With 12 Years a Slave becoming a global phenomenon last year, particularly after its successful run at the Oscars, the over 160 years old Solomon Northup book it was based on also became much sought-after, despite spending most of its existence in public obscurity, with only a handful of academic referencing it and no new edition between mid-19th century and 1968, when it made an unlikely comeback. One year to date after the film’s theatrical release in the United States, we look back at both the original book and the critically-acclaimed adaptation and select 4 of the best moments and quotes from both mediums together with a brief analysis of its themes. If by now you only browsed its summary online, on Sparknotes and Wiki, or managed to watch the trailer on IMDB and YouTube after reading a review, we are convinced the next step you should take is get the movie or the ebook in pdf form, and even the audiobook and go through the amazing lessons it provides.
1. The film’s whipping scene
Of all the difficult and painful to watch scenes in Steve McQueen’s film version of 12 Years a Slave, and there are quite a few, the one that stands out is the whipping scene where, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), the plantation owner, forces Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to be the one who whips friend and fellow slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) for leaving the plantation to find soap. A scene such as this is extremely difficult to pull, not because of the technical details, where a little camera trickery and audio effects makes it relatively easy to make the whip sound like it really is hitting flesh, but due to the dangers of wandering off from a scene that shows the vile practice and the heartwrenching emotional process and into something that more closely resembles glorified torture porn. Luckily, the truly Oscar-deserving direction, as well as the strength of the cast chosen for the scene, manages to give the scene the solemnity it needs.
2. “What difference is there in the color of the soul?”
In what is perhaps the book’s most famous and most poignant chapter, Solomon Northup writes a 10 words long manifesto of sorts, a haunting line of impossible beauty and sadness that could work as a tagline for almost any movie or book that deals with race issues. Furthermore, the quote manages to bring the question of spirituality in the discussion, reminding the readership that the institution of slavery existed and thrived many times in a religious society. What’s more, the line is eerily prophetic of the quote that, over a hundred years later, will become maybe the most recognizable line of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King’s “judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
3. Mistress Shaw
In an interview given in 2013, the film’s screenwriter, John Ridley, spoke about what were for him the most difficult scenes to write in the entire movie. He gives the scene in 12 Years a Slave where Mistress Shaw, a former slave who is now the mistress of a white man appears, calmly drinking tea and musing on the conditions of the other slaves and gives, through its levity and contrast to the tone surrounding it, a certain aura of surrealism. Ridley worried endlessly that Mistress Shaw, who is only mentioned in a line or two in the book, will end up being anachronistic, that viewers will see the scriptwriter in the character and the scene and feel that it was written in the 21st century, rather than the 19th.
4. “Alas! I had not then learned the measure of “man’s inhumanity to man,” nor to what limitless extent of wickedness he will go for the love of gain”
Perhaps the most important line in the whole book, due to its universality and the fact that it expresses a truth as old as human existence, this quote is the driving force behind a million books that describe countless injustices and abuses, of which the abhorrent practice of slavery that 12 Years a Slave describes is just an example. Even more, while society likes to believe that slavery is a relic of the past and that the Western civilization is far beyond it, it is only because other, more efficient ways became available to make use of the man’s inhumanity to man for the love of gain.