12 Years a Slave

SUBJECTS — