Congratulations to Lupita Nyong’o, John Ridley, Brad Pitt and Steve McQueen, for their Oscars. The slave narratives deserve more respect, which they might get now that one of them has been made into Best Picture of the Year.
Credit: University of North Carolina – http://docsouth.unc.edu
Director Steve McQueen has “taken liberties” with Solomon Northup’s narrative which may confuse the viewer. The film is very good at provoking emotions. The cast is marvelous; the acting, excellent. But some of the scenes make no sense. Invariably, these are fictional constructions, with no basis in fact.
The worst of these is the “Hollywood style” death of a male slave in the hold of a ship. We have just seen him muzzled, now he is walking around without shackles. Northup states that the men were shackled in the hold, and male slaves were generally separated from female slaves, not only on ships, but in coffles for overland transport.
McQueen is clearly fascinated with lynching, so much so, that he repeatedly conflates post-Reconstruction and slavery. Northup stood in the sun for hours after Tibeats tried to hang him, firmly tied, but not hanging by the neck. Indeed, it is very doubtful he would have survived several hours in that condition. The overseer, Chapin, would not have allowed it, simply from a commercial point of view.
The narrative states Mrs. Epps sometimes threw chunks of wood or broken bottles at Patsey in the yard, but did not knock her unconscious, or scratch her face, as shown in the film.
The initial conversation between Northup and Bass occurred while they were accidentally left alone. Their subsequent meetings occurred in the middle of the night, far from any witnesses. Epps would not have left Northup alone with Bass, since he already suspected Northup of trying to talk to white men to send a letter.
Other than the direct attacks on Patsey by Mrs. Epps, the brutality was not exaggerated. My brother, Greg, read the narrative before viewing the film, and he agrees with this assessment. It is difficult for anyone to realize, even in a small way, just how bad it was.
The film is a good introduction to the horrors of slavery. If you have any questions, consult the narrative.
My favorite holiday is Martin Luther King Day. I usually spend the day reading, one of my obsessions. This year I was reading “Kidnappers in Philadelphia: Isaac Hopper’s Tales of Oppression, 1780-1843.” (Daniel E. Meaders, editor) The cover illustration is not only cheesy, and old-fashioned, but doesn’t quite match the stories. (The illustrator is not named.) Most of the stories concern free blacks, or escaped slaves who built good lives for themselves, until they were found by their owners. Kidnapping and recapture were common in Philadelphia, and Hopper spent much of his time looking out for the victims. Fortunately, he was able to help in many instances, sometimes at his own physical peril.
It is interesting to note that a high percentage of kidnapped free blacks were able to escape and return home. The biggest obstacle for runaway slaves was not the physical difficulty of escape, but the Federal law requiring slaves to be returned to their legal owners. Many Northerners found this law objectionable, increasing the anti-slavery sentiments there. Once again, we see that the era of slavery in the U.S. was not smooth and calm, but fractured with conflict.
Kona Coast, 2007
Many good things have happened this year; I published my first book, a major film came out based on Solomon Northup’s narrative; and the media has been kept churning with issues concerning the ongoing “racial divide” in the United States.
I’m looking forward to a new year, promoting my first book and working on my second one (far more personal, just as frightening). I’m happy being in Los Angeles. I can’t think of any other place I’d rather be.
I still miss my mommy. I know so many dead people now: my parents, my grandparents, law professors, friends and relatives. It’s even worse when they die young. I can only take it day by day, sometimes minute by minute.
Happy New Year!