The True Story of 12 Years a Slave

We break down what's fact — and fiction — in the new movie about slavery in the antebellum South

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Francois Duhamel

The moving —and utterly brutal—film 12 Years a Slave tells the real story of Soloman Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free African-American man living in Saratoga who is kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery. Director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley film were largely faithful Northup’s 1853 biography, Twelve Years a Slave. Here’s how the film and the biography match up:

[Warning: Spoilers Ahead]

Soloman Northup was a free man living in upstate New York with a wife and two children before being enslaved

Ruling: Mostly Fact

Soloman Northup was indeed a free man who played the violin. He had a wife and three children, not two: Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo, who were 10, 8 and 5, respectively, at the time of his kidnapping. Sent to Louisiana, Northup is given the name Platt and is beaten when he protests he is a freeman. As a result of the incident, he hides his true identity for years.

On the South-bound ship, one of the slave traders murders one of the slaves

Ruling: Fiction

As in the movie, Northup and two others try to plan an escape from the ship. They got very close to executing their plan, but then one of Northup’s co-conspirators got smallpox and died. He was not knifed to death trying to save a woman from being raped as they show in the film.

Northup is sold to Edwin Epps after he gets into a fight with planation overseer of his first owner

Ruling: Mostly Fact

As shown in the movie, Northup’s first master, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a much more lenient man than the other plantation owners in the film and holds some affection for Northup. However, Northup had to be sold to a much crueler master, Epps (Michael Fassbender), when he got into not one, but two, conflicts with the overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano). The first one—in which Tibeats attacks Northup, and Northup is able to overcome him in the attack by hitting and whipping Tibeats—is depicted accurately in the film: Tibeats tries to hang Northup for revenge, but Ford stops him. The second incident, not in the film, involved Tibeats chasing Northup with an axe.

Armsby betrayed Northup by telling Epps that Northup was trying to write a letter to his friends in New York 

Ruling: Fact

Armsby (Garret Dillahunt) was trying to obtain a position as an overseer with Epps, which is presumably why he ratted out Northup’s attempts to write home. As in the film, Northup is able to convince Epps that Armsby’s story is a lie. What the movie doesn’t show, though, is that this wasn’t the first time Northup had asked someone to send a letter for him. A sailor on the ship that brought Northup south sent a letter to Northup’s friends (but was unable to share Northup’s whereabouts).

12 Years a Slave

Francois Duhamel / Fox Searchlight

Mary Epps injures Patsey in a jealous rage

Ruling: Fiction

Northup does write in his autobiography about Epps’ affection for Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) — and the jealousy aroused in Epp’s wife. However, he never writes anything about Mary (Sarah Paulson) becoming moved to violence or, as the movie shows, hurling a decanter at her face. Patsey did, however, suffer greatly from Epps’ alternative affection and rage, getting both raped and beaten, especially when Edwin was trying to prove to Mary his lack of affection for Patsy.

Northup was forced to whip Patsey  

Ruling: Fact

Patsey leaves the plantation to borrow a bar of soap from a neighbor. Epps did not believe Patsey’s story and compelled Northup to whip her as punishment.

Northup is saved, thanks to a letter written by a kind-hearted carpenter named Bass

Ruling: Fact

Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt) did have a discussion with Epps about slavery as portrayed int he movie, leading Northup to believe he could trust Bass with a letter home. Bass sent the letter and had several nighttime meetings with Northup to report back on the letter’s progress. For a good deal of time, the letter received no response, and Bass even offered to go up to Saratoga himself and tell Northup’s friends about the situation once he could afford to do so. However, Northup’s friends received the letter sooner than that: they make the trip South and save Northup.

READ: Richard Corliss on 12 Years a Slave

READ: sadds

35 comments
lydia.nuzum
lydia.nuzum

This may seem like a negligible complaint, but Tibeats wasn't an overseer. He was a carpenter. And a jerk. Shouldn't TIME have the resources to find someone who's read the book to dissect it? This whole thing felt sloppy.

