Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

It was very late, and I was very tired, when I received a facebook message from one “Solomon Northup”:

“What you’re saying here praising John Ridley [winner of the Oscar this year for best screen adaptation, for Twelve Years A Slave] makes basic sense, but I need to lodge a protest. Are you going to blog about this? You should, and I want you to call attention to the passages where I did justice to Master Ford and Miss McCord. You know where they are.”

That jogged me into wakefulness! My reply? “Luke, quite imaginative . . . no idea how you got past what I thought were the fb rules to do it. And you had read the book, then?”

“Luke” is a pseudonym I’ll use for the friend I had been groggily messaging with—I had been explaining why I was glad that Twelve Years A Slave had won best picture, given that the film that really deserved the award, Jeff Nichols’ Mud, scandalously hadn’t even been nominated, and I had been going into what a great job Ridley had done of adapting the at times oddly clipped narrative of Solomon Northup into one that comes alive for twenty-first-century film-goers, and which changes the story in ways that better frames the key lessons it contains regarding slavery. I think I was going on a bit long for Luke, as he had already read my recommendation of the film here.

I’ll spare you the back-and-forth that convinced me that Luke had already drifted away from his laptop, and that this “Solomon Northup” was someone else, as well the conversations I had the next day with bemused Facebook administrators trying to get them to locate a record of the exchange. I’ll also spare you an explanation of how I came to accept the possibility of the messages really being from the spirit of Solomon Northup—I’ll simply say that everything in them is in accord with what we know about the man.

Now I did know the passages from his book Solomon was referring to, recently having read it. I found it a quick and compelling read, and, I noticed a number of significant departures taken by John Ridley’s screenplay.

If you don’t need to worry about spoilers, and for both the book and film, here’s a few of those departures:

1.) Solomon’s family did learn, within about a month of his disappearance, that he had been kidnapped into slavery. He was able to get a letter sent off to them prior to his sale in New Orleans, but as they had no notion of where he had been sent once purchased, or who had sold him, they could not act upon the information.

2.) Solomon actually became owned by Jim Tibeats for a time, whom the film portrays as merely his overseer. If the film ramps up the horror of his abortive-hanging by Tibeats beyond what happened, it also omits Solomon’s escape from Tibeats into the water-moccasin-infested swamp, which in terms of life-endangerment is as horrifying. The changes here are a wise simplification of the story.

3.) As another writer pointed out, Ridley misread the text about Patsey begging Solomon to take her life. It was Epps’s wife who asked Solomon to kill Patsey! That’s one of those highly significant facts (such as the neighboring owner having a slave-mistress live with him as a “pantomime wife”) that Northup drops almost in passing. Ridley’s being on the look-out for such innocuously presented but telling details is part of what makes his screenplay so great, even if he got that one about Patsey incorrect.

4.) The film doesn’t try to convey the brutality of the extremely long work hours (pre-dawn to after sun-down, so that when other necessary tasks are calculated in, there were only around five hours for sleep) for the slaves on Epps’s plantation, and really on most of the plantations in the area. Arguably, impossible to capture.

5.) Solomon and a fellow slave were just about to execute a desperate slave-revolt plan when on the transport ship, when they both were laid low by illness.

6.) I have nothing against the acting of Chiwetel Ejiofor, but I do think the direction of his performance, and perhaps the casting choice itself, makes Solomon seem less manly than he really was. We don’t quite see in Ejiofor’s performance the fact that Solomon was prepared to attempt that ship revolt, nor the fact (revealed by this biography) that when he was working on a New York canal as a freeman, he had been convicted in court three separate times of assault and battery. The real Solomon Northup, although he was trusting enough to be fooled by the kidnappers, and was cowed by his initial beating by kidnapper John Burch, apparently was very ready to hold his own against rowdy New York river-men, and on the ship was preparing to kill rather than submit.

Solomon’s ghost wasn’t that concerned about any of these departures (a few others are noted in this fine essay by Sandy Schaefer, who is much more critical of the film than I), not even Ridley’s invention of a scene where he is unfaithful to his wife.

What angered him was the way his first master, William Ford, had been portrayed. Ridley does present him as a kind man, but contrary to the book, has Solomon share his secret with him—that he is a free man kidnapped into slavery—with the result that we feel quite differently about Ford. For his reply is that “he cannot hear of this,” since his financial difficulties are forcing him to sell Northup. Ridley also invents an earlier scene where Ford gives Solomon a violin, saying, “I hope it will give us all many years of pleasure.” A mixture of gratitude and dismay comes over Solomon’s face. For this act of kindness and encouragement, really the first we have witnessed since the kidnapping, comes mixed with the poison of slavery. Ford might as well have said, you will be here your whole life, so make the best of it—a just and cultivated man like myself appreciates your elevated qualities, but by law it is my right to exploit those. We can’t help but wonder, does Ford suspect that there is more to Solomon than meets the eye, but for his own self-interest, has no intention of investigating? Is the gift of the violin his attempt to make Solomon resign himself to his fate?

