Twelve Years a Slave: Truth is greater than fiction

Our nation’s capital was a tawdry and bug infested swamp in 1841. The Capitol dome was not completed, and though it embodied an incipient Democracy founded on the notion that all men were created equal, all men were not equal. Slavery was a core institution embodied in the Constitution included with the notorious Three-Fifths Clause, and into this Washington, DC, Solomon Northup ventured with his new traveling companions he met recently in New York.

The Newseum - sits in the location where Solomon Northup first spent the night at the Gatsby's Hotel. (Douglas Christian)
The Newseum – sits in the location where
Solomon Northup first spent the night at the Gatsby’s Hotel. (Douglas Christian)

They toured the Capitol building and strolled up to “the President’s house” in the wake of William Henry Harrison’s unexpected death. The capital was engaged in preparations for Harrison’s funeral. Solomon’s generous friends provided a lovely dinner, gave him forty-three dollars and put him up in a room on the ground floor of Gadsby’s Hotel, located at Pennsylvania and 6th Street, site of the present Newseum. Thus Twelve Years a Slave begins.

In 1852, Solomon Northup escaped slavery, an odyssey begun on that fateful day in April 1841 when he slept at Gatsby’s and woke up finding himself in chains at Williams Slave Pen on Independence Avenue instead. He teamed with David Wilson to scribe his terrible tale. Solomon’s book sold over 30,000 copies, coming on top of another slave biopic from the mid-1840s; Fredrick Douglass’, My Bondage and My Freedom. It sold 4,500 copies the first year, and became the number one best seller in the 1850s. I confess I was annoyed reading Douglass’ book not merely for the multiple injustices described, but the fact that My Bondage and My Freedom, was not required reading in school. It is so astute and powerful that it demands an audience in any age.

A photo of the Capitol - the angle Solomon would have seen when he stayed at Gatsby's Hotel. (Doug Christian)
A photo of the Capitol – the angle Solomon
would have seen when he stayed at Gatsby’s Hotel. (Doug Christian)

When compared to Moby Dick: an allegorical talesabout a whale, or The Scarlet Letter: Desperate Housewives of Puritan New England, My Bondage and My Freedom is not merely literature, but direct history. It’s fresh and unadulterated without any pretense of art. So too with Twelve Years a Slave, and while the recent film may be a cultural and box-office spectacle, it’s unfair to suggest, as some have, that its popularity is merely driven by liberal “feel good shame”. These are must read books if one wants to understand our culture. The “peculiar institution of the South”, as pro-slavery Senator John Calhoun phrased it, has a legacy that is part of our cultural DNA.

We can’t escape slavery, even in the 21st Century. With a “post-racial” America, as presidential candidate Obama articulated in 2008, some have claimed we don’t need a Voting Rights Act anymore. Chief Justice John Roberts answered in kind with a ruling emasculating the VOR saying, “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problems speaks to currents conditions.” Sure.

In the movie, Twelve Years a Slave, much of the plot and dialogue is verbatim from the book. While some of the stories, such as Solomon’s fearful night in the Great Pacoudrie Swamp, can’t be included in the interest of cinematic brevity, the ones included are pretty accurate. When Tibeats’ failed attempt to hang Solomon (or Platt as he is known as a slave) is annulled by Chapin’s interference with his two pistols, Solomon is left to hang at tiptoes in the hot sun. Cinematically arresting, it also hones to fact as Rachel, the slave woman, provides Solomon with a cup of water.

 Patsey being whipped. (Film still)
Patsey being whipped. (Film still)

The torture scenes, while cinematically shocking, are thankfully not as extreme as originally described. The whipping of Patsey tied naked to a pole, while horrible, is actually more appalling in the book, so much so that if it were portrayed in film it would be viewed as very dark pornography.

Some of the sides in text, such as Solomon spotting Tibeats drunk on the stoop of a saloon, may not move the story forward urgently enough, but they’re refreshing anecdotes nonetheless. If a movie can tell a short story well, then a book allows room for fleshing it out. Maybe this is why God created books!

With a film our impulse is not to trust it for we don’t know how much is invention and how much is real. Countless historical dramas have taken historical license to phantasmagoric levels of creation. So I don’t necessarily fault Frank Rich when he writes of the film that it “is de rigueur in American films on this subject, a white star (Brad Pitt as an abolitionist) arrives to save the day.” However, in this case, the film understates affectedly the role of Bass the Carpenter (Brad Pitt). In the book, he is far more proactive. He offered to travel north on his own dime if the letters he penned on behalf of Solomon received no response.

When Henry Northup (a descendant of the family that originally owned Solomon’s ancestors), the New York politician and abolitionist, finally travels to Louisiana, he is flummoxed where to find Solomon. There are tens of thousands of slaves in the vast Bayou Boeuf. Henry Northup is so frustrated that he finally asks the lawyer accompanying him, Waddill, if in the Bayou Boeuf there might be a free-soiler or abolitionist this deep south:


“Never, but one,” answered Waddill, laughingly. “We have one here in Marksville, an eccentric creature, who preaches abolitionism as vehemently as any fanatic at the North. He is a generous, inoffensive man, but always maintaining the wrong side of an argument. It affords us a deal of amusement. He is an excellent mechanic, and almost indispensable in this community. He is a carpenter. His name is Bass.”

Score one for Brad Pitt! (Sorry Frank Rich.) No overstatement needed.

And now is any exaggeration needed to call attention to our racial relations today. While we don’t have slavery, we live with discrimination, disenfranchisement and discontent. As soon as the Supreme Court issued its ruling, target states of the Voting Rights Act went straight to work.

In North Carolina, as GOP precinct chair quipped to The Daily Show of their new voting regulations, “If it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks that want the government to give them everything, so be it.” In Texas, voter ID laws are back. Such laws are nearly as discriminatory as infamous literacy tests. One in Texas demanded would be voters to successfully display a correct understanding of a clause in the Constitution. Impossible. The Second Amendment, for example are endlessly debated, so no one passes a literacy test.

Like the lash’s slashes, slavery scars us and diminishes us greatly. Of Edwin Epps, Northup writes, “It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives.” Of Mistress Epps he opined, “in a different society from that which exists on the shores of Bayou Boeuf, she would have been pronounced an elegant and fascinating woman.” These scars remain.

Today our Capitol is visually immaculate with the lawns mowed and marble polished. Walking on the elegant boulevards, the dirt of yesteryear feels non-existent. But now, we endure a different type of pollution with our airwaves are clogged by political porn. Little jingles from Rush Limbaugh such as, “Barack the Magic Negro“, or “Or-Bam-eo Cookies”, are not rare. They’re just as weird as they are scary.

As Fredrick Douglass said of Twelve Years a Slave, I’m sure he would say the same of today’s environment, “Its truth is far greater than fiction.”