Anon87
Anon87

This was only an attempt by an egotistical White woman to show that her White female ancestors could never have been jealous enough of a Black woman's beauty to be moved to violence against her. I'm just glad that the people in this comments section caught you in your lie. You are truly a shameful character to try to deny this woman of the full truth of her story. You ARE the Mary Epps type. This woman experienced immeasurable pain during her life and is now long dead yet your jealousy fixed your fingers to type what you did. Disgusting.

MsKelley
MsKelley

I have read a few articles that fact check this Movie and this one misses not only Patsey's abuse as described by Solomon Northup.  The author also misses the fiction of one dramatic scene in the movie that was changed from the narrative.  In the movie Patsey asks Solomon to end her misery she begs to kill her and bury her in the swamp.  Solomon's narrative did not record that Patsey asked Solomon to end her life.  It did state that Mistress Epps asked Solomon to murder Patsey.  "Nothing delighted the mistress so much as to see her 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."  - Chapter 13, p, 295 12 Years A Slave.


As others have noted despite the author's assertion "However, he never writes anything about Mary (Sarah Paulson) becoming moved to violence or, as the movie shows, hurling a decanter at her face." Mistress Epps not only solicited Solomon Northup to murder Patsey she was also moved to violence and did hurl objects (including a broken bottle) at Patsey's face. 

"If she uttered a word in opposition to her master’s will, the lash was resorted to at once, to bring her to subjection; if she was not watchful when about her cabin, or when walking in the yard, a billet of wood, or a broken bottle perhaps, hurled from her mistress’ hand, would smite her unexpectedly in the face. The enslaved victim of lust and hate, Patsey had no comfort of her life."- Chapter 13, p. 295, 12 Years A Slave



I am not sure if the author (Eliana Dockterman) is an amateur guest blogger or a professional journalist but it is clear that she did not check facts thoroughly.  It is sad given that she only had one primary source to check.  As movies go this one got 95% of the historic facts correct and the few it missed were done for dramatic impact.  Hopefully it inspires more people to pick up " Twelve Years a Slave - Enhanced Edition by Dr. Sue Eakin Based on a Lifetime Project. New Info, Images, Maps"  or "Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave" by  David A. Fiske (Author), Clifford W., Jr. Brown.

Both are excellent reads before or after seeing this movie.


tuppennyworth
tuppennyworth

Oh dear - was very cross when I wrote my comment and too personal. Was thinking about poor Patsey - she was a real person after all. 

Still - I stand by the main thrust of it. I just wish journalists would think things through before they do flippant pieces to fill up space.

tuppennyworth
tuppennyworth

The mighty UK calling.

I'm furious at reading this article. How dare Miss El- LIE- anna Duckterman or whatever her name is dismiss the true violence visited upon that poor woman Patsey: a bloody never-ending, living hell of torture, abuse, misery, bondage and pain.

In reality, the evil of slavery,featured a great deal more depravity than this film, brutal as it is, shows and Duckterman is arguing (erroneously)  over whether Epps' wicked wife was concomitant with the misery visited upon Patsey??!

What a joke! Before Hitler set off on his killing spree he said: Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?

Tampering with history is never a good idea Miss Dockterman.

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel warned years ago, 'to forget a holocaust is to kill twice'.

Well - Miss Dockterman - you are doing a fine job of trying to water down the reality of slavery and in particular Patsey's story, by picking  petty, ridiculous holes for no good reason. Use your nonce (that's brain to you love). Some films are based on such powerful events you should not try to pick them apart. Shame on you TIME for letting her do it in the first place and not correcting her for getting it wrong.

DDWaldron
DDWaldron

Mary Epps in the book does abuse Patsey, and throws things at her, cutting her about the face.

