12 Years A Slave, Narrative of Solomon Northup: A Voice That Must Be Heard

“Is everything right because the law allows it?” — Solomon Northup

This is one of those cases where after watching the movie, I knew I must read the original source material, especially that it was written by Solomon Northup himself. If the movie is an artistic, cinematic account of a dark page in history, Solomon’s narrative is the quintessential eyewitness report, a first-person, authentic voice that is both a victim and a legitimate accuser of an inhumane and unjust system.

Solomon Northup copy

Born a free man in the State of New York, Solomon was happily living in Saratoga Springs, married to Anne and enjoying a loving family life as father to Elizabeth, 10, Margaret, 8, and Alonzo, 5. In March, 1841, his life was tragically altered when he was deceived by two men, Brown and Hamilton, and followed them to Washington, believing that he was to be hired to play the violin in a circus. Solomon was later drugged, kidnapped, chained and beaten. Together with other captured victims, he was smuggled to New Orleans and sold as a slave, his name changed to Platt, erasing any evidence of a previous life.

Having no free papers to prove his identity, transported and sold like a chattel to the Bayou in Louisiana, Solomon’s fate was sealed hundreds of miles away from home. His agony was heart-wrenching:

Were the events of the last few weeks realities indeed? — or was I passing only through the dismal phases of a long, protracted dream? It was no illusion. My cup of sorrow was full to overflowing … To the Almighty Father of us all — the freeman and the slave — I poured forth the supplications of a broken spirit, imploring strength from on high to bear up against the burden of my troubles, until the morning light aroused the slumberers, ushering in another day of bondage. (p. 77)

Solomon Northup’s eloquent writing immediately draws me in. It has a traditional and formal ring to the ear, but not archaic; it exudes clarity, finesse and grace. I’m struck by his stylish narrative even when he is describing depravity and injustice. After reading, I can see how the book had inspired director Steve McQueen’s beautifully rendered, artistic cinematic work on such an ugly subject matter. 

The movie follows the memoir closely, albeit leaving out a lot of details. Reading the source material after the movie can fill those in, making it so gratifying.

It was strictly forbidden of slaves to learn to read or write; pen and paper were prohibited. Any slave found to have even minimal education would be severely punished. Solomon had to feign ignorance all the years as a slave to survive. His memoir was written after he gained back his freedom in 1853.

I was most impressed that while Solomon yearned for deliverance and justice, he harboured no traces of personal vengeance against his tormenters. He had proven himself a man of integrity. Often he was sought after for his resourcefulness and his skills in playing the violin. He had entertained masters, and offered momentary relief to fellow slaves.

For two years Solomon was under the kind master William Ford, but had to be sold to the ‘slave breaker’ Edwin Epps to escape from Ford’s jealous and murderous slave driver Tibeats. The subsequent ten years with Epps became an extended living nightmare.

While the movie adaptation is an excellent production which I gave 4/4 Ripples, I find  Solomon Northup’s memoir even more engrossing. I’m particularly impressed by the fact that the book is not a self-absorbed account of sufferings, but as a careful memoirist, he records many details that are informative and even interesting, such as the natural vegetation of the Bayou environment, the cotton and sugar cane crops growing from seeding to harvesting, and the geography of the locales.

Like a perceptive ethnographer, he chronicles plantation life as a slave, the dwellings, diet, work load, daily chores, maltreatments. From his candid revealing, we are led into the subjective world of slavery, being sensitized to what it is like living in bondage and helplessness, constantly fearful of severe whipping and even death. Like a suspense writer, Solomon leads us to follow his risky attempts to seek help, and await in bated breath the day of his rescue. 

An incisive observer of human nature, Solomon sharply describes the psychological makeup of the alcoholic psychopath Epps, and the conflicting power relation binding Epps and his wife, complicated by his gratuitous fondness of the slave girl Patsey. We see in the movie Patsey suffers the brunt of her Mistress’ jealousy, and the maltreatment under her Master who tries to please his wife. The traumatic scene in the movie where Solomon is ordered by Epps to whip Patsey is described even more poignantly in the book. I’m surprised that the literary narrative has a more powerful hold on me than the visual rendition in this scene.

