the plantation and who is there out of need for money. Northup decides to risk trusting him, as he appears a decent man. He offers him all his savings to deliver him a letter to his friends in New York. Armbsy accepts it unhesitatingly: “To assist you, I put my own self at risk.”

But he immediately betrays him to Mr. Epps who confronts Northup menacingly. All hope feels lost. Hope is burnt into dust as he burns the letter. Days pass and the tragedy continues. Sorrows, melancholy and death of exhaustion are a part of every working day. When an old man dies while picking cotton, the other slaves no longer show sadness. The overseer mercilessly screams: “nigger get up” and then figures out that he is dead. The slaves dig to bury him, blow a gasket and sing the spiritual sung “roll Jordan roll”, as we see the anger in Northup’s eyes, who sings louder and louder, feeling the pain and injustice. When he joins the song in the middle, it becomes clear to the audience that he is also joining the helpless community that finds hope and assurance in songs. A community that still dreams of freedom. Not the freedom in Jordan where they are not enslaved, but in an afterlife when they die and their sorrows end. And one can’t help but empathize with them as they repeat the strong lyrics: “roll Jordan roll, roll Jordan roll, my soul arise in heaven, Lord, for to hear when Jordan roll”

Another moment of where Northup starts to submit is when injustice is done on Patsey by the end of the movie. Mr. Epps is as angry as a bee that has sat on its own sting. Patsey is missing and he threatens all the slaves with force and violence for his loss. But Patsey comes back quickly to justify that it is worship day and that she has been in the neighbouring plantation to fetch some soap to clean herself, as Mrs. Epps stripped her of her most basic rights. Unbelieving her and provoked by his wife, Mr. Epps forces Northup to do the hardest mission. He orders him to strike Patsey. Mr. Epps, at the instigation of his wife, asks Northup to strike harder and harder or he would be the next. Patsey screams and struggles fruitlessly when Mr. Epps takes over torturing her until her “meet and blood” flow equally. This is Northup’s biggest moment of black mood and full despair, which is evident when he breaks his violin after this horrible injustice.

Finding himself all lonely and hopeless, Northup runs into Samuel Bass, a Canadian carpenter who works for Mr. Epps for a while. It is when life on plantation seemed to be at its lowest point that a glimmer of hope emerged. Bass is a loyal man and an outspoken abolitionist who does not approve of slave-owning. “It is all wrong, all wrong sir. There is no justice nor righteousness in it…this question of slavery” and “How many slaves are there on this bayou as white as either of us?” says he to Mr. Epps while Northup overhears the conversation. Despite his plausible and rational thinking, Bass cannot convince Mr. Epps. In contrary Northup finds an ally in Bass, thanks to whom Northup is able to deliver his letter to his friends in New York.

One day on the plantation (Northup) gets called by the local sheriff who asks him a series of questions to confirm his identity as Solomon Northup. With astonishment Northup recognizes the Sheriff’s companion, Mr. Parker, the man who confirms that Northup is a freeman. Mr. Epps furiously protests that Northup is his property while Northup keeps his way to freedom with an unspeakable happiness. Patsey calls him for the last time in his slavery and Northup gives her a touching farewell before he rides off to his family and she collapses with a broken heart. After 12 years full of pain, Northup survives and lives with his family that includes two new members, his son in law and his grandson.

With a few rare exceptions, the movie is based on the book of the same name, which was written by Northup after he was freed. One Aspect that is not explicitly mentioned in Northup’s book is, weather the two men, Hamilton and Brown are responsible for the kidnapping. Northup stated in his book that he got extraordinary headaches after having a drink with the two men that night and that he was sick afterwards. But he couldn’t conclude with certainty that he was poisoned. In his book he writes: “Though suspicions of Brown and Hamilton were not infrequent, I could not reconcile myself to the idea that they were instrumental to my imprisonment.” In the movie however, they are shown as clearly responsible for the kidnapping.

Also in reality Northup had a plan to take over the ship, he was on with Robert and another freeman. However the plan did not end with Robert defending Eliza when she got raped, as stated in the film. In reality Robert died of smallpox, which foiled their attempt. In the movie Mr. Ford is shown as a very noble and religious man but the audience underestimates him when he continues his sermons despite Eliza’s wailing. In fact Northup appreciates him a lot more and gives more charitable account of him in his book: “There never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford”.

Bass “Brad Pitt” did in reality much more to rescue Northup than the film provides. According to Northup’s book, Bass used to meet with Northup in the middle of the night to hear his stories and he would send many letters to Northup’s friends in New York and not just one. When they did not get a response to any letter, Bass went to New York himself to rescue Northup. Northup’s return home is quiet as it is in his book except for the fact that his daughter Margaret did not recognize him after 12 years of separation.

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Solomon Northup’s “12 Years a Slave” is one man’s fight for survival and freedom. Although he faced obstacles, suffered from disappointment, frustration and lived an absolute surrender and total subordination, he is a man of principle. He has never lost his dignity, his patience, his pride, his love and faithfulness to his wife and children and above all, he has never lost his faith. Despite all sorrows and pain, he drops the tears down his face, tears of happiness. He finally closed that chapter of his life and the unforgettable twelve years of slave. Finally, the most touching and beautiful scene in the movie comes. Solomon Northup reunites with his family and his grandson, Solomon Northup Staunton.

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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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12 Years A Slave: The History Of The Enslavement Of Solomon Northup. (2021, July 01). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 28, 2024, from
“12 Years A Slave: The History Of The Enslavement Of Solomon Northup.” GradesFixer, 01 Jul. 2021,
12 Years A Slave: The History Of The Enslavement Of Solomon Northup. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 28 Feb. 2024].
12 Years A Slave: The History Of The Enslavement Of Solomon Northup [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2021 Jul 01 [cited 2024 Feb 28]. Available from:
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