As with most viewers, I have been wowed by the movie presentation of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave. I encountered the book some fifteen or so years ago when I was doing historical research on the Disciples of Christ in Louisiana. In my research I had discovered William Prince Ford, a Baptist minister in Cheneyville, Louisiana; the Baptists excommunicated him because of his acceptance of the teachings of Alexander Campbell. Ford also was a founder of the First Christian Church in that community in 1843. I wish I could remember who it was that pointed me to Northup’s book because when I read it, I “knew” some of the people mentioned in the book. I was amazed that no one studying Disciples of Christ History in Louisiana had used Northup’s tale as a source. So at first, Northup was for me a historical source; over time, it has become so much more. However, it’s historicity keeps drawing me back to it.
Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon has shown the historical veracity of Northup’s tale. He gets places, people, family relationships, and local customs right. His errors are minimal and often amount to a misspelling here or there–particularly of some names which he probably only heard but never saw in print. There is a great story that Eakin use to tell about finding a copy of the book at a bookstore in Baton Rouge when she was a student at LSU. The bookstore owner asked her why she wanted the old book since it was mere fiction. She would remark after telling this story that she spent her whole life proving him wrong–and she did.
Now as wonderful as the movie is (and Steve McQueen and Brad Pitt have done us all a service by bringing Northup’s story to the widest audience it has ever had–and I understand that movies can’t always deliver what a text can–and it is customary for movies to take some poetic license and retelling a narrative), there are some historical displacements that weaken the impact of the story “as it really happened.” And I would argue un-does some of the hard work Eakin and Logsdon did.
In what follows I would like to draw attention to some revisions in the movie that are not in the book.
1. There is no rape on the ship bound for New Orleans–I’m not of course denying that such things happened. They did and often. Yet in the book, there was a conspiracy among three of the slaves, Northup being one of them. Their scheme fell apart when one of number died suddenly of small pox. Solomon and others subsequently got small pox and were treated for a couple of weeks at New Orleans’ Charity (then St. Mary’s) Hospital. Solomon himself suffered three days of blindness before recovering. The slaves that William Prince Ford purchased were still healing from the disease when he got them to his plantation.
2. Ford who purchased Solomon actually bought three slaves; they wrote Harry out of the movie. Since Harry has no real role in the later narrative, I understand this move.
3. The scene where Epps is preaching to his slaves from Luke 12 never happened in the book. Epps was not religious as far as I have found. I suspect his wife was more religious as her uncles were active in church life in the region. In the book the sermon was actually preached by Peter Tanner, Ford’s brother-in-law, who leased Northup from his second owner, John M. Tibaut.
4. With some of Ford’s descendants, I don’t think they got Ford quite right–though who would not want Benedict Cumberbatch to play them (his versatility is amazing enough, having played Star Trek’s Khan, Sherlock Holmes, and now William Prince Ford).
When Solomon is allowed to spend the night in the Big House, it is overseer Chafin (Northup called him Chapin), not Ford, who watches over him. Thus, there was no disclosure to Ford that Northup was legally a free man; and had Northup done so, though he was uncertain at the time, the outcome would have been favorable based on what is known about Ford. In fact, based on the available information, Ford did not know of Northup’s true status until Epps, who made a visit to Ford after Northup was taken from him, informed him.
The characterization that Ford was “a pompous hypocrite; a weak-willed man unable to protect Northup and his fellow slaves from sadistic overseers in the cotton fields” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2545950/Hollywood-villian-No-slave-owner-great-grandfather-model-morality-Astonishing-claim-family-outraged-Benedict-Cumberbatch-portrayal-hit-film-12-Years-A-Slave.html) does not take seriously what Northup says about Ford. In one place, for example, Northup writes,
Throughout the whole parish of Avoyelles, and especially along both shores of Bayou Boeuf, where [Ford] is more intimately known, he is accounted by his fellow-citizens as a worthy minister of God. In many northern minds, perhaps, the idea of a man holding his brother man in servitude, and the traffic in human flesh, may seem altogether incompatible with their conceptions of a moral or religious life. From descriptions of such men as Burch and Freeman [slave dealers], and others hereinafter mentioned, they are led to despise and execrate the whole class of slaveholders, indiscriminately. But I was sometime his slave, and had an opportunity of learning well his character and disposition, and it is but simple justice to him when I say, in my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different. Nevertheless, he was a model master, walking uprightly, according to the light of his understanding, and fortunate was the slave who came to his possession. Were all men such as he, Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness (90 in 1853 ed. and hereinafter).
Northup is very careful to make sure his readers don’t simply bifurcate the issues of slavery. It was much more complex; Northup’s contribution and the beauty of his narrative is that he captures the layers of complexity. Ford is a long ways off from Epps. And Northup is even clear that Epps was not the worse on Bayou Beouf. That (dis)honor goes to Jim Burns (156).
As with most great movies, the book is better. And in this case, if one wants how it really happened, then, please, read the book.