Comparative Analysis: 12 Years a Slave

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Solomon Northup illustrates in agonizing detail the atrocities he endured during his twelve years of enslavement through an autobiography. Assumably, the details of this text are historically accurate and shed a light on the cruelties committed against the African-American population during the slavery era. This text was adapted and released in the form of a movie, which took poetic license on numerous occasions. Arguably, the autobiography serves as a sobering reminder of a dark time during American history from the perspective of an individual who suffered through it. Comparatively, the movie works to share the story of Solomon Northup with a broader audience, making the incorporation of falsified scenes in the name of entertainment a necessity.

Numerous similarities between the book and movie are present. The case of Solomon Northup being enslaved for twelve years was factual and the people he encountered in the book and movie were indeed people he met along his journey. The story is told accurately in both the autobiography and movie as it pertains to the events that made his enslavement possible, with the exception of the kidnapping itself. The journey to the south aboard the ship was also predominantly parallel between the book and movie.

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The first stark difference present in the movie adaptation can be seen rather early as Solomon shares intimacy with a slave woman laying beside him (McQueen). This scene speaks to the character of Solomon as an individual. Despite his devotion to his wife, Anne, he has a brief relationship with this woman. This scene is a representation of their attempt to exercise freewill over themselves and their bodies. The context of this scene is not established and it is presented briefly however it changes the viewers understanding of Northup as an individual and on a broader scale, the life of a slave.

There are differences in the depiction of Northup’s kidnapping present between the two recollections. In the autobiography, Northup explains that he is unsure of whether he was actually drugged by his kidnappers, however reflecting upon his experiences lead to the presumption of their guilt. “I know not but they were innocent of the great wickedness of which I now believe them guilty. Whether they were accessory to my misfortunes – subtle and inhuman monsters in the shape of men – designedly luring me away from home and family, and liberty, for the sake of gold – those who read these pages will have the same means of determining as myself.” (Northup, 11). As explained in the book, the movie shows Northup celebrating with his travel companions. He admits to drinking but certainly was not drunk. The movie showcases the events similarly, however leads viewers to presume Northup was intoxicated (McQueen). Furthermore, the text thoroughly describes an evening of illness which the movie skips over.

These variations in the depiction of Solomon Northup’s kidnapping drastically alter how his person is perceived. In the book, he takes the appearance of a victim. His enslavement is an unfortunate event which can most likely be attributed to misplaced trust in his traveling companions. Alternatively, the movie presents an irresponsible man who is aware that his physical appearance as an African American makes him vulnerable to slavery. His choice to become drink and become intoxicated is indeed a choice. Therefore, his consequent enslavement is still horrifying, but does not seem as unfortunate to the audience.

Between the two presentations of this historical recount, the character presented in the most variable way was William Ford. Within the written text, Northup describes Ford to be a relatively kind man. “in my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford.” (Northup, 36). Solomon Northup explains that he did not hold being a slave master against Ford because he did not know better. “The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery.” (Northup, 36). Northup’s statement that ‘Were all men such as he, Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness.” speaks volumes to the character of the true William Ford (Northup, 36). The movie represents William Ford to be more of a villainous man. As Ford preached his sermon the scene contained audio excerpts of Eliza’s cries (McQueen). Depicting Ford as a villain in the movie feeds the stereotype that all slave-masters were cruel and evil. This proves the movie to be less historically accurate.

Admittedly, the movie contains numerous modifications to the story in the interest of entertainment. Though this alters the perception of events, it is not completely crippling to historical accuracy. A large number of facts remain present in both the autobiography and movie. Ultimately, the autobiography remains a closer representation of actual events and serves as a voice for Solomon Northup and many of the people he encountered. The movie, though containing some inaccuracies, brings his story to life with vivid images and audio. Reading the text provided the information but the movie is what truly resonated. Seeing and hearing the punishment of each slave and their mistreatments felt as though I was bearing witness to the events. It lead to a sense of personal responsibility for what transpired in American History. In my opinion, dramatizing the reality of what occurred was worthwhile when evaluated in the context of why history is studied. History is studied often in hopes that it will be learned from, and in cases such as this not repeated. Though the autobiography tells the story, the movie is what sells the horror and lack of humanity in the events.

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