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

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