Q.Gonzalez
Q.Gonzalez

I'm confused, this website (Time Entertainment) states:


Mary Epps injures Patsey in a jealous rage


Ruling: Fiction


Northup does write in his autobiography about Epps’ affection for Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) — and the jealousy aroused in Epp’s wife. However, he never writes anything about Mary (Sarah Paulson) becoming moved to violence or, as the movie shows, hurling a decanter at her face. Patsey did, however, suffer greatly from Epps’ alternative affection and rage, getting both raped and beaten, especially when Edwin was trying to prove to Mary his lack of affection for Patsy.


However, the website "History vs Hollywood" at states:


Did Mistress Epps really encourage her husband to whip Patsey?


Yes. Despite Patsey having a remarkable gift for picking cotton quickly, she was one of the most severely beaten slaves. This was mainly due to Mistress Epps encouraging her husband Edwin to whip Patsey because, as Northup writes, Patsey had become the "slave of a licentious master and a jealous mistress." Northup goes on to describe her as the "enslaved victim of lust and hate", with nothing delighting Mistress Epps more than seeing Patsey suffer. Northup states that it was not uncommon for Mistress Epps to hurl a broken bottle or billet of wood at Patsey's face.


I found the information at http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/12-years-a-slave.php


Does anyone out there know the truth? 

MaribelPiloto
MaribelPiloto

Does anyone know what eventually happened to the real Patsey?   I saw the film over the weekend and thought it was incredible.   I did come away wishing that Solomon had indeed killed Patsey as she begged him to.  It just seemed like this would be an act of mercy, saving her from more years of abuse at the hands of that monster who owned them.

kismetnyc
kismetnyc

This "fact checking" amount to nothing more than pettiness.  Does it really matter in the film if he had 2 or 3 kids?  Many very small changes done in the film I'm sure were done for narrative and time constraints.  It doesn't change the one true FACT ... slavery was a nasty nasty business.  It was cruel and brutal and there is no glossing over it.  Let's me be honest we know the real reason behind this fact checking exercise ... to try to make descendants of slave owners and those who benefited from slaver believe "oh well it wasn't as bad as portrayed in the film," ... you should be ashamed of yourself.

LilyBerger
LilyBerger

"Patsey walked under a cloud. If she uttered a word in opposition to her master’s will, the lash was resorted to at once, to bring her to subjection; if she was not watchful when about her cabin, or when walking in the yard, a billet of wood, or a broken bottle perhaps, hurled from her mistress’ hand, would smite her unexpectedly in the face."


Northup, Solomon; Dr. Sue Eakin (2013-08-08). Twelve Years a Slave – Enhanced Edition by Dr. Sue Eakin Based on a Lifetime Project. New Info, Images, Maps (Kindle Locations 2189-2192). Eakin Films & Publishing. Kindle Edition. 


As others have pointed out, in his memoir Northup specifically mentions the wife throwing bottles at Patsey's face.  This article should be corrected to reflect that.


That said, I don't know why so many commenters are getting so defensive at the notion of "fact checking" the movie.  Book fans ALWAYS fact check shows and movies that are based on a book.  This is nothing new.



kingkeylion
kingkeylion

This seems to fall in line with the pathological need for White people to validate/correct/scrutinize our narratives and the manner in which they are told.  This is also an attempt to exude authority and erudition when, as in many, many, many cases, THEY ARE NOT QUALIFIED TO DO SO!!!

amar937
amar937

I have read/browsed a number of slave narratives and I remember reading years ago about the girl being trapped between the violence/lust of the slave owner and the rage of his wife.


I'm not certain if it was this story but I thought it was.   Peace.

Taj5210
Taj5210

Is the sudden urge to "fact check"  this particular film driven by guilt or a need to vidicate the white characters as "bad but not THAT bad". Perhap the so called "fiction" represents a composite of the brutality and horror imposed upon slaves for five hundred years.

