The Tragic Wisdom of Solomon Northrup's narrative, as cinema, makes us all feel slavery

We watch a film in which a man is forcibly separated from his wife and children and sold into slavery. He is brutally beaten if he speaks of the time in his life in which he was not enslaved. Later, he carves the names of his wife, daughter, and son under the chin rest of his fiddle, where their names can be close to him but concealed from others. As an audience, watching him etch the names, we understand that the man yearns for his family; we see that he is determined to remember his life with them and someday return to them, however impossible that may seem.

After he is violently coerced into whipping a fellow slave, and then watches the slave owner lash the young female slave until she is near death, he destroys his fiddle. He breaks it into dozens of pieces that lay scattered at his feet in the Louisiana swamplands. As an audience, we need no words or dialogue—we know he is losing hope, wrestling with the despair that he will never escape slavery and return to this family. We know this because we know what the fiddle meant, whose names it carried.

We read in his 1853 narrative Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup’s description of the anguish that threatened to overwhelm him while he was enslaved: “The all-glorious hope, upon which I had laid such eager hold, was crumbling to ashes in my hands. I felt as if sinking down, down, amidst the bitter waters of Slavery, from the unfathomable depths of which I should never rise again” (1968, 214). He explains that life in slavery feels like death—like darkness and not breathing and dissolving into nothingness. In the film, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup looks at the fiddle, which is almost reduced to rubble, and he struggles to breathe.

Steve McQueen’s direction and visual storytelling in the film 12 Years a Slave (2013) expresses to the movie audience what the narrative written by Solomon Northup and edited by David Wilson proclaims to its readers: Slavery was a form of madness maintained by violence. The film revolves around these two ideas that Northup stresses: Slavery was an absurd, disordering of the world, and it was upheld by brutality to body, mind, and feeling. The book and the film depict white Americans who do violence to their own humanity and sense by permitting or participating in slavery, and—as their own wealth increases—they commit horrific, unremitting violence to black Americans. The enslaved pursue resistance when and where they can—through outsmarting those they are forced to call “master,” through disobedience born from self-respect, and even through grief—though this resistance is usually met with harsh punishment. The immorality and illogic of slavery is held up to view by Northup and by McQueen, who cinematically conveys the core messages of Northup’s text and thus imparts Northup’s record of his experience, which is also an affecting condemnation of slavery, to a 21st century audience.

Both recording and condemning slavery were the recurring aims of the “written and dictated testimonies of the enslavement of black human beings” that we call “slave narratives” (Gates, The Slave’s Narrative, xii) such as Twelve Years a Slave, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself by Frederick Douglass (1845) and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861) by Harriet Jacobs. Critics such as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., James Olney, William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Robert Stepto have detailed how slave narratives were expected to both inform readers about slavery “as it is,” and to stoke the fires of abolitionist fervor. McQueen’s film is a faithful rendering of Northup’s story, and thus it is an unrelenting portrait of physical cruelty and distorted humanity.

“Blood is everywhere”

Violence is a defining feature of Northup’s account and a significant characteristic of the slave narrative tradition. Northup says about Edwin Epps’ plantation that, “It was rarely that a day passed by without one or more whippings” (1968, 135). Ira Berlin, in his introduction to Northup’s work, discusses the ceaseless presence of violence in the narrative: “Blood is everywhere in Twelve Years a Slave. Northup makes clear that the slave owner’s authority could be maintained only by terrorizing black people with relentless physical and psychological violence” (2012, xxv). Through slave narratives, ex-slaves testified to the mistreatment and sometimes severe injury that they and others were forced to suffer. They strove to convince their reading audiences that the institution of slavery was not a benign, mutually beneficial arrangement between slaves and slaveholders—that stories of violent treatment were not the exaggerated exception but the established norm. However much the slaveholders might have preached paternalism, the power of the regime was enforced by violence.

Northup’s experience of being born a free man and later kidnapped into slavery was particularly important for the abolitionist movement, because it revealed the abuse of both human beings and the Fugitive Slave Laws. Twelve Years a Slave was published only three years after the passage of the controversial Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, an attempt to strengthen previous acts that allowed for the seizure and return of runaway slaves who escaped to other—sometimes free—states. Northup’s narrative claimed that these acts, meant to protect Southern “property” holders, gave rise to criminals who profited from abducting and selling free black people into slavery. Northup’s ordeal became an opportunity for white and black abolitionists to show that slavery was not just a Southern problem, but that its violence could creep into free, Northern states, corrupting all that it touched. Northup’s story was an emergency sounding to end slavery before its pernicious influence could gain more ground.