Flogging of Patsey copy

The memoir serves its purpose as a piece of personal narrative that’s poignant and deeply moving. The resilience and faith of Solomon Northup is crucial in his later being rescued. His longing for freedom and justice that is devoid of personal vengeance is most admirable and inspiring.

The rescue is a long and testing process, not so short as in the movie which I feel is a bit off balance. The adaptation should have given viewers a sense of the actual attempt especially in his home state of New York among those who try to find and rescue him. Thanks to the free-thinking, itinerant carpenter Bass from Canada who came to work for Epps for a short time, Solomon saw a crack opened for a chance to relay news back to the North by way of Bass.

Solomon had disappeared from the lives of his wife and three children for twelve years. Thankfully they were all well. When he reunited with them, he had the pleasure of seeing his newborn grandson, named after him by a devoted daughter. His youngest son Alonzo had the plan to make enough money to buy back his freedom if he could be located. It was indeed a moving scene as depicted in the following sketch from the book:

Family Reunion copy

After he had regained freedom, the slave trader Burch, ‘a speculator in human flesh’, was arrested and brought to trial in Washington, where he kidnapped and sold Solomon into slavery. However, Solomon was denied the right to be a witness against Burch for he was a black man. Burch was later found not guilty and discharged. Solomon wrote in his memoir:

A human tribunal has permitted him to escape, but there is another and a higher tribunal, where false testimony will not prevail, and where I am willing, so far at least as these statements are concerned, to be judged at last. (p. 319)

His faith in that ‘higher tribunal’ and an ultimate judge had carried Solomon Northup through the twelve years of slavery. His narrative not only is a voice that testifies against the injustice of man, but poignantly declares that freedom transcends physical bondage. Amidst inhumanity and despair, he had chosen to remain human, and to value integrity and faith. Solomon Northups’ ordeal is a glimmer of light in a dark page of history.

The Oscars dim by comparison.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

CLICK HERE to read my movie review of 12 Years A Slave

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Free Download:

Twelve Years A Slave, Narrative of Solomon Northup, NY, Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855, 336 pages, with appendix of legal documents and papers. You can download the PDF version of the original 1855 publication free here.

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12 Years A Slave (2013): Beauty and Sadness

UPDATE Feb. 16: 12 Years A Slave just won BAFTA 2014 Best Film and Chiwetel Ejiofor, Best Actor. 

UPDATE: 12 Years A Slave is nominated for 9 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Film Editing.

Movies this season seem to come in pairs in terms of subject matter, which makes interesting viewing. Gravity and All Is Lost is a pair. Lee Daniel’s The Butler and 12 Years A Slave another. I watched them purposely back to back.

12 Years A Slave is powerful in many ways, most readily is the aesthetics and styling, both visual and audio. Before he turned to directing, Steve McQueen was a visual artist trained in fine art in London and New York, and it shows. His cinematic work is a testament to the fact that film is a mixed-media art form. More importantly, it shows that film art does not have to be esoteric, or be appreciated only by an ‘artsy’ few. 12 Years A Slave is an exemplar. It carries no elitism but speaks to all. What more, the subject matter may be ugly, but the medium depicting it can be artistically gratifying, thus, conveying the message with even greater potency and inspiration.

12 Years A Slave Poster copy

The film is an adaptation of the 1855 memoir written by Solomon Northup, a free black man, known for his skills in playing the violin. He was living happily with his wife and two children in Saratoga, New York. One day, two men came to offer him a gig to play the fiddle at a circus. Solomon was deceived, drugged, and later smuggled to Louisiana to be sold as a slave. There for twelve years, he endured insufferable hardships until he miraculously met a Canadian carpenter named Bass who stood against slavery. With his help Solomon found freedom and rejoined his family.

