12 Years a Slave – My Thoughts


I finally had a chance to see to see 12 Years A Slave. Like many other scholars that have opined on the film, I have a generally favorable opinion of it. Director Steve McQueen has made a reasonably faithful adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave narrative and one of the best commercial films in a while dealing with slavery. Of course, that is not a high hurdle, as Hollywood rarely deals in a straight fashion with the peculiar institution, preferring a sensationalist approach, like last year’s Quentin Tarantino revenge fantasy, Django Unchained (or going back in history, 1975’s potboiler Mandingo).

Hollywood is usually at its best in depicting slavery when it adapts true stories, such as Roots, the epic 1977 television miniseries, based on Alex Haley’s historical novel about his slave ancestors, or in the present case the classic slave narrative, 12 Years A Slave. McQueen’s film is actually not the first time the story of Solomon Northup has been dramaticized. In 1984, PBS showed a decent made-for-television version of the tale, entitled Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, starring Avery Brooks (best known to the public for his role as the station commander on Star Trek: Deep Space None) in the title role.

Since both the 2013 film and 1984 television version closely follow Northup’s slave narrative, the difference between them is mainly one of style. McQueen’s film is darker than Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, largely because of the more explicit depiction of slavery’s horrors that is possible in a R-rated movie compared to the self-censorship of a television program that had to satisfy broadcast standards.


Most of the violent horror in 12 Years a Slave is perpetrated by Edwin Epps, Northup’s last owner, played chillingly by Michael Fassbender, whose performance is the most striking of the film, arguably more so than Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s dignified portrayal of Solomon Northup. Fassbender’s Epps is a psychopath, making his slaves’ life a living hell, especially Patsey, who is the object of Epps’ violently possessive lust and his wife’s jealous resentment.

But what makes Michael Fassbender’s performance so impressive is not his depiction of Epps’ cruelty, which actually might seem over-the-top if he did not also manage to convey the ill-concealed fear beneath it. Transforming his portrayal from just another two-dimensional Simon Legree to a much more complicated and realistic human being, whose underlying insecurity leaks through his mask of anger and violence.

Certainly, most slaveholders were not as overtly and consistently nasty as Fassbender’s Epps, but the anxiety they also tried to hide was quite real. That is, for all their professed concern for and conceit that their slaves held them in genuine affection, slaveholders and other antebellum white Southerners were deathly afraid of the blacks in their midst, believing them to be uncivilized barbarians with a propensity for brutish violence only held in check by the discipline of slavery (which itself was based on violence, real and threatened).

I have come across this fear, again and again, in researching this blog, especially when covering the secession winter and first years of the war. For examples, please see the following editions of Civil War Emancipation: 1) February 4, 2011; 2) February 26, 2011; 3) April 14, 2011; 4) May 4, 2011; 5) May 24, 2011; 6) September 29, 2011; 7) August 10, 2012; 8) October 22, 2012. These blog entries include repeated slave revolt panics in various locations across the South during this period, sometimes resulting in horrific violence of fearful slaveholders that actually exceeded Fassbender’s Epps in its cruel ruthlessness. There also are pleas of southern citizens, begging the new Confederate government to allow militia to stay at home, because they feared slave revolts if the local troops were sent to fight the Yankee invaders.

Indeed, fear played a big role in secession. The greatest concern of white Southerners before 186o was that the end of slavery would ignite a bloody race war–Nat Turner’s revolt en masse. So they believed emancipation must be prevented at all costs, even the slightest possibility of it. Hence, when Abraham Lincoln was elected President, determined with his party to halt slavery’s spread, to many white Southerners, convinced that slavery must continue to expand to survive, it seemed Lincoln was putting slavery on the road to extinction–which could not be tolerated and prompted secession.

So, they personified Thomas Jefferson and his analogy to slavery being like holding a wolf by the ears: with slaveholders afraid to have the slaves so close, but even more afraid to let them go. Michael Fassbender captures this mentality in his performance and I greatly hope he will be nominated for a best supporting Oscar for his all too plausible interpretation of Edwin Epps.

In short, I liked 12 Years A Slave, which captured the reality of the antebellum American slavery about as well as any commercial film I have ever seen. As indicated, that puts me in good company, as academics have largely embraced the film, although some are mildly critical of certain aspects, such as Glenn David Brasher’s assertion (which I agree with) that the film depicts slaves as too passive (in McQueen’s defense so does Northup’s narrative possibly influenced by northern abolitionists). Yet my main take away from the film was Michael Fassbender’s riveting performance as Edwin Epps, portraying him as a man who unsuccessfully hid his fear and insecurity toward his slaves with monstrous abuse. While most antebellum slaveholders were not so ruthlessly psychopathic on as regular a basis as Fassbender’s Epps, the cruelty they practiced was all too real and so was the fear that underlay it, and it is indeed ironic that it was that very fear that brought about secession that started the chain of events that brought an end to the very institution it was meant to make secure.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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12 Responses to 12 Years a Slave – My Thoughts

  1. msualumni says:

    Excellent post as always–I continue to follow your blog (& books) and learn something new every time. I have a question about Lincoln & emancipation. I know he had an “evolution” in terms of his thinking about emancipation, but–did he have other choices other than emancipation at that point tin late 1862? I suppose what I’m asking is–can we say with certainty that he only did it to win the war & that if the war had not been going badly, he never would have done it? While I know only the war gave him the constitutional power for this military action, but again, did he have other choices? Can we say that he did it because he wanted slavery to end as well?

    • Thanks for the kind words about the blog (and my books). The thing to remember about Lincoln was that he genuinely hated slavery, but that he was a politician. Meaning a practitioner of the art of the possible. And more important to Lincoln than ending slavery was preserving the union. So despite his distaste for slavery, I believe his early pledges not to interfere with slavery where it already existed were sincere. But neither was he going to allow the institution to spread further. This was intolerable (for the reasons I mentioned in my post) to the Lower South states, which seceded in the months following his election. The Upper South slave states instead took a “wait and see” stance to see what Lincoln would do once he was actually in office. Four of those states seceded after it was clear Lincoln would use military force to fight secession, but the other four stayed.

      Once secession was a fact and the war underway, there was no impediment to Lincoln tolerating slavery to preserve the Union and so at the end of 1861 in his annual report to Congress, he announced his intention to promote voluntary gradual compensated emancipation in the loyal slave states funded by the federal government. Lincoln being a lawyer believed at this point it was the only way to end slavery, especially in light of 1857’s Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which effectively stripped Congress of its power to end slavery outside the District of Columbia if it wished. Only each slave state could end slavery on its own under Dred Scott, so Lincoln tried to encourage them to do so with the carrot of federal funding for compensation of slave owners and gradual schedule of emancipation which foresaw slaves being gradually freed with the last slaves liberated by 1900. To make a long story short, Lincoln could not get any of the four loyal slave states to accept his scheme (although Congress did end slavery in D.C. in April 1862), and over 1862 pressure mounted on Lincoln in the North to use his power as commander-in-chief to free the slaves as military measure, which is where we finally get to your question.

      I firmly believe that Lincoln once he committed to the Emancipation Proclamation, and even before that going back to his 1861 report to Congress, was determined to end slavery in the United States, but only by legally defensible means. He personally hated the institution and by then realized that if the union was to restored it would have to be without slaves, as if he reached some sort of accommodation with the South that allowed slavery to survive, war was sure to break out again down the line over the next thorny issue over slavery. Nonetheless, in the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln held out the possibility to the South of keeping its slaves if it returned to the union by the end of 1862. This gesture was necessary nod to the War Democrats to keep them behind the war. But Lincoln was probably convinced the Confederacy would reject this olive branch and he wasn’t disappointed. So, yes, theoretically, I believe that Lincoln could have backed off emancipation before January 1, 1863, if the rebellious states returned to the union, but it was pretty clear by Fall 1862 that that wasn’t going to happen. And after January 1, 1863, he held fast to emancipation even in the dark days of Summer 1864, when the war was going badly and it appeared he would not be re-elected. And, of course, he engineered the passage of the 13th Amendment to put emancipation beyond legal challenge.