While it is important to recognize that Northup’s narrative has an overt, political goal and to frame his testimony as a call for action at a particular moment, it is also worth noting that the slave narratives’ explicit collaboration with abolitionism is a reason that historians and literary scholars largely dismissed these texts for decades. Since they announce their contribution to the abolitionist movement, the slave narrative was deemed too “biased” to be either verifiable historical record or an achievement of literary greatness. But as African American political activism in the twentieth century increasingly impacted the academy, the exclusion of black-authored texts from research and curricula was questioned more and more. The historical perspectives and the literary contributions of enslaved peoples began to be taken more seriously, so that in 1968 Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon tracked the names of peoples and places in Northup’s story and found that these names closely aligned with the maps and census records of that time and place. Scholars and writers also began to more deeply question the “authenticity” of records by white slaveholders—who presumably had their own social and cultural motivations—and to question the assumption that literary gold can only be mined from that which is “universal,” i.e. that which does not wear its politics on its sleeve.

In 1985, in the introduction to a collection of essays and reviews called The Slave’s Narrative (co-edited with Charles T. Davis), Gates states that “No written text is a transparent rendering of ‘historical reality,’ be that text composed by master or slave” (xi). In our contemporary moment, more readers and critics acknowledge that biased representations are all that is ever available of history, but that biased representations still have a great deal to teach us. The historical and literary contributions of slave narratives receive more recognition now, and McQueen’s film continues that recognition by projecting on the big screen the central, emotional testimonies of Solomon Northup.

As a noted African-American Studies scholar writes, “the slave narrative was a mediated autobiography meant to move an apathetic public,” and Northup’s story means to move its public to outrage and indignation. Aiming to evoke a similar response, McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley portray slavery as disconnected from any humane, mindful ordering of the world and dependent on terrorizing pain to hold it in place. In his essay “Solomon Northup and the Sly Philosophy of the Slave Pen” (1997), Sam Worley contends that, “Twelve Years moves toward an understanding of the ironies of slavery quite unlike that of [Frederick] Douglass or most other antislavery writers of the day” (244). In the film, McQueen uses slow, steady visual precision to illustrate Northup’s contention that slavery was brutally at odds with the laws of man, nature, and God.

“Amazing … in no good way”

The clearest moment of slavery’s irony occurs quickly after Northup’s kidnapping. Before he describes slave life on a plantation, Northup directly addresses the profound contradiction he perceives between slavery and American democratic ideals—the city in which he is kidnapped seems to demand this dressing-down of American values. He writes of being handcuffed and led out of Burch’s slave pen to walk to the steamboat that will take him further South: “So we passed, handcuffed and in silence, through the streets of Washington—through the Capital of a nation, whose theory of government, we were told, rests on the foundation of man’s inalienable right to life, LIBERTY, and the pursuit of happiness! Hail! Columbia, happy land, indeed!” (1968, 34). His exclamations are bursting with sarcasm, and he capitalizes “LIBERTY” so that the conflict between his current state and his nation’s principles cannot be missed. Northup’s testimony is that he is not just robbed of his freedom in the United States of America—he is robbed of his freedom in the city that is the very symbol and seat of the United States’ government.

In the film, Ejiofor as Northup does not mock Washington, D.C., but the camera does so for him. As Northup screams to be released from the slave pen, grabs the bars in his cell and shouts in vain for someone to help him, the camera cuts to outside the pen, looking at Northup behind the bars. Then, the camera rises, cranes up, and reveals the upper levels of the brick building in which Northup is imprisoned. The camera keeps rising, and the Capitol Building, no more than ten blocks in the distance, comes into view under the night sky. In its upward movement from a screaming, confined Northup to the glow of the all-white Capitol Dome, the camera scornfully indicts the institution of American slavery.

To be kidnapped into slavery in the nation’s capital city seems almost too devestating to be true. “Your story is amazing, and in no good way,” says Bass, played by Brad Pitt in the film. To combat the incredibility of his experience, Northrup repeatedly recalls the details that only someone who has actually lived in Burch’s slave pen in D.C. and on plantations in Bayou Boeuf, Louisiana, would know. The keen attention to place also emerges in other aspects of his narrative, as he illuminates the physical beauty of the Southern United States and presents it as deeply at odds with the everyday atrocities of slavery. In Northrup’s description of Patsey’s near fatal whipping, he explains that he is forced by his owner Epps to whip the young slave woman first, and that Epps does  it himself after Northup refuses to continue. Between the moment when Epps grabs the lash from Northup’s hands and the moment when Epps finally stops whipping her, Northup inserts a paragraph that registers the strangeness of the brutal scene:

It was the Sabbath of the Lord. The fields smiled in the warm sunlight—the birds chirped merrily amidst the foliage of the trees—peace and happiness seemed to rein everywhere, save in the bosoms of Epps and his panting victim and the silent witnesses around him. The tempestuous emotions that were raging there were little in harmony with the calm and quiet beauty of the day. (1968, 198)

Epps’ violence is out of place, as Northup sees it. His cruelty is ungodly on a day that is reserved for resting and for worshipping God; his viciousness is unnatural amid the natural beauty that a southern, rural farm provides. Northup instructs his readers to imagine the loveliness of the surroundings and to perceive the ironic cruelty that this is where slavery lives.

As Northup commands the reader to pause and behold the setting, McQueen commands the viewer to pause, too, but at a different point in the story. After Northup resists a beating from the white farmhand Tibeats and turns the whip back on him, Tibeats leaves and then returns with friends. He and his friends put a noose around Northup’s neck and tie him to a tree. Northup escapes death only because the white overseer Chapin steps in at the last minute and threatens to shoot the men for attempting to kill William Ford’s property. Tibeats and his friends walk away, but so does Chapin, and Northup remains in the noose. By just barely touching his toes to the ground, Northup keeps enough pressure off his neck to prevent strangulation. And he does this for what seems to be hours. The camera does not cut to a different scene, and no one cuts him down. A slave woman hurries to give him a sip of water, but fearfully runs away after he takes a small drink. The white mistress of the house sees Northup hanging, just barely staving off death, and she turns away. The camera stays on him, lingering, and the lighting changes, showing the passing of time throughout the day. Children play in the background, their laughter mingling with Northup’s labored breathing. Slave women do chores on their porches. His fellow slaves cannot interfere without risking their own lives in the process. The day goes on.

And it is a beautiful day, with greenery lightly bouncing in the wind and sunlight brightening the gaps between the leaves, and McQueen’s camera stays still, showing us the acute bizarreness of a man being tortured in a sunny and serene natural world. Jimmy So writes for The Daily Beast that the film “is also a true story, though one with more than a hint of the surreal, so deranged was the treatment of human beings as property.” The beautiful and horrific imagery of this scenery does indeed seem surreal—the opposite of the pathetic fallacy to which we are more accustomed, in which a stormy night is the apt setting for disastrous human acts. Jay Antani of Cinema Writer notes about the film the “serene artfulness evident in imagery of plantations and Southern landscapes that are evocative of Winslow Homer … courtesy of master cinematographer Sean Bobbitt.” However, Antani quickly clarifies that the beauty and artfulness reminds him, unexpectedly, of David Lynch: “particularly his The Elephant Man, which blended a strong, stark visual style to depict an environment of pervasive cruelty. There is a similar push-pull at work in 12 Years a Slave, with its hallucinatory visual and dramatic power at odds with the repulsive behavior on display.”

Narrative consistencies

McQueen accurately conveys Northup’s cutting comparison between slavery’s crimes and the natural world, but McQueen’s portrayal of Northup’s near-hanging is not exactly consistent with the written narrative. Jimmy So delineates that, in the text, “Northup was left bound tightly, with a rope around his neck, under the blazing sun for an entire day,” while “In the film he dangles from the tree with only one foot touching the ground.” The difference is worth noting, but I disagree with So when he assesses that this “is an invention perhaps a tad overreaching.” I understand So’s point, that to place Northup centimeters away from death and leave him suspended, on the tips of his toes, for seemingly hours and hours is more dangerous torture, and more tense for the audience, than what is recounted in the book.

However, this revision does not in any way “overreach” in its depiction of American history, both during slavery and afterwards. Patrollers strove to make examples of slaves who disobeyed or tried to escape, and public displays of violence were a popular form of example-setting. The end of legalized slavery was not the end of racist atrocities, and for the 21st century audience of McQueen’s film, this scene can evoke the rise of anti-black lynching that followed slavery’s demise. The beauty of the bending tree branches, the swaying flowers, the dappled sunshine, and the struggling figure of Solomon Northup calls up the lyrics of a song written 80 years after Northup published his story, a song first crafted by Abel Meerpol and made famous by Billie Holiday: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,/ Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” (Holliday, 1939). The eerie, unnerving quality of this scene, and the way McQueen rests his camera on it, prompting his audience to fully take it in, calls forward the torment of American’s racial history.

Film and music critic Armond White levels much harsher charges against the film than So’s comment of “overreaching.” In his passionate article “Can’t Trust It” (2013), White maintains that the violence in McQueen’s film is not unlike the violence in horror films, arguing that “as with The Exorcist, there is no victory in filmmaking this merciless.” His position is important, as films that position audience members to be voyeurs to extreme violence should always receive careful treatment and evaluation. However, I think that the violence in McQueen’s film stems from his allegiance to the text itself, which dwells on physical and emotional cruelty to evoke outrage and to highlight the importance of abolishing slavery. It is true that the audience of this film is not a mid-19th century reading audience—that the social moment is different, and that witnessing violence, even when it’s staged, is not the same as reading about it. But slavery should still evoke our outrage, and the perspective of the formerly enslaved should still reach a broad audience. The narratives were widely read in the second half of the 19th century; Northup’s, for instance, sold 27,000 copies in its first two years of publication (Gates xvi). While the words of Douglass, Jacobs, Northup, and others are taught in classrooms today, a critically-acclaimed film can reach a much bigger and more various audience, and it can set in motion the wheels of popular discourse.

Born from disorder

The emotional and physical brutality of slavery is also not the only key tenet of Northup’s text that McQueen vigilantly translates to the film. Northup’s argument that slavery is a disordering of human experience becomes increasingly evident through the scenes that Ridley and McQueen choose not to shoot. In the book, Northup explains how his kidnapping results in a complete disruption and emptying of time. He is enjoying a meal in D.C. with the white men Hamilton and Brown when he is suddenly overwhelmed by headache, nausea, and desperate thirst. He goes to bed but continues to feel terrible, and his last memories of the night are muddled:

My impression is there were then three persons with me, but it is altogether indefinite and vague, and like the memory of a painful dream. Going toward the light, which I imagined proceeded from a physician’s office … is the last glimmering recollection I can now recall. From that moment I was insensible. How long I remained in that condition—whether only that night, or many days and nights—I do not know; but when consciousness returned I found myself alone, in utter darkness, and in chains. (1968, 19)

He wakes up somewhere he doesn’t know, and he has no idea how he got there. He’s told that he’s a slave from Georgia, and any assertions of his real identity result in a merciless beating. Sam Worley sees a connection between the stolen time and the stolen identity, and he contends that the strange, disjointed sense of time in Northup’s narrative also disrupts the direct, self-actualizing progression from enslavement to freedom that many other slave narratives, such as Frederick Douglass’, present (Worley 248). Northup was free, and then, through the deceptions and violations of others, he was enslaved; the choices of his life were largely in his control, and then he woke up and all of a sudden they weren’t.

In the film, Ridley and McQueen could have accounted for this absent time. They could have shown Hamilton and Brown taking an unconscious Northup to Burch’s slave pen, shown Hamilton and Brown receiving money in exchange for Northup. Instead, the movie adheres to Northup’s memory, or lack thereof. We see him feeling ill and being reassured by Hamilton and Brown, and the next shot is of him waking up on the floor of the cell, his wrists and ankles in chains. As I watched the movie, I found myself waiting for the moment when we would see what happened in between those shots, hoping that the creative liberties of filmmaking and adaptation would fill in those gaps. But it never did. Instead, the audience experiences a lack of linearity and is aware of holes in the story. The audience stays with Northup and only Northup, and, therefore, time seems insensible. Slavery seems born from disorder.

