Solomon Northup is a free black man from Saratoga, New York, who works as a violinist and lives with his wife and two children. While his wife is away, he is conned by two white men and ends up in chains, sold as a slave in the South. The film tracks his journey of survival throughout this ordeal, and his endurance of the often horrifying treatment he and his fellow slaves suffer.
At first, Solomon tries to get out of his subordinate position by proving his intellect to his masters, but soon learns that this only brings more trouble from white men who feel threatened by his higher education. Throughout the film, he tries to keep his head down and survive, while also maintaining his dignity in the face of brutality and racism. He is portrayed as a man of integrity who is beaten down and demoralized by the violence of slavery in the American South.
Epps is the master on the plantation on which Solomon ends up working for the longest period of time. He is a heavy drinking, capricious, and erratic man who feels very little real control over his life, so exerts power over those in his charge. He is presented as a religious fundamentalist, a Christian who distorts the teachings of the Bible to serve his own violent philosophies.
Epps pursues an abusive sexual relationship with one of his slaves, Patsey, and takes out much of his frustrations and insecurities on her. He regularly rapes and beats her, and is spurred on in his violence by his jealous wife. Epps believes wholeheartedly in the institution of slavery, subscribing to the belief that his slaves are his property and he can do whatever he wants with them.
Patsey is a slave on Epps' plantation. Epps has taken an especial liking to her, both because of her productivity as a cotton-picker and her beauty. Despite her lack of interest, he regularly rapes her and feels that he possesses her. Patsey is the most vulnerable victim of the violence of slavery in the film, and we see her endure some horrible and gruesome acts, including getting hit in the head with a bottle, slashed in the face, and whipped repeatedly and violently. Patsey's lot is so tragic that at one point she begs Solomon to kill her, so that she can finally know peace.
Mistress Epps is Epps' wife, a calculating, cold, and violent woman in her own right. We briefly learn that she comes from a poor background and is financially dependent on her husband, which only heightens her jealousy of his attraction to Patsey. Mistress Epps regularly takes out her hostility towards her husband on the slaves, particularly Patsey, and hurts her at several moments in the film.
Mistress uses what little power and influence she has in her household to emasculate her husband and belittle him for not having more power over their slaves. She is a key antagonistic figure in the film, encouraging many of Epps' more atrocious acts of violence.
Ford is Solomon's first master, a relatively kinder and more sympathetic plantation owner, if limited in his moral imagination. He listens to Solomon's idea about engineering and admires his intellect. However, when one of his white workers develops a desire to kill Solomon, Ford simply sells Solomon to another plantation owner, Epps, rather than granting him the freedom that he deserves. Ford is an example of a white character who cannot address the structural injustice of slavery, in spite of his personal investment in Solomon's well-being.
Tibeats is a worker on Ford's farm who is threatened by Solomon's intellect and wants to kill him to put him in his place.
Bass is a Canadian who works as a hired hand on Epps' plantation and is not afraid to tell Epps that he thinks slavery is a morally bankrupt system. He is a more ethically enlightened Northerner who agrees to send a letter on Solomon's behalf, which leads to Solomon's release.
Twelve Years a Slave (2013 film) Questions and Answers
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