Evaluation of Historical Accuracy in The Film 12 Years a Slave

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Words: 1184 |

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6 min read

Published: Jun 7, 2021

Words: 1184|Pages: 3|6 min read

Published: Jun 7, 2021

The film, 12 Years a Slave, is based on a true story and adapted from a book about a born free Blackman in New York, Solomon Northup, whose father was an emancipated slave; freed in his owner’s will. Northup became a musician and was offered a gig, but was drugged and kidnapped by two men. Northup was sold as a slave to different plantation owners in Louisiana throughout his 12 years of being a slave. Northup was eventually rescued by his Northern friends and was reunited with his family. The film, 12 Years a Slave, was historically accurate by conveying the immorality of the slave owners, added characters to scenes to include more female voices, however, left out that Solomon was freed sooner than the film showed although it taught lessons on the slaves' hardships and lifestyle living in slavery in the 1800s.

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The historical accuracy in the film was brutally honest and was true to Solomon Northup’s journey of being a slave by showing how cruel and immoral the slave owners were. When Northup was sold into slavery, during the scene were Northup is forced to claim that he is a slave, he was asked “Are you a slave?” followed by a brutal whipping. Not only was this likely to happen but it was justified in the movie using the bible, similarly told in The Journal of Black Studies, “Preacher Henry Garnet’s argument had transformed physical violence from cardinal sin to divinely ordained responsibility”. This communicated to the plantation owners that is was right to abuse their slaves and was accepted by God. Many plantation owners believed they were doing the lawful thing and justified a horrific action by making themselves believe it was a religious practice and punishing slaves was a convention given to them by God. This was very prevalent in the 1800s and used throughout the movie to show how notorious the act was and how often it was happening to all the slaves working in the plantations.

The film, 12 Years a Slave, included more characters and voices than what the original book had told to tell more instances of slave abusement. Originally, Mistress Shaw was not a voiced character, however, in the movie, they gave her a voice. In the scene were Mistress Shaw has Northup and Patsey sit down to have tea with her, she tells Patsey to take comfort because “the Lord will manage them all,” referring to Master Epps’s sexual abuse towards Patsey. Many women were victims of rape and sexual assault from the slave owners. According to a former slave who was interviewed in 1937, “plenty of the colored women have children by the white men. She knows better than to not do what he says,” and another interviewee said in one occurrence, there was a doctor on the plantation “who bought a girl and installed her on the place for his own use, his wife hearing it severely beat her”. These statements reveal that many women were subjected to abuse from slave owners and their wives and in the movie, Mistress Shaw understood what had happened and was trying to comfort Patsey. Many female slaves were not able to stand up for themselves or even try to disobey the owner because it would result in more abusement either from them or Mistresses because they would get jealous. According to Solomon Northup, “nothing delighted the mistress so much as to see Patsey suffer, and more than once, when Epps had refused to sell her, has Patsey tempted me with bribes to put her secretly to death,” which explains the dangers the female slaves went through. They were caught between arguments and all of the violence was pushed onto her. In many cases, slaves had viewed “suicide as an honorable escape from slavery,” according to a journal titled Suicide, Slavery, and Memory in North America. By adding more characters into the movie that are giving the female slaves sympathy, more context to the time was better portrayed because it gave female slaves a bigger voice to explain how they were treated in a world of abuse and the hardships they had to go through mentally and physically.

Although the movie is historically accurate, it is still Hollywood produced which means there is more suspense created to have a more interesting movie. In real life, Solomon Northup met Bass, an abolitionist in Louisiana, who sent many letters to free Northup. An important moment to recognize is that Northup’s freedom came from Bass’s first letter, however, the movie elides this and only shows Bass agreeing to tell people in the North about Solomon’s whereabouts. Even though the idea that Bass was the one who helped Northup be rescued, the film only showed the verbal agreement between Bass and Northup because of the emotions and sympathy it portrayed which would be better in a movie to entice the audience. According to a movie critiquing website, “history can be a little too dull” and Hollywood “alters what really happened in order to keep audiences captivated”. This proves that the film only showed the meeting between Bass and Northup to keep the audience interested in watching the part where there was interaction with Northup.

Despite the inaccuracy of leaving out Bass’s important role in 12 Years a Slave, the film explained that there were many hardships for women and the treatments towards all slaves were immoral. Throughout the film, there is a constant understanding that this is about America’s history. Sarah Paulson, who plays Mistress Epps in the film, explains in an interview that people can relate, in some way, to feeling disenfranchised although not to this extreme, but can understand that there are hardships and people suffering all over the world today. This statement Paulson made in her interview made me realize that actors are understanding the relationship between history and today. This does mean that this film was created well and accurately, making the audience feel sad and angry that slavery, harsh punishments, and sexual assault were a reality for many.

The film, 12 Years a Slave, sadly left out Bass’s important and helpful role, but correctly created historical accuracy, added characters to include women’s voices and taught the realities of living as a slave. Freedom is a lucky thing to have, unfortunately, it is not true for everyone in the world today.

Works Cited

Looper Staff. “True Story Movies That Lied to You.” Looper.Com, Looper, 4 Oct. 2016, Accessed 27 Sept. 2019.

McQueen, Steve. 12 Years a Slave. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2013.

National Humanities Center. “On Slaveholders’ Sexual Abuse of Slaves, Selections for 19th and 20th Century Slave Narratives.” 2008.

“Sarah Paulson Discusses Difficulties of Playing Ms Epps 12 Years a Slave.” YouTube, 18 Oct. 2013, Accessed 27 Sept. 2019.

Shiffrin, Steven. “The Rhetoric of Black Violence in the Antebellum Period: Henry Highland Garnet.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, 1971.

Snyder, Terry. “Suicide, Slavery, and Memory in North America.” The Journal of American History, vol. 97, no. 1, June 2010.

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Wickman, Forrest. “How Accurate Is 12 Years a Slave? Here’s What’s Fact and What’s Fiction.” Slate Magazine, Slate, 17 Oct. 2013, Accessed 25 Sept. 2019.

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Evaluation Of Historical Accuracy In The Film 12 Years A Slave. (2021, July 01). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 28, 2024, from
“Evaluation Of Historical Accuracy In The Film 12 Years A Slave.” GradesFixer, 01 Jul. 2021,
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