It’s powerful screenwriting that goes to the heart of the moral choices slavery posed, but the ghost of Solomon Northup was having none of it: “I did not feel any dismay when Ford supplied me with a violin! Far from it! And as for my telling him my secret, you know that never happened! Quote the passages on this, I implore you.”

I gathered he had this one in mind particularly:

From descriptions of such men as Burch and Freeman, and others hereinafter mentioned, they are led to despise and execrate the whole class of slaveholders, indiscriminately. But I was sometime his slave, and had an opportunity of learning well his character and disposition, and it is but simple justice to him when I say, in my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different. Nevertheless, he was a model master, walking uprightly, according to the light of his understanding, and fortunate was the slave who came to his possession. Were all men such as he, Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness. [emphasis added]

“Do you think I would have said that had I not truly meant it? Who is the noblest and most Christian man you have met in your own life? That is what William Ford meant to me, and John Ridley has spoiled my witness to his character.”

“But,” I replied, “did you ever wonder why Ford did not take you aside and ask you about your provenance, since you clearly were a slave of remarkable talents? I’m sure Ridley wondered about this, and guessed that you had some reason, literary or otherwise, for presenting him in so good a light; perhaps Ridley conjectured that Ford had an idea you might have been kidnapped, but that in your simplicity you never suspected him of thinking such. Or look at it this way, which makes you less of a simpleton slave and more of a canny narrator: Why did you not trust Ford enough, if he was such a good man, to attempt to share your secret with him? I recall your explanation for why you kept your secret in general, but why did it apply to Ford?”

That general explanation is as follows—note that he was only owned by Ford for a half-year, before briefly becoming the property of Tibeats, and then the long-term slave of Epps:

I am often asked, with an air of incredulity, how I succeeded so many years in keeping from my daily and constant companions the knowledge of my true name and history. The terrible lesson Burch taught me, impressed indelibly upon my mind the danger and uselessness of asserting I was a freeman. There, was no possibility of any slave being able to assist me, while, on the other hand, there was a possibility of his exposing me. When it is recollected the whole current of my thoughts, for twelve years, turned to the contemplation of escape, it will not be wondered at, that I was always cautious and on my guard. It would have been an act of folly to have proclaimed my right to freedom; it would only have subjected me to severer scrutiny—probably have consigned me to some more distant and inaccessible region than even Bayou Boeuf. Edwin Epps was a person utterly regardless of a black man’s rights or wrongs . . . It was important, therefore, not only as, regarded my hope of deliverance, but also as regarded the few personal privileges I was as permitted to enjoy, to keep from him the history of my life.

“Ah! So you and Ridley think I was some kind of fool? Or that I had some motive for painting Ford better than he was? In truth, I was considering whether or not to tell him my story before he came into the financial difficulty that led to my being sold to Tibeats. My hesitation was grounded in the fact that he did seem to combine an unquestioning acceptance of slavery’s lawfulness with his own overall virtue. Besides, I had to also consider how to request a private interview with him without stirring the whole plantation’s curiosity—all communications to the master were supposed to go through the overseer.”

“Surely you could have found a way. Did you worry that Ford might have suspected you of lying, and sent you to a worse plantation for fear of your untrustworthy nature? But if he were truly a good man, wouldn’t he have at least investigated your story before it came to that?”

“I was still forming an overall judgment of his character during those six months. Maybe I should have tried to tell him. I was so afraid of any misstep on my part, probably too afraid. But that gives Ridley no right to present Ford in the way he does. We don’t know how Ford would have reacted to my telling him.”

“But doesn’t the overall nature of slavery, which made even men like Ford invested in the system, and which in your case gave you hesitancy about risking the exposure of your secret to the ‘most Christian man’ you ever knew, justify Ridley’s framing of things this way? He wanted twenty-first-century audiences to see how the institution ensnared even the best of men in its evil-doing.”

“I understand that. But William Ford did not deserve to become a symbol. I’ve read your posts on True Grit, where you forgive the film’s directors for changing some of the events and characters of the novel so as to better suit the points they intended to make about that society, but remember, those were fictional characters! Ford was a real man, and I want you to point out what I said—that slavery did not change him so much as he changed slavery!”

Here is the passage Solomon means:

During my residence with Master Ford I had seen only the bright side of slavery. His was no heavy hand crushing us to the earth. He pointed upwards, and with benign and cheering words addressed us as his fellow-mortals, accountable, like himself, to the Maker of us all. I think of him with affection, and had my family been with me, could have borne his gentle servitude, without murmuring, all my days. But clouds were gathering in the horizon—forerunners of a pitiless storm that was soon to break over me. I was doomed to endure such bitter trials as the poor slave only knows, and to lead no more the comparatively happy life which I had led . . . [emphasis added]

“Did you really mean that? You could have lived as a slave under him without a murmur of complaint, so long as your family were enslaved there alongside you?”

