“My name is Solomon Northop, I am a free man residing in Saratoga, New York” CITATION McQueen \l 1033 (McQueen). Unfortunately at this point for Mr. Northop it would do no good for him to speak up, in fact, it did more harm than good. In the film 12 Years A Slave, the audience encounters the horrible kidnapping, based on a true story, of a free black man named Solomon Northop. This film is by no means easy to watch but it accurately portrays the life of slaves, and free blacks, who were caught up in the gruesome world of slavery. The history of Slavery in the American South is not a secret. African American people were treated like rag dolls; they were locked up in cages, sold off continuously for money, separated from families, horrifically beaten and worked to death. The audience is taken on a ride, not only through the life of Northop, but also through slave history in America, first seeing where he is out now, being sold off into slavery for the first time in his life, then we flashback to life as a free man in the state of New York, and finally the story of his kidnapping and the brutal reality he was about to endure for twelve long years. In 1841, in Northern America, free blacks were not uncommon.
In fact, the number of free blacks in the north began to outnumber the slaves. In 1830, 11 years before Northop’s story took place, “there were over 122,000 free blacks in these states and about 2700 slaves, almost all of them in New Jersey, which was the last northern state to begin to end slavery” CITATION Finkleman \l 1033 (Finkleman and Malone). Of course, there were still some boundaries set by many people, such as blacks shouldn’t shop in white shops. This is made apparent in one of the first scenes of the film where Solomon and his family walk into a shop, owned by a white man, to buy a new bag. The man obviously has no problem with this but some people would. This intrigues a younger black man into wanting to step foot into the shop but he is quickly ushered out by his white master who repeatedly apologizes to the store owner. Blacks still had someone they answered to, not much of a master, but more of a sponsor, someone to vouch for and grant them their freedoms. “If you want to survive, do and say as little as possible. Tell no one who you really are, tell no one you can read and write” CITATION McQueen \l 1033 (McQueen).
This was Clemens Ray’s advice to Northop while they were transported to Louisiana to be sold. After Solomon was tricked and kidnapped into slavery by two men posing as circus leaders, Brown and Hamilton, he is forced onto a boat with other blacks, some already slaves born and bred, others free men kidnapped like he was. Ray was one of those free men. African Americans, especially slaves were not supposed to be educated. If they could read or write they were a threat to the white folk, especially as a slave. White slave owners were afraid if their slaves learned to read and write they could out smart them, think for themselves and most of all start a slave rebellion against them. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 opened up a new door for white kidnappers. According to an article from PBS, this law made it that much easier for kidnappings, similar to that of Solomon Northup, to occur because it allowed slavers to claim any African American as a slave CITATION PBS \l 1033 (PBS).
Blacks living in northern states that bordered southern slave states were especially vulnerable to kidnapping. Northup found this out when he was taken south to Washington for the circus he thought he was becoming a part of. The article also says that most often, slavers picked their targets at random, not caring if they were free blacks or not and banked on the fact that they wouldn’t be able to produce their legal paper stating their free status CITATION PBS \l 1033 (PBS). Solomon, now known by his slave name Platt, continued to endure the life of slavery, having been sold several different times to new plantation owners. Master Ford was a much more tolerable man, allowing for Northup to speak his mind occasionally, put his ideas into play for more efficient work around the plantation and even provided him with a violin to enjoy the music he had once loved. This was the total opposite of another Master and plantation Northup experienced.
Master Epps was a brutal disgusting man. He constantly abused his slaves, physically and verbally, and had sexual relations with the young women such as Patsy. Master Ford says, “He [Epps] prides himself on being a nigger-breaker” CITATION McQueen \l 1033 (McQueen). It is here that the audience is introduced to the severe beatings and mistreatment of the slaves. Edwin Epps welcomes his new slaves to his plantation, “And that servant who knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes…40, 100, 150 lashes” CITATION McQueen \l 1033 (McQueen). A slaves’ experience on a real life American south plantation was similar to the scenes in the movie. Living conditions were minimal, slaves were fed and clothed and sheltered only enough to keep them alive and well enough for work in the fields. As stated by abolitionist Frederick Douglas, “A city slave is almost a freeman compared with a slave on the plantation. He is much better clothed and enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation” CITATION Boston \l 1033 (PBS).
Plantation slaves, if they didn’t behave properly or do their work, they were most likely beaten with whips and lashes. For example in the film, Patsy secretly goes off to Master Shaw, a neighbor to the Epps residence, and asks for soap to wash with. This gets her tied to the post and beaten with the whip until she has almost now skin left on her back. Mr. Bass to Master Epps: “What amused me just then was your concern for my well-being in this heat, when quite frankly the condition of your laborers, it is horrid” CITATION McQueen \l 1033 (McQueen). The story comes to an end when Mr. Bass, a carpenter hired by Master Epps who just happens to be a Canadian abolitionist, learns of Northup’s status and gets his letter out to his friends and family in the north. Solomon’s original Master who had granted him his freedom, Mr. Parker finally arrives to take him back home to Saratoga. The effect that slavery, such as seen in 12 Years a Slave, has had a heavy impact on society still today. People of color still don’t feel like they have every right and freedom as the white man and think they have it so terribly today.
When in reality, the blacks of today’s generation don’t have a clue how lucky they are to be living in the conditions they are now. My prime example of this still being an issue is the mess that recently occurred in Ferguson, Missouri over the shooting of young African American man by a Caucasian police officer. The African American culture still holds a chip on their shoulders from all those years ago when their ancestors were brutally beaten and slaved. They believe the shooting only happened because he was black in color. Society as a whole needs to take a step back and remember what our country was founded on; we were founded on immigration. Immigration from hundreds and countries, people fleeing their own homelands for a better life. Slavery was what screwed up that foundation. Slavery was wrong, disgusting and inhumane. Based on what those people, like Solomon Northup, went through we should not be comparing the issues today to their issues then.
People of color are so well off in today’s society as far as being treated fairly and just like every white person and I feel their ancestor’s would be appalled to know they are comparing there issues of race to the beatings and sufferings that they experienced. In an article I found critiquing and analyzing the film, the critic says this: To compare the difficulties an African American faces today to the inhuman evils that afflicted Solomon Northup, as some do to score a cheap political point while patting themselves on the back for their compassion, is to make a disgraceful cartoon of that man’s intolerable suffering and of all those to whose wretchedness he bore witness. CITATION Podhoretz \l 1033 (Podhoretz)Before viewing this film I already had my views and opinions on slavery but this opened my eyes even more.
There were several scenes I couldn’t even stand to watch and the whole time I was thinking how did people think it was okay to live like this? It mortified me to watch the scenes of abuse and hear the way these people were talked to. 12 Years a Slave is an eye opening experience. The journey through the life of Solomon Northup allows the audience to feel like they are experiencing the physical and emotional aspects of the history of slavery in our country. Innocent people were really treated this way. People were really viewed as property and forced to live this gruesome life. It is an unfortunate truth we as Americans have to face, but society must move forward. These stories, real life events, help us see what we do not what to return to in our society.
\l 1033 12 Years A Slave. Dir. Steven McQueen. Perf. Chiwetel Emjiofor. 2013. DVD. Finkleman, Paul and Christopher Malone. “Free Blacks in the North.” Encyclopedia of the New American Nation (2006): 29-34. Web. PBS. n.d. Web. 19 Sept. 2014.
Podhoretz, John. “Man In Chains, Hard to Watch, Important to See, The Reality of Slavery.” U.S. History in Context (2013). Web.
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