      There is also the issue of emigration, which reflects Lincoln’s belief, common among many white Americans before the Civil War that the former slaves could not possibly live peacefully with their former owners and other whites. Lincoln gave his support to a number of these emigration schemes, which in retrospect were fanciful, and so being the pragmatist he was he eventually quietly backed off from them. How he would have handled the tricky issues of Reconstruction had he lived is uncertain, but again I am firmly of the belief that by the end of 1861, Abraham Lincoln was committed to ending slavery and not just as a military necessity, but because it was the morally right to do and because its end was the only way to justify the human and financial cost of the war, as well as eliminate slavery as a divisive national issue once and for all.

      Don Shaffer

      • msualumni says:

        I knew you were the right person to put the question to and you did not disappoint. Lincoln is a perplexing character, surely for historians, but even more so to those of us who are not. Your last sentence here was key but everything before it was necessary context. I feel almost like I could read everything the man said and wrote & almost still be exactly sure of what’s going on in his mind. I think his committed & well documented hatred of the institution, in concert with his early attempts to get the Southern states to give it up show more than just a man trying to restore the Union. It always tickles me his response to Greeley knowing that he had the Emancipation, as you discussed here before. Thank you again for your very nuanced explanation–it has been helpful.

      • Thanks again for the kind words!


  2. GBrasher says:

    Don, great post. You’ve hit on an aspect of the movie that I sort of sensed too, but I couldn’t really explain it. I couldn’t exactly put my finger on it, but, not surprisingly, you do so very well here. Thanks also for passing along the link to my take on the film.

  3. claimingkin says:

    Don, I am a new reader of your blog and have thoroughly enjoyed my visits here (which have been a lot lately)! I believe your thoughts about this film has been the best I’ve read so far, along with Ann Powers’ review that 12 Years a Slave is the most compelling film about music to be released in 2013. I agree, FEAR was indeed the driving force behind secession and Edwin Epps’s very psychopathic behavior was a perfect example of that. Excellent!

    Happy New Year to you!

  4. Pingback: 12 Years a Slave (2013) | timneath

  5. shbkynn says:

    How come the movie ended with Northep gaining his freedom, but not showing anthing regarding his participation in the largest black people being held as slaves, rebullion? Why that was not shown? Why not, to me as a black, that would, and is the hightlight of Northup whole life.

    • Hello. Your question would be best addressed to the movie’s production team. However, the sad fact is we know virtually nothing of Solomon Northup’s life after the publication of his book. It is even unknown when he died. If he survived until the time of the Civil War, no doubt like lots of other northern blacks he participated in the freedom struggle to the best of his capabilities in anonymity, caring not for his own aggrandizement, but for the freedom of those people whose horrid bondage he had witnessed and experienced first hand.

      Don Shaffer

  6. I can recall John Saxon’s portrayal of Edwin Epps in the 1984 movie. Frankly, I found his portrayal cruel and intimidating. But he was less over-the-top and also managed to express Epps’ insecurities, as well.

    Also, why is it that no one questions how the movie portrayed Northup’s time at a Washington D.C. hotel? Fashionable and expensive hotels in 1841 Washington D.C. were not racially integrated. There is no way Northup could have eaten a meal inside the hotel’s dining room, let alone sleep in one of the rooms in an area where many white guests stayed. In fact, I discovered while reading Northup’s memoirs that he was forced to enlist the help of a hotel employee (or slave) to find him a place to sleep and ended up in some room around the back of the hotel. Northup had commented that Mistress Shaw had occasionally help Patsey on some matter. There was nothing in Northup’s memoirs about Patsey enjoying refreshments on the veranda with Mistress Shaw. In fact, I rather doubt it. No plantation mistress – black, white or any other color – would have tea or any other refreshments with her slave, or one of a neighbor’s. Yet, not one historian or film critic has commented upon this. Instead, you spend your time bashing “DJANGO UNCHAINED”.

    What rebellion did Northup participated in or lead? He spent his final years of freedom working as a carpenter and participating in the abolitionist movement as a lecturer and with the Underground Railroad.

    “12 YEARS A SLAVE” was a very good movie, but it was no more accurate or inaccurate than most historical dramas.

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