So Northup did not actually write that Mary abused Patsy, BUT we all know that the owner's wives brutalized the rape victims to vent their frustration against their philandering husbands. Indeed, this is undisputed fact. For centuries, the owner's forced their perverse whims onto these slave women which prompted their wives punished the women for their husbands' betrayals. Certainly, wives threw decanters and worse at the heads of their husbands'  victims.  

Can we take a moment to reflect BEFORE we lead a charge to discount the accuracy of this film, please? Can we focus on the ubiquitous behavior and culture which allowed slavery to continue for over 500 years in this country AND then bore the Jim Crow South? Please just take a minute to sit back and absorb the powerful nature of this film and its message. In a world where textbook authors seek to erase the atrocities of slavery and rewrite history, this is undoubtedly an accurate potrayal of slavery. Please understand why we don't need you to fact check any of it.

Taj5210
Taj5210

Excuse me, but do we need a fact check on this movie? Do we go back and fact check ALL historical dramas? Is this driven by guilt or a need to vidicate the white characters as "bad but not THAT bad". Perhap the so called "ficiton" represents a composite of the brutality and horror imposed upon blacks for five hundred years. So Northup did not write about Mary's abuse, but we all know that slave owner's wives brutalized many black rape victims to vent their frustration against their husbands. These women were subjected to their owner's perverse obsessions and the rage of their wives, simultaneously. Certainly, wives threw decanters and worse at the heads of their husbands "unwilling" mistresses.   What a forlorn lives these women endured. Can we take a moment to reflect on that before we lead a charge to discount the accuracy of this film, please? Can we focus on the historic behavior and culture which allowed slavery to continue for over 500 years AND then bore the Jim Crow South? Please sit back and absorb the powerful nature of this film and its message. on film. In a world were textbook authors seek to erase the atrocities of slavery and rewrite history, this is undoubtedly one of the most accurate potrayals of slavery on film. Please understand why we don't need you to fact check any of it.

MomoH
MomoH

TIME MAGAZINE - WHY HAS THIS YET TO BE CORRECTED?  DOCKTERMAN HAS BEEN ALERTED TO THE PROBLEM HERE AND VIA TWITTER.  THIS IS TOO IMPORTANT TO IGNORE AND LEAVE IN THE ANNALS OF HISTORY. 

"Mary Epps injures [and worse] Patsey in a jealous rage:" IS FACT... NOT FICTION.

devinemyersahusa
devinemyersahusa

I do not understand how Americans held Germans liable for the European holocaust and we finally took a bit of blame for killing most of the Native Indians, but we cannot admit to the fact our white fore fathers had a black holocaust. Those that lived through the European holocaust got some payment and again so did the native Indians, but there was no such retribution for the black slaves. How many were treated in the same manner the European holocaust victims were, Millions, but still it was treated much different. Hitler made the world think His target group of people were non human, same goes for what whites did to black people for the slave trade. There were books written, giving instructions on how to work you slave, which was property, or else you could kill it and get a new one. These books created in the same fashion as hitler created the text he created to make others understand that mass slavery and killing was a good thing. They would explain that you can treat things, property like this as they are not human. Why is it that we say never forget the European holocaust, but we tell black people to get over it, it was before our time. If I was black I would still be harping, because the stain of blood has never been taken care of.

KEPL1
KEPL1

Maybe Ms. Dockterman is in denial, and feels a little guilt, perhaps? The truth is, the historical roots of present-day mistreatment of African-Americans is very evident in this film, and  Mary Epps' TRUE mistreatment of Patsy is no exception.  I, for one, can certainly attest to parallels from my 30+ years in corporate America - where I might still be employed and thriving if it weren't for the many present-day "Mary Epps" I encountered.  Shame on TIME for representing inaccurate reporting, and for allowing this article to go print without fact-checking it.

lrstiff01
lrstiff01

In Chapter 13, it clearly states that Mary Epps would hurl things at Patsey's face as she moved in the yard.  It stated Patsey had to be careful because she did this and would use a billet of wood or broken bottle.

_JGR
_JGR

I have to agree with the people pointing out that the labeling of the Mary attacking Patsey part is fiction is incorrect. Northrup specifically says "a broken bottle perhaps, hurled from her mistress' hand, would smite her unexpectedly in the face" when describing violence Patsey faced on a daily basis.

This seems to have been pointed out here and on Twitter so it's unclear why it hasn't been corrected.

MomoH
MomoH

I AM SHOCKED.

"Mary Epps injures Patsey in a jealous rage... Ruling: Fiction" - ELIANA DOCKTERMAN

Your interpretation is very odd, Eliana Dockterman.  Being a writer, I can't believe you don't see how your claim, "Edwin was trying to prove to Mary his lack of affection for Patsy." ... to explain Mary Epps' role in Patsey's merciless beatings while claiming Mary Epps was never moved to violence is misleading.  

Mary (Mistress Epps) would demand that Patsey be beaten.  She would demand it so often that even Epps, when sober (which was rare), couldn't bring himself to do it. 

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE
Solomon Northrup
CHAPTER XIV
- Patsey's Sorrows -

"During our absence, I learned from Aunt Phebe and Patsey, that the latter had been getting deeper into trouble.  The poor girl was truly an object of pity.  "Old Hogjaw," the name by which Epps was called, when the slaves were by themselves had beaten her more severely and frequently than ever.  As surely as he came from Holmesville, elated with liquor--and it was often in those days--he would whip her, merely to gratify the mistress; would punish her to an extent almost beyond endurance, for an offence of which he himself was the sole and irresistible cause.  In his sober moments, he could not always be prevailed upon to indulge his wife's insatiable thirst for vengeance. 

To be rid of Patsey--to place her beyond sight or reach, by sale, or death, or in any manner, of late years, seemed to be the ruling thought and passion of my mistress [Mary Epps].  Patsey had been a favorite when a child, even in the great house.  She had been petted and admired for her uncommon sprightliness and pleasant disposition.  She had been fed many a time, so Uncle Abram said, even on biscuit and mil, when the madam, in her younger days, was wont to call her to the piazza, and fondle her as she would a playful kitten.  But a sad change had come over the spirit of the woman.  Now, only black and angry, fiends ministered in the temple of her heart, until she could look on Patsey but with concentrated venom." - Taken from the true narrative of Solomon Northrup's "Twelve Years a Slave".

AGAIN, YOUR INTERPRETATION IS MISLEADING.  YOU SAY "FICTION" SIMPLY BECAUSE THE WRITER CHOSE TO SHOW A POSSIBLE MANIFESTATION OF THE CLEAR HATRED OF PATSEY FROM EPPS' WIFE ( A BENIGN EXAMPLE TOO)?  THEN YOU ATTEMPT AND "PASS THE BUCK" OF INTENTION WHEN IT COMES TO THIS FEMALE CHARACTER, MISTRESS EPPS, SOLELY ONTO HER HUSBAND.

Is the name,"MARY" fiction... because it appears nowhere in the book.  What we do know is that Mistress Epps was the mistress of this plantation and we also know that the mistress constantly castigated Patsey whenever she caught sight of her.  A thrown decanter was the LEAST of Patsey's worries when it came to "Mary" Epps.

CHAPTER XIV (continued)

"She [Mistress Epps] was kind to all of us but Patsey--frequently, in absence of her husband, sending out to us some little dainty from her own table" ... "He [Epps] was ready to gratify any whim--to grant any request she made, provided it did not cost too much.  Patsey was equal to any two of his slaves in the cotton field.  He could not replace her with the same money she would bring.  The idea of disposing of her, therefore, could not be entertained.  The mistress did not regard her at all in that light.  The pride of the haughty woman was aroused; the blood of the fiery southern boiled at the sight of Patsey, and nothing less than trampling out the life of the helpless bondwoman would satisfy her." - Taken from the true narrative of Solomon Northrup's "Twelve Years a Slave"

WHATEVER YOUR MOTIVATIONS... YOUR DISCOMFORT, PERHAPS, AT SEEING A WOMAN MISTREAT ANOTHER, THESE WERE REAL PEOPLE, THIS WAS A REAL INSTITUTION, THIS BEHAVIOR WAS COMMON... AND PATSEY WAS REAL.  YOU ARE DISHONORING HER BY DISMISSING HER STORY.  SHE WAS NOT FICTION.  SHE WAS SOMEONES DAUGHTER.



 

DexterMcCloud
DexterMcCloud

My issue doesn't pertain to the contents of the movie specifically but....WHY did the author of this article, Eliana Dockterman, think it was necessary to do a "fact check"?  Did anyone fact-check "Schindler's List", for example?

I feel like this author is trying to send the subliminal message that the atrocities that occurred to slaves were so horrid that, she couldn't believe that these atrocities were true.  

Even if the movie was a complete work of fiction, it was so gut-wrenchingly powerful that I know those scenes will be stuck in my head for a long time.  More importantly, I think it's a moral imperative that I need to take my kids, my friends, and anyone else I run into to watch this epic this weekend.

chocolatesmoothie88
chocolatesmoothie88

page 78 of the autobiography, it does say that a broken bottle or billet of wood would smite her in the face by the jealous wife, actually...



mdk777
mdk777

"one out of every three black American men have European Y chromosomes."

Which means they are just as white European as they are African.  Race is such an artificial construct.

Since we all came out of Africa, we are all Africans...just a little bit further back in history.  


Jfresh38
Jfresh38

What you're calling fiction in terms of the treatment of Patsey is misleading.  If you read

99% of slave accounts, the treatment of the enslaved women was 10 times worse

than what was shown in this movie.  I mean stuff like the slave master's wife cutting off the ear

of a woman because of jealously & that's just the tip of the iceberg. The dynamic of the

jealous wife was deadly for black women on those plantations so whether it was in the

book or not is irrelevant.  That was usually  the climate & it was accurately portrayed.

One out of every three black American men have European Y chromosomes. That means

they descend from a white man that had sex with a black woman during slavery. In other

words rape.

Time2014
Time2014

@KEPL1 How viciously this certain demograghic can be to black professional women. If you are attractive and given authority,  and respected by men, she (most of them)  will do all she can to destroy your reputation.  Why? Many are just on some kind of drug and flat out crazy. Sorry you lost your job. I almost lost mine over bizarre lies designed to make me look like the big mean black girl, and her the innocent antebellum angel to all the white men in charge. Disgusting and pathetic, the whole lot of that company. Glad I left.

Time/USA45
Time/USA45

@MomoH this was written very well! Thank you for taking the time to do your research, because it's obvious that this writer did not. This was done with class, accuracy and conviction. Great Job!

MomoH
MomoH

Honestly, Eliana Dockterman, I do not know how you could come to such a conclusion, e.g., "Ruling: Fiction" and claiming Mary Epps never having been moved to VIOLENCE, if you indeed read the book.  It is LITTERED with examples of Mistress Epps rage towards Patsey.

MomoH
MomoH

@Jfresh38  ... the problem is it WAS portrayed in the book, but the writer of this article is claiming it was not.  

SukeMadiq
SukeMadiq

@Jfresh38 

And you do not take into account how many women black guys rape.

SukeMadiq
SukeMadiq

@Jfresh38 

Thats sounds better than how most black men treat their "Hos" today.

yshabazz2
yshabazz2

Nor taking into account the millions of women white men have raped over the years.

lindayoung010
lindayoung010

@SukeMadiq 

If your comment was to be taken as a joke then this is not forum, it's inappropriate. If your comment was posted in seriousness then you are no different then Edwin Epps.