This film is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was a comfortably-off carpenter and musician in New York state, married with two children, and was tricked into going to Washington DC where he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. He was held as a slave there for twelve years, initially by a relatively kind owner but later by a very brutal owner, Edwin Epps, before being helped by a Canadian itinerant worker, Samuel Bass to prove his identity and regain his freedom. He brought legal action against his kidnappers, but they were never punished.
We see how Edwin Epps uses the Bible to convince himself that slavery is justified. Epps doesn’t use the “positive good” arguments about slaves being better off as slaves than as factory workers, unable to look after themselves, etc, nor does he accept slavery as a necessary evil – he just speaks about property rights, and quotes from the Bible about servants obeying their master. We see how Samuel Bass feels that it’s his duty to help, even at a risk to his own safety. We see how Solomon Northup never loses hope, and how, at the same time, other slaves despair and talk of suicide. Then we see his joy at being reunited with his family. Finally, we’re told how his kidnappers evaded justice, how a black man could not testify against white men in the capital of the United States.
Attention on slavery does seem to focus on the eastern seaboard states of the South, and on the period from the Compromise of 1850 onwards, when slavery was dominating the political agenda. Solomon Northup was kidnapped in 1841, and held in Louisiana – the “down river”/”sold south” region where it’s generally acknowledged that conditions for slaves were harshest and the treatment of slaves often particularly cruel. It also generally focuses on those born into slavery. That, and the fact that it’s a true story, makes this film unusual, but what really draws the attention is the showing of scenes of extreme brutality. It’s a very powerful film, and I hope that it wins the Oscars which it deserves, and draws attention to a subject which has not adequately been come to terms with.