“That was said from the heart! I insisted upon those very words—why should you quibble with them? Of course I would have groaned to see my family enslaved, and even under Ford—there! Does that satisfy you? Besides, I already said as much: Elsewhere in the book I said that were all masters like him half of the bitterness would be drained out of slavery. I beg your pardon for my ire, but what matters in the passage is the feeling—I felt something for this man.”

This fond reminiscence apparently brought Solomon’s mind to the other duty he was to task me with—“You must also remind them about Miss McCoy! The Christmas passage!” So here it is:

. . . Miss Mary McCoy, a lovely girl, some twenty years of age . . . the beauty and the glory of Bayou Bouef. She owns about a hundred working hands, besides a great many house servants, yard boys, and young children. . . . She is beloved by all her slaves. . . . Nowhere on the bayou are there such feasts, such merrymaking, as at young Madam McCoy’s. Thither . . . do the old and the young for miles around love to repair in the time of the Christmas holiday; for nowhere else can they find such delicious repasts; nowhere else can they hear a voice speaking to them so pleasantly. . . .

On my arrival . . . I found two or three hundred had assembled. The table was prepared in a long building, which she had erected expressly for her slaves to dance in. It was covered with every variety of food the country afforded. . . . The young mistress walked around the table, smiling and saying a kind word to each one, and seemed to enjoy the scene exceedingly.
When the dinner was over the tables were removed to make room for the dancers. I tuned my violin and struck up a lively air . . .
In the evening the mistress returned, and stood in the door a long time, looking at us. She was magnificently arrayed. Her dark hair and eyes contrasted strongly with her clear and delicate complexion. Her form was slender but commanding, and her movement was a combination of unaffected dignity and grace. As she stood there, clad in her rich apparel, her face animated with pleasure, I thought I had never looked upon a human being half so beautiful. I dwell with delight upon the description of this fair and gentle lady, not only because she inspired me with emotions of gratitude and admiration, but because I would have the reader understand that all slave-owners on Bayou Boeuf are not like Epps, or Tibeats, or Jim Burns . . .

I cannot tell you what Solomon’s reply was, when I asked him if he really thought Mary McCoy was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, because he made me promise to draw a veil over that part of our exchange. All I can tell you is that it was a reply worthy of a gentleman, so you will have to decide for yourself how he judged her beauty, both of form and manner. You can, after all, notice for yourself how the words in the passage above were chosen with remarkable delicacy.


John Ridley, under how much oversight from director Steve McQueen is a matter of dispute, did magnificent work on the screenplay, and I find most of his choices ingenious and just. Assuming the work was mostly his, the Oscar for best screen adaptation was entirely deserved. The film is a more compelling and symbolically rich narrative than the book.

But as he knows, the writer of Twelve Years a Slave was a very intentional artist himself, and there is reason to think the artistry was more Northup’s than David Wilson’s, the man who actually did the writing. Without going into the scholarly debate about that, by which I suppose some could quip that I am highlighting passages that mattered more to Northup’s ghost writer than they would to his ghost, I can simply note that Ridley sides with those (and their number include biographer David Fiske) who give most of the credit to Northup. In any case, I see little reason to doubt that the passages quoted above were insisted upon by Northup, and closely reviewed before final approval.

John Ridley has surely thought about all this more than I have, and so he must know how painful his choices to exclude what these passages tell us, made for the sake of a more thematically unified screenplay, really would be to Solomon Northup, were he to see the film with his earthly passions intact. 

In her Oscar speech, Lupita Nyong’o said that she was sure that the spirits of the slaves were gathered around McQueen in thankful approbation, and I guess we can add around Ridley also.

I loved her speech, but as with all human things, whether considered on the terms of this world alone, or whether considered as being touched by a world to come, any suggestion of the dead’s gratitude cannot remain quite that simple. I say nothing here about the correct Christian teachings about “ghosts,” or about possible prayer-relations to those who have passed. Rather, all I mean to say is that when any of us imaginatively bring the departed into our company, we must know that they might bring more to the table than sweet appreciation for our remembering them and their sufferings.

If it were a choice between not having this film, or accepting these two alterations of his narrative most painfully objectionable to him, I’m sure Solomon Northup would accept them. But did the screenplay have to be this way? The Mary McCord Christmas celebration episode probably had to be excluded, but Ridley’s damning presentation of William Ford really may have been unnecessary and unjust. Even if we were to be convinced that it was necessary for a thematically unified portrayal of slavery, we should realize that something valuable was lost even as something perhaps more valuable was gained. In any case, Solomon Northup’s spirit compels me to bear witness to that cost.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles