Twelve Years a Slave (2013 film)

Twelve Years a Slave (2013 film) Summary and Analysis of Part 3


Solomon is left hanging from the tree with his toes still touching the ground. A slave girl brings some water over and gives it to him, but no one cuts him down. Mrs. Ford stares at him from the porch, as the sun sets. Eventually, Ford arrives and cuts him down from the tree. He brings him inside and lays him down on the floor with a pillow, telling Solomon that it is no longer safe for him to stay on the plantation. Ford tells him that he has transferred his debt to Edward Epps, who will take custody of Solomon.

"Before I came to you, I was a freeman," Solomon tells Ford, but Ford pushes him away, saying, "I am trying to save your life and I have a debt to be mindful of!" Ford then tells Solomon that Epps is a hard man, and has a reputation as a "nigger breaker," but that he could find no one else who would take Solomon. "Whatever the circumstances, you are an exceptional nigger," Ford says, "But I fear no good will come of it."

We see Epps delivering a sermon to his slaves, using the Bible as justification for corporal punishment on the plantation. He compares the slavemaster to god, and says that anyone who does not obey the master will be beaten. At the end of a workday, Epps evaluates each slave's productivity in picking cotton, and finds that Solomon is picking at a below-average speed. A female slave named Patsey picks over 500 pounds of cotton, and Epps belittles his male slaves for being bested by a woman. He calls her a queen and stares at her lecherously.

The slaves that do not pick enough cotton, including Solomon, are pulled out and whipped. We see Patsey making dolls out of straw, as Mrs. Epps watches from a second-story porch. That night, Epps wakes all his slaves up in the middle of the night, instructing Solomon to get his fiddle for a dance. He brings the slaves into the house and makes them dance. All of a sudden, Mrs. Epps grabs a glass bottle and throws it at Patsey's face, ordering her husband to sell Patsey.

"She pick with more vigor than any other nigger," Epps protests, but his wife insists, telling him she will go back to Cheneyville if he does not sell the slave. "Back to that hog's trough where I found you?" Epps says, smiling, as Patsey whimpers in pain on the floor. "Do not set yourself up against Patsey, my dear," he says, "'Cause I will rid myself of you well before I do away with her." As Patsey gets dragged away, Epps orders the slaves to keep dancing.

The next morning, Mrs. Epps goes to Solomon and asks him to go to the store and pick up some items. As he walks away, she asks him where he is from, and he tells her he belonged to Freeman in Washington. "Was he a learned man?" Mrs. Epps asks, and asks Solomon if he knows how to read. He lies and tells her he doesn't know how, and she tells him it's better that way, since he is there to work.

Solomon goes to the store, but in the middle of the forest, hears hammering and runs to investigate. There, he finds a lynching taking place, and the white man running the lynching asks him where he's going, sending him on his way with a kick. As he walks past, the men hang the slaves, much to Solomon's distress. Solomon buys the items on Mrs. Epps' list and brings them to her.

The scene shifts and we see Solomon arriving at the plantation of a man named Shaw. He is there to retrieve Patsey, who is visiting a friend, a former slave that Shaw has married. When he walks onto the porch and tells Patsey that she has been summoned by Epps, Mistress Shaw suggests that Epps will be no less angry if Solomon returns on time and invites Solomon to sit at the table.

Solomon sits and tells Mrs. Shaw that Epps is worried Shaw is going to try and sleep with Patsey. Mrs. Shaw does not disagree that Shaw might very well try to sleep with Patsey, but suggests that she would never put up a fight, as it might compromise her position as the mistress. Mrs. Shaw then tells Patsey to endure the advances of white men, as they will one day meet a sorry fate; she says, "The curse of the pharaohs were a poor example of what wait for the plantation class."

Solomon eventually returns to the plantation with Patsey, but advises her to not look at Epps as she passes. After seeing Solomon speak to Patsey, Epps attacks him and warns him to stay away from her. In the midst of their fight, Epps falls to the ground and asks for Solomon's help. When Solomon helps him up, Epps attacks him again, and Mrs. Epps comes out of the house to see what is going on. She is distressed to hear that her husband is still worried about Patsey, and Epps drops the whole thing.

That night, Epps comes out to the slave quarters and rapes Patsey. Afterward, he slaps her.


Ford, in spite of being sympathetic to Solomon, proves disappointing and caught up in the violent system of slavery time and again. After cutting him down from the tree, Ford brings Solomon into his house, but lays him on the floor, as though he were unfit for a couch. He saves Solomon's life, not by freeing him from slavery, but from sending him to the plantation of a notorious "nigger breaker," Epps. Eliza's suggestion, that Ford sees Solomon as little more than prized livestock, proves true in this definitive moment. Instead of substantively help Solomon, Ford thinks only of his own debts.

Throughout the film, we see slaveowners not only as masters of their plantation, but also positioned as spiritual and religious leaders there. Ford delivers sermons to his slaves on Sunday, and Epps uses scripture as justification for his violent tactics. We see that both men are given ultimate structural power on their properties, not simply by virtue of their being the head of the household, but also because they are granted a more elevated authority as religious orators. The film stages the ways that structural power is created, suggesting that authority comes from both a leader's position as well as his power to make meaning.

The sexual dynamics on the plantation are yet another vector on which the violence of slavery operates. Epps prizes the slave Patsey above the others because of her ability to pick so much cotton, and looks at her lasciviously whenever he gets a chance. His admiration is of a violently possessive nature, with no attention paid to her desires. Epps is not the only violent master whom Patsey must worry about, however; Epps' wife takes out all her rage about Epps' wandering attentions on Patsey herself, ruthlessly throwing a bottle at her head in the middle of an impromptu forced dance in the house. In Patsey's story, we see the tragedy of a slave woman having to endure not only her master's nonconsensual domination, but also his wife's vengeful jealousy.

As the film progresses and life gets harder and harder for Solomon, the natural beauty of the South becomes more and more ominous. After Solomon witnesses Mrs. Epps' violence towards Patsey as well as a lynching in the forest, we see many shots of the willow trees and the beautiful bodies of water surrounding the plantation. Creeping string music plays as we see these shots of natural beauty, but no amount of natural beauty can compensate for the human evil that the viewer has witnessed. McQueen shoots nature delicately, as if setting trees and water up as silent and powerless witnesses to the horrors of humanity.

The violence only continues to escalate as the film progresses. The tragedy of the story is unrelenting, with scenes of bigoted hatred followed by scenes of senseless violence followed by scenes of rape. By showing the viewer these gruesome events in such an unflinching way, McQueen forces his viewer to reckon with the legacy of slavery, the horrible shadow it casts on American history, the trauma that so many innocent people endured. The film is difficult to watch in that it does not sentimentalize or soothe the viewer's perception of the violence perpetrated under slavery. Rather, it shows slavery for what it was: injustice, violence, and abject subjugation.