1. There is a scholarly edition of Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, co-edited by Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon, Library of Southern Civilization: Louisiana State University Press, 1968. The book was expanded and re-issued in August 2013 as Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave, edited by Clifford W. Brown, and Rachel Seligman (New York Praeger, 2013). I bought a reproduction of the original publication from Amazon brought out to coincide with the release of McQueen’s film with the original publication material in the frontpiece, from which I’ll cite pages. The subtitle of the original carries the eyebrow-raising Narrative of Solomon Northup, citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River, in Lou
I also draw from an online version of the original printed text at
(accessed December 15, 2013).
DVD versions of Gordon Park’s Solomon Northup’s Odyssey and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave are available at Amazon.com. [return to page 1]

2. Note omitted.

3. For a list of 12 Years a Slave’s Academy Award for best picture, and multiple other awards in 2013, see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2024544/awards (accessed on August 26, 2014).

4. The conception of classical Hollywood narrative cinema that I will use is articulated in David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press; Reprint edition 1985). On modernism, I am using the concept delineated by Stephen Eric Bronner and Douglas Kellner in our Introduction to Passion and Rebellion: The Expressionist Heritage, co-edited by Stephen Eric Bronner and Douglas Kellner (New York: Universe Books and Bergin Publishers (USA) and London: Croom Helm (England), 1983; second edition, Columbia University Press, 1988). Introduction online at
on December 20, 2013). See also Stephen Eric Bronner’s collection of articles, Modernism at the Barricades: Aesthetics, Politics, Utopia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

5. For a clear narrative of the Amistad story, see Walter Dean Myers, Amistad: A Long Road to Freedom (New York: Dutton’s Children Books, 1998). Myers, a five-time recipient of the Coretta Scott King Award and winner of awards for “Outstanding literature for Young Adults,” provides a clear, compelling, and engagingly illustrated account of the Amistad struggle and its place within the U.S. Civil Rights and liberation African American struggles.

6. Marcus Rediker, The Amistad Rebellion. An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom (New York: Viking, 2012: 3ff. Rediker, author of the renown book The Slave Ship: A Human History (Baltimore: Penguin reprints 2008), wishes to tell the story of the Amistad rebellion from below (p. 12). He skillfully brings to life and personalities and experiences of the rebellious slaves and to situate their story within the context of the global revolts going on at the time against slavery, of which the Amistad rebellion is an important part. Rediker also provides a well-researched and compelling portrait of the abolitionist movement and the specific American white and black individuals who helped the Amistad rebels in their struggle for freedom and to return to their homeland in Africa.

7. On the DVD of Amistad, both Spielberg and producer Debbie Allen tell how Allen brought the story idea to Spielberg. On the TCM movie site, David Sterritt notes:

“The idea of filming the Amistad affair came from actress and director Debbie Allen, who had run across some books on the subject. After running into fund-raising problems, she brought the project to Spielberg, who wanted to stretch his artistic wings after making The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), and was looking for a prestige production to direct for DreamWorks SKG, the studio he'd recently co-founded. Spielberg was an unlikely person to tackle the Amistad story, since his previous picture about black characters, The Color Purple, had been badly received by the black community, its eleven Oscar nominations (no wins) notwithstanding. ‘I got such a bollocking for The Color Purple,’ he told a New York Times interviewer, ‘I thought, I'll never do that again.’ But Spielberg evidently saw great potential in the Amistad story, and decided to take it on, even though his crowded schedule meant doing pre-production while DreamWorks was still being launched and post-production while Saving Private Ryan (1998) was before the camera.”

 David Sterritt, “Amistad,” Turner Classic Movies at
(accessed October 31, 2013). Allen had also acted in Roots; see
(accessed October 31, 2013).

8. On the production background of Amistad, see Lester D. Friedman, Citizen Spielberg. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006), pp. 269ff.

9. Rediker writes that “Cinque found a loose nail on deck and used it to pick the central padlock. Whether the locks were broken or picked, it was significant that two of the forty-nine enslaved men were blacksmiths, who knew the properties of iron intimately from their work” (op. cit., p. 75).

10. On the influence of Goya on the look of parts of Amistad, see the “Making of” feature and the DVD, and Frank Sanello, Spielberg: The Man, the Movies, the Mythology. Taylor Trade Publications, 2002, p. 272 at Google Publication http://books.google.com/books?id=A6hmQbfOeTAC&pg=
CABw&ved=0CC4Q6AEwAQ - v=onepage&q=Spielberg Janusz Ka
(accessed October 2, 2013).

11. In Slaves on Screen. Film and Historical Vision (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000), Natalie Zemon Davis describes how Spielberg and his production team employed and consulted historians to try to accurately portray the events depicted, and provides as well historical background on historical misrepresentations of characters and events, as well as criticisms by historians of the film. See Davis, pp. 72ff. on how Debbie Allen brought the story to Spielberg and how they made use of historical advisors to the project.

12. Rediker indicates that Cinque and others of the slaves labored to learn English while incarcerated, and that abolitionists used former African slaves, who had become freed and had been working on ships as translators. In an amusing scene in Spielberg’s film in which the African slaves are being introduced to the abolitionist lawyers who will defend them, a University linguist who supposedly specializes in African languages is utterly unable to translate the Mende dialect of the rebels, and in comic scenes mistranslates completely what the Africans are saying. Soon, however, they will have their own translator, based on a historical figure James Convey played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (see Rediker, op. cit., pp. 11ff, passim) who stars in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave which I discuss below.

13. Spielberg’s Joadson character was a composite of several abolitionists, while Tappan was a major historical figure in the movement; Davis regrets that Tappan was not assigned a larger role in Spielberg’s narrative (op. cit. p. 79), while many critics wish that the Joadson character and excellent actor Morgan Freeman could have had a more expanded role in the film.

14. Rediker delineates the complex welter of legal issues that were adjudicated in various trials (op. cit., p. 131f.) At the initial pre-trial hearing in the U.S. District Court, charges of piracy and murder were dropped “whereupon the claims of property became the key issue” (p. 132)—as it would in Spielberg’s film. For a useful delineation of the subsequent trials, leading up to the concluding Supreme Court decision, see Myers, op. cit., pp. 51-74.

15. According to Myers, op. cit., Cinque did call out in English “Give us free!” p. 65. As Davis points out in her study of Spartacus, Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film about a Roman slave rebellion also uses the discourse of freedom as a counterpart to slavery as an organizing theme of the film; see Slaves on Screen op. cit., pp. 17ff.

16. On the importance of the theme of “home” which runs through Spielberg’s films, see the book and article by Antonio Sánchez-Escalonilla, Steven Spielberg: Entre Ulises y Peter Pan. Madrid: CIE Dossat, 2005, and "El primer regreso al hogar en el cine de Steven Spielberg," Film Historia 19.1 (2009).

17. See Douglas Kellner, “Lincoln in contemporary U.S. culture and politics,” Jump Cut, No. 55 (Fall 2013) at http://www.ejumpcut.org/trialsite/KellnerLincoln/ (accessed November 5, 2013).[return to page 2]

19. Eric Foner, “The Amistad Case in Fact and Film,” History Matters (March 1998) at
http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/74/ (accessed November 5, 2013).

20. Roger Ebert, AMISTAD, December 12, 1997 at
http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/amistad- (accessed November 5, 2013).

21. Davis claims that the historical Baldwin had worked for abolitionist causes and was from the beginning strongly committed to the moral and political dimensions of the case; op. cit., pp. 79-80.

22. For Rediker’s description of subsequent fate of the Amistad case participants, see op. cit, pp. 224ff.

23. See
http://www.boxofficemojo.com/search/?q=Amistad (accessed December 21, 2013). Most of Spielberg’s films gross hundreds of millions.

24. For a detailed analysis of the film’s reception and criticism by historians, see Friedman, Citizen Spielberg, op. cit., pp. 269-282, and Davis, Slaves on Screen, op. cit, pp. 81ff.

25. Friedman, Citizen Spielberg, op. cit., p. 271.

26. As I edit the text in late August 2014, Slaves is available on Amazon Instant Video, but I could not find a DVD release, nor was there much critical discussion about the film on-line. I recall seeing Slaves in Paris in the 1970s where it had a cult status in some circles.

27. On Burn! seeCarlo Celli, Gillo Pontecorvo: From Resistance to Terrorism. Lanham MD: Scarecrow Press, 2005. Marlon Brando claims: "I did some of my best acting in Burn!" See Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me. New York: Random House, 1994, p. 364. See also Michael T. Martin and David C. Wall, "The Politics of Cine-Memory: Signifying Slavery in the History Film," in Robert A. Rosenstone and Constantin Parvulesu, eds. A Companion to the Historical Film (New York and London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013, pp. 445-467).

28. Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s The Last Supper is analyzed in Davis, op. cit., and John D.H. Downing, “Four Films of Tomas Gutierrez Alea,” in Film and Politics in the Third World, edited by John D.H. Downing (Brooklyn, New York: Autonomedia, 1987), pp. 279-302. Downing’s excellent anthology also contains an interview with The Other Francisco director Sergio Giral who discusses his films and asserts that the period of intense slavery in Cuba prior to 1868 remains a blind-spot in Cuban history; see Sergio Giral, “Cuban Cinema and the Afro-Cuban Heritage,” op. cit., pp. 267-278. See also essay by Julia Lesage, Jump Cut 30 (1985),

29. McQueen’s art work and short films are described in the Wikipedia entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_McQueen_(director) (accessed December 16, 2013).

30. Carol Vogel, “Steve McQueen Among 6 Hugo Boss Prize Finalists,” New York Times, December 12, 2013 at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/13/arts/design/ steve-
(accessed December 20, 2013).

31. After its showing at the Toronto Film Festival, critics were claiming that 12 Years had a lock on the Oscars and other major awards. See Catherine Shoard, “Toronto: 12 Years a Slave premieres to ecstatic reactions and Oscar lockdown. Steve McQueen's account of a free man sold into slavery wins awards buzz, a standing ovation, and praise for its director from producer/star Brad Pitt.” The Observer, September 6, 2013 23.04 at
(accessed September 16, 2013). For a compilation of early praise for 12 Years, see Anna Silman, “Review Roundup: The Most Effusive Praise of 12 Years a Slave,” Vulture, October 18, 2013 at
(accessed December 17, 2013).

 32. Extracted from the new edition of Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, published by Penguin Classics (London, 2013), and cited from Steve McQueen,

Twelve Years a Slave: the astonishing book that inspired my film. In trying to create a film about slavery I barely knew where to start—until my partner, historian Bianca Stigter, uncovered a true account of slavery that blew our minds.”

The Guardian, December 2, 2013 at
http://www.theguardian.com/culture/shortcuts/2013/ dec/
(accessed December 20, 2013).

33. McQueen tells a similar story in an interview with Dan P. Lee, “Where It Hurts: Steve McQueen on Why 12 Years a Slave Isn’t Just About Slavery,” Vulture, December 8, 2013 at
(accessed December 20, 2013).

 34. The only comparison of McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave to Park’s Solomon Northup’s Odyssey that I have so far found is Bilge Ebiri, “A Tale Twice Told: Comparing 12 Years a Slave to 1984’s TV Movie Solomon Northup’s Odyssey,” Vulture, November 11, 2013 at
(accessed December 15, 2013).

35. On Parks’ life and work, see Gordon Parks, A Hungry Heart {A Memoir} (New York: Atria Books, 2005) and The Learning Tree (New York: Fawcett 1987).

36. On the blaxploitation genre, see Douglas Kellner and Michael Ryan, Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1988 and Mikel J. Koven, Blaxploitation Films. London, UK: Oldcastle Books, 2010.

37. Parks writes:

“Although the box office did not agree, I will always feel that Leadbelly was my strongest and most ambitious film. It was the story of a real-life musician called the King of the Twelve String Guitar. Huddie Ledbetter’s sorrowful plight gave an honest look at the bigotry that was so overwhelming in the 1920 and 1930s.”

In Parks, A Hungry Heart, op. cit., p. 323. I recall Parks making similar claims for Leadbelly during an exhibition of his work at the Laguna Gloria Art Museum in Austin, Texas in the 1970s.

38. Parks, A Hungry Heart, op. cit., p. 333.

39. Note omitted.

40. Chiwetel Ejiofor had the role of translator in Amistad (see Note 10) and was achieving global renown in roles as an African immigrant selling illegal body parts in Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002) and playing against type a flamboyant drag queen who saves a failing shoe factory from bankruptcy in Kinky Boots (2005). It is his riveting role in 12 Years a Slave, however,that is propelling him to multiple award nominations and superstardom.

41. Cited in Bilge Ebiri, “Horrendous Acts in a Beautiful Way: Behind the Scenes of 12 Years a Slave,” Vulture, November 13, 2013 at
(accessed on December 15, 2013).
[return to page 3]

42. Northup, op. cit. p. 33. Northup says of Ford “there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford,” although

“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” (ibid).

Here Northup reveals impressive insight into how social conditions produce values, behavior, and ideologies, points articulated during the same period by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology and Communist Manifesto.

43. See Northup, op. cit., pp 40ff for his narrative account of the episode. Northup’s text is more complex and detailed than McQueen’s modernist film rendition with its long expository passages where Platt is rented out to Tibeats, who torments him, but whose labor is managed by an overseer Mr. Chapin, whose character is not fleshed out in McQueen’s condensed version.