I disagree with some critics who assert that the film is too artfully directed, pristine and sanitized to convey the ugliness of the subject matter. One of the qualms they have is with a scene at the beginning of the movie wherein a beating is being shot with artful camera work and lighting. After he is drugged and chained in a dark holding cell, Solomon is fiercely beaten until the torturing paddle breaks in two. Amidst the total darkness in that filthy cell, we see him cower in pain, yet his white shirt literally shines. I noticed that scene too and appreciated how well it was shot. For me, I saw the glowing white garment as a powerful symbol of purity and innocence amidst utter depravity. I’m glad there’s an artist/director to helm this film. We are seeing how the cinematic medium can be sculpted to its full potential. I don’t see anything ‘art’-ificial about it or sense any contrivance.

The issue here is the paradox of conveying ugliness in a well-crafted and artful frame. I have no qualms with that. Should art capture beauty only? Or, should ugliness be depicted by casual and shoddy work in order to be ‘realistic’? The answer is elementary. A quality medium can only enhance the poignancy of the message.

On another level, the film shows us that amidst evil, beauty can still be found. It exists in the persevering spirit of Solomon Northup. Herein lies the inspiration of the story. I found this quote from an excellent interview article with director Steve McQueen. It speaks to the fact that, in the midst of utter sadness, the human spirit can still glean what’s positive and beautiful. From the memoir of Solomon Northup we read these words:

There are few sights more pleasant to the eye, than a wide cotton field when it is in the bloom. It presents an appearance of purity, like an immaculate expanse of light, new-fallen snow.

Acclaimed British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as Solomon Northup is inspiration itself. His nuanced expressions portray clearly some very mixed and intense emotions under the most desperate of circumstances, like consoling a female slave lying next to him at night and yet keeping his integrity, or being forced by the sadistic Epps to whip another slave. Even at the point of despair, Solomon maintains his self-respect, remains upright and kind, and upholds a human spirit that no whips can break. The actor is also heading straight to the Oscars according to consensual predictions.

Glimpse of hopeThe excellent supporting cast also renders beauty to the overall production, some of whom might garner recognition of their own come Awards time. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is impressive as fellow slave Patsey, a desperate soul dangled on the edge of survival and despair. Paul Giamatti (who won a Golden Globe as John Adams in 2009) plays a mercenary slave trader. The excellent character actor Michael Fassbender (in both of McQueen’s previous films Hunger, 2008 and Shame, 2011) as slave breaker Epps embodies the wickedness of the system and a soul derailed. Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, 2007; Prisoners, 2013) is within type as the murderous slave driver Tibeats. Again the paradox appears. We’re glad to see actors giving superb performance playing villainous roles.

Then there’s the versatile Benedict Cumberbatch, picking up a Southern drawl to portray the kind slave owner Ford. His scenes with Solomon offer some needed relief. Unfortunately, those better days are short-lived. The man who helps Solomon to freedom is Canadian Samuel Bass, very short screen appearance by Brad Pitt. He is an itinerant carpenter working on Epps’ land. This chance encounter makes Solomon aware of Bass’s anti-slavery stance. For the first time in all those years of captivity, he confides his true identity in someone trustworthy and pleads for Bass to contact help in his home state up north.

The music and sound, or the lack of it, are equally effective. Composer Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack ‘Solomon’ is epic and heroic. The spirituals sung by the slaves on the plantation express their deep yearnings for release and freedom. In one scene towards the end, we see other slaves singing their heart out the spiritual ‘Roll Jordan Roll’. At first Solomon listens as a bystander. After a while he can’t help but pour his soul out and join in. That’s the point he totally identifies with the others in their hopeless condition, calling out to God for deliverance.

What follows is memorable. Sometimes silence speaks louder than sound. That moment of silence marks the change of fate for Solomon. I was captivated by the lack of sound, and the camera static, closing up on Solomon’s face of apprehension and despair for a long minute. Often it is the slow, silent space a director allows us to absorb and wait that I appreciate most.

As I stepped out of the theatre, I breathed out a sigh of satisfaction. True there was much sadness in Solomon’s story, but I was relieved to see ultimately his perseverance pay off. I was gratified too that this story of the human spirit triumphant is well told in a meditative pace, sculpted artfully, and delivered by poignant performance. This is the beauty of film art.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Related Links:

My Review of 12 Years A Slave the memoir by Solomon Northup

Download 12 Years A Slave the book

Solomon Northup from Wikipedia

The Underground Railroad

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