How 12 Years a Slave Gets History Right: By Getting It Wrong

Steve McQueen's film fudges several details of Solomon Northup's autobiography—both intentionally and not—to more completely portray the horrors of slavery.
Fox Searchlight Pictures

At the beginning of 12 Years a Slave, the kidnapped freeman Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), has a painful sexual encounter with an unnamed female slave in which she uses his hand to bring herself to orgasm before turning away in tears. The woman's desperation, Solomon's reserve, and the fierce sadness of both, is depicted with an unflinching still camera which documents a moment of human contact and bitter comfort in the face of slavery's systematic dehumanization. It's scenes like these in the film, surely, that lead critic Susan Wloszczyna to state that watching 12 Years a Slave makes you feel you have "actually witnessed American slavery in all its appalling horror for the first time."

And yet, for all its verisimilitude, the encounter never happened. It appears nowhere in Northup's autobiography, and it’s likely he would be horrified at the suggestion that he was anything less than absolutely faithful to his wife. Director Steve McQueen has said that he included the sexual encounter to show "a bit of tenderness ... Then after she's climaxes, she's back … in hell." The sequence is an effort to present nuance and psychological depth — to make the film's depiction of slavery seem more real. But it creates that psychological truth by interpolating an incident that isn't factually true.

This embellishment is by no means an isolated case in the film. For instance, in the film version, shortly after Northup is kidnapped, he is on a ship bound south. A sailor enters the hold and is about to rape one of the slave women when a male slave intervenes. The sailor unhesitatingly stabs and kills him. This seems unlikely on its face—slaves are valuable, and the sailor is not the owner. And, sure enough, the scene is not in the book. A slave did die on the trip south, but from smallpox, rather than from stabbing. Northup himself contracted the disease, permanently scarring his face. It seems likely, therefore, that in this instance the original text was abandoned so that Ejiofor's beautiful, expressive, haunting features would not go through the entire movie covered with artificial Hollywood scar make-up. Instead of faithfulness to the text, the film chooses faithfulness to Ejiofor's face, unaltered by trickery.

Other changes seem less intentional. Perhaps the most striking scene in the film involves Patsey, a slave who is repeatedly raped by her master, Epps, and who as a consequence is jealously and obsessively brutalized by Mistress Epps. In the movie version, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) comes to Northup in the middle of the night and begs him, in vivid horrific detail, to drown her in the swamp and release her from her troubles. This scene derives from the following passage at the end of Chapter 13 of the autobiography:

Nothing delighted the mistress so much as to see [Patsey] suffer, and more than once, when Epps had refused to sell her, has she tempted me with bribes to put her secretly to death, and bury her body in some lonely place in the margin of the swamp. Gladly would Patsey have appeased this unforgiving spirit, if it had been in her power, but not like Joseph, dared she escape from Master Epps, leaving her garment in his hand.

As you can see, in the book, it is Mistress Epps who wants to bribe Northup to drown Patsey. Patsey wants to escape, but not to drown herself. The film seems to have misread the line, attributing the mistress's desires to Patsey. Slate, following the lead of scholar David Fiske (see both the article and the correction) does the same. In short, it seems quite likely that the single most powerful moment in the film was based on a misunderstood antecedent.

Critic Isaac Butler recently wrote a post attacking what he calls the "realism canard"—the practice of judging fiction by how well it conforms to reality. "We're talking about the reduction of truth to accuracy," Butler argues, and adds, "What matters ultimately in a work of narrative is if the world and characters created feels true and complete enough for the work's purposes." (Emphasis is Butler's.)

His point is well-taken. But it's worth adding that whether something "feels true" is often closely related to whether the work manages to create an illusion not just of truth, but also of accuracy. Whether it's period detail in a costume romance or the brutal cruelty of the drug trade in Breaking Bad, fiction makes insistent claims not just to general overarching truth, but to specific, accurate detail. The critics Butler discusses may sometimes reduce the first to the second, but they do so in part because works of fiction themselves often rely on a claim to accuracy in order to make themselves appear true.

This is nowhere more the case than in slave narratives themselves. Often published by abolitionist presses or in explicit support of the abolitionist cause, slave narratives represented themselves as accurate, first-person accounts of life under slavery. Yet, as University of North Carolina professor William Andrews has discussed in To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, the representation of accuracy, and, for that matter, of first-person account, required a good deal of artifice. To single out just the most obvious point, Andrews notes that many slave narratives were told to editors, who wrote down the oral account and prepared them for publication. Andrews concludes that "It would be naïve to accord dictated oral narratives the same discursive status as autobiographies composed and written by the subjects of the stories themselves."

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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