44. Actually, Northup himself notes Epps’ “inhuman throng” from which he has escaped and describes Epps in the same passage as:

“a man in whose heart the quality of kindness or of justice is not found. A rough, rude energy, united with an uncultivated mind and an avaricious spirit, are his prominent characteristics. He is known as a ‘nigger breaker,’ distinguished for his faculty of subduing the spirit of the slave, and priding himself upon his reputation in this respect, as a jockey boasts of his skill in managing a refractory horse. He looked upon a colored man, not as a human being, responsible to his Creator for the small talent entrusted to him, but as a ‘chattel personal,’ as mere live property, no better, except in value, than his mule or dog.” (Northup, 1853: 75).

45. Northup also describes the almost superhuman features of Patsey in a relatively long passage in his narrative (pp. 77-78), writing:

"Patsey was slim and straight. She stood erect as the human form is capable of standing. There was an air of loftiness in her movement, that neither labor, nor weariness, nor punishment could destroy. Truly, Patsey was a splendid animal, and were it not that bondage had enshrouded her intellect in utter and everlasting darkness, would have been chief among ten thousand of her people. She could leap the highest fences, and a fleet hound it was indeed, that could outstrip her in a race. No horse could fling her from his back. She was a skillful teamster. She turned as true a furrow as the best, and at splitting rails there were none who could excel her. When the order to halt was heard at night, she would have her mules at the crib, unharnessed, fed and curried, before uncle Abram had found his hat. Not, however, for all or any of these, was she chiefly famous. Such lightning-like motion was in her fingers as no other fingers ever possessed, and therefore it was, that in cotton picking time, Patsey was queen of the field."

"She had a genial and pleasant temper, and was faithful and obedient. Naturally, she was a joyous creature, a laughing, light-hearted girl, rejoicing in the mere sense of existence. Yet Patsey wept oftener, and suffered more, than any of her companions. She had been literally excoriated. Her back bore the scars of a thousand stripes; not because she was backward in her work, nor because she was of an mindful and rebellious spirit, but because it had fallen to her lot to be the slave of a licentious master and a jealous mistress. She shrank before the lustful eye of the one, and was in danger even of her life at the hands of the other, and between the two, she was indeed accursed. In the great house, for days together, there were high and angry words, poutings and estrangement, whereof she was the innocent cause. 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. Gladly would Patsey have appeased this unforgiving spirit, if it had been in her power, but not like Joseph, dared she escape from Master Epps, leaving her garment in his hand. 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. The enslaved victim of lust and hate, Patsey had no comfort of her life.” Northup, 1853: 77.

This passage shows how Northup found Patsey an altogether exceptional woman, qualities not adequately presented in either Parks’ or McQueen’s film. Parks substitution of a more muted and stereotyped character Jenny for Patsey shows his use of familiar character types in a classically realist narrative. McQueen, by contrast, goes for extremes and shock effects, making his Patsey the best cotton-picker on Epps’ plantation, but focuses her character as the object of Epps’ sexual obsession and of intense conflict with Epps’ wife.

 46. McQueen’s film was dismissed as “torture porn” in an attack by Armond White, “Can’t Trust It,” City Arts, October 16, 2013at
(accessed December 16, 2013).

47. Northup depicts Shaw, the neighboring plantation owner as “a gambler and unprincipled man. He had made a wife of his slave Charlotte and a brood of young mulattoes were growing up in his house” (1853: 96).

 48. Steve McQueen, cited in Bilge Ebiri, “Horrendous Acts in a Beautiful Way: Behind the Scenes of 12 Years a Slave,” Vulture, November 13, 2013 at
(accessed on December 18, 2013).

49. Northup presents Bass as “a man whose true heart overflowed with noble and generous emotions… He was liberal to a fault,” (1853: 111. Gordon Parks introduces Bass as a contrarian arguing against slavery with Epps and a group of Southern gentleman on a plantation porch. Parks’ Bass good-naturedly prods Platt/Northup on his views of slavery, and then befriends him as they work together, promising to get word to Northup’s friends and family up North and getting documents that attest Northup was a free man, which he does, making Bass a hero in the narrative of Northup’s liberation in the original text and both films.

50. In “Commitment,” T.W. Adorno writes:

“It is not the office of art to spotlight alternatives, but to resist by its form alone the course of the world, which permanently puts a pistol to men’s heads…Kafka’s prose and Beckett’s plays, or the truly monstrous novel The Unnameable, have an effect by comparison with which officially committed works look like pantomimes. Kafka and Beckett arouse the fear which existentialism merely talks about...The inescapability of their work compels the change of attitude which committed works merely demand.”

In Aesthetics and Politics (London: New Left Books, 1977), pp. 180, 191).

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