Similarly, the film follows only Northup’s life and does not cut away from his time as a slave in Louisiana to show his family’s life as it goes on without him. There are no scenes in New York while Northup is gone from it, and though we watch Northup grieve, suffer, labor, and grow old (in large part due to an exceptional performance by Ejiofor), we only see his family again when Northup returns to them. He walks into his New York house, and his wife Anne and his children are different, older, and like new before our eyes. Like Northup, we didn’t know that his daughter married, gave birth to a son, and named him after her missing father—we learn it as he does. While I watched this moment in the theater, a young woman sitting behind me whispered to the older woman next to her, “It’s like going to prison, and you can never get that time back.” Because we have stayed with Northup and only seen what he could tell us, we leave the theater more conscious of that lost time. Those missing twelve years seem jarring and incomprehensible, and slavery becomes even more illogical and unjust.

Faces of slavery

The aging and suffering on Northup’s face, portrayed by Ejiofor, is also painfully clear at the end because, at this point in the film, we know his face so well. McQueen is highly selective when it comes to moving the camera, and for a large portion of the film, he holds it still, watching faces, especially the faces of slaves, and especially the face of Northup. In the narrative, Northup tells us what he is thinking and feeling, but in the film, McQueen keeps the shot steady and we sit patiently, watching even small changes in movement and expression.

The decision to stay with Northup and only show his family at the beginning and the end of the film is not an obvious choice; in fact, it was not the choice of influential black photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks when he created a 1984 television movie of Northup’s account called Twelve Years a Slave: The Odyssey of Solomon Northup. Unlike McQueen, Parks films a total of five scenes in New York after Northup is kidnapped. The audience watches as Anne tells a white lawyer, who is also a family friend, that Northup is missing. We see her fervently tell her children that they must remain a family despite their father’s absence, and we see her continue to work with the lawyer, trying to locate Northup and bring him home. By shifting the story to Anne several times, Parks more fully develops her character and allows glimpses into her struggle, but he also takes us away from Northup, which lessens the starkness of their separation. Since we, the audience, stay familiar with both characters as the film progresses, their absence from each other—the inexplicability of having no knowledge of one’s partner—feels less acute and strange than it does in McQueen’s version.

I found myself waiting for the moment when we would see what happened in between those shots, hoping that the creative liberties of filmmaking and adaptation would fill in those gaps. But it never did. Instead, the audience experiences a lack of linearity and is aware of holes in the story. The audience stays with Northup and only Northup, and, therefore, time seems insensible. Slavery seems born from disorder.

The problem of the white savior

Furthermore, of the five scenes in Parks’ film that feature Anne while Northup is enslaved, three of those scenes also include Henry Northup, the white lawyer. The exact relationship between Solomon and Henry is not specified in the book or in Parks’ film; in the film, Henry says that he and Solomon were like family when they were growing up, and in his narrative Solomon writes that Henry is related to the white family that enslaved Solomon’s father before his manumission (which accounts for the shared last name) (1968, 4). Parks’ film is a compelling adaptation and a valuable film about slavery—especially because it more fully develops the community among slaves than do many other slavery films—but by returning to Anne’s and Henry’s search for Northup, Parks also more fully develops the trope of a “white ally” or “white savior” and lessens the focus on Northup’s determination to write and mail a letter that will facilitate his release. When the Henry Northup character walks into the home of Anne and her children and announces that Solomon has been found, the achievement of this shifts from Solomon—who risked so much to send a message—to the white man who succeeded in finding his childhood friend.

Significantly, in McQueen’s adaptation, the New York-based white man who travels to Louisiana has a different last name than Northup and is only onscreen long enough to confront Epps about his stolen property and help Northup into a carriage that will begin his long journey home. Northup’s escape from enslavement emerges as predominantly the result of his own persistence, a testimony to black defiance and endurance that is rarely viewed in the movie house. By writing Henry Northup out of the story almost completely, McQueen’s and Ridley’s adaptation actively diminishes the presence of white saviors, distinguishing it from both Parks’ adaptation and Northup’s actual text.

Of course, the white savior is not entirely absent from McQueen’s adaptation. In all three texts—the narrative and the two different films—a Canadian carpenter named Bass vocalizes his disagreement with the slave-holding practices of the Southerners for whom he works. He eventually flouts white social custom by siding with Northup and against Edwin Epps and deciding to mail Northup’s letter, assisting his quest for freedom. The inclusion of both Bass and Henry Northup is another way that Solomon Northup’s text demonstrates the collaboration between slave narratives and the abolitionist movement. As Robert Stepto writes, “In terms of reform strategy, Henry Northup and Bass—who, as a Canadian, represents a variation on the archetype of deliverance in Canada—are not only saviors but also models whose example might enlist other whites in the reform cause” (“I Rose and Found My Voice” 235). Former slaves who wrote autobiographies likely included white people who act as deliverers of justice both to appeal to white reading audiences and to provide a blueprint for how those readers could contribute to abolitionist activities. McQueen’s and Ridley’s cinematic interpretation follows Northup’s plot by including Bass and including a white friend who comes from New York to find Northup, but the film gives these white characters less moral weight than any previous rendering of Northup’s story.

In the Parks version, the Bass character is eager to help, insisting that Northup can trust him, and even taunting Epps in a circumspect way. In McQueen’s film, though, Pitt portrays Bass as solemnly and somewhat reluctantly agreeing to mail Northup’s letter—he appears anxious about taking the risk, almost grudgingly obeying his professed principles. Pitt as Bass is onscreen only long enough for Northup to identify Bass’s anti-slavery position and then ask for his help while Epps is out of earshot. These adjustments in the story—almost excluding Henry Northup and lessening the screen time and enthusiasm of Bass—are important not because white people should never be portrayed as ardently and passionately against slavery in historical films, but because the admirable and heroic white character is such a pervasive and problematic foundation of Hollywood films about racial injustice. McQueen and Ridley largely conform to the emotional and intellectual themes of Northup’s narrative, but they also make, in my opinion, the wise decision to downplay the relationships with white abolitionists.

McQueen has, in fact, received criticism for including the Bass character at all. In response to the 2013 Twelve Years a Slave, critics such as Noah Berlatsky and Daniel José Older write persuasively about the white savior problem in contemporary films, and it’s easy to think of characters in other films about slavery that fit this bill. Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams in Amistad (1997) and Christopher Waltz as Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained (2012) both garnered industry, Academy approval for their roles as white allies to enslaved black men. The unfortunate enthusiasm for this character pattern is particularly blatant in the Twelve Years a Slave poster at the December 2013 Capri Hollywood Film Festival in Italy that showcased an oversized portrait of Brad Pitt’s face, angelically lit, with a much smaller rendering of Ejiofor, in profile and running, underneath Pitt’s image. (The poster was later withdrawn and apologies offered). While I agree with Berlatsky and Older that there need to be movies about slavery that don’t revolve around redemptive white people, I think it would also be a mistake to miss the ways that McQueen lessens the role of white people in Northup’s story so as to focus more on Northup’s fight and to undermine a comforting narrative of liberation.

The past into present

Armand White writes that “the finite numeral in the title of 12 Years a Slave compliments the fallacy that we look back from a post-racial age, that all is in ascent.” I understand his point that one can reassuringly, falsely repeat that “it’s all in the past” when watching historical films about violent and systematic racism. However, I disagree with White that Northup’s numbered years in slavery and his return to freedom inherently imbue McQueen’s film with a triumphant overtone. When the New York friend pulls up in a carriage, Ejiofor as Northup is almost falling down in his eagerness to flee Epps’ plantation. Before he steps onto the carriage, though, Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey approaches him and they firmly, bittersweetly embrace. As the carriage drives away, McQueen holds the camera so that Ejiofor’s face is in the foreground—his expression a wrenching combination of incredulity, relief, and sorrow—and the figure of Patsy, standing in the road, is in the background. The carriage continues moving, and McQueen holds this shot, again lingers on it, with the now-free man and the still-enslaved woman continuing to occupy the same frame. There cannot be unadulterated victory in Northup’s release, because he leaves so many behind who are still enslaved. There cannot be sheer joy in his reunion with his family, because they have lost so much of their time together. Northup’s story still evokes outrage and indignation, and McQueen’s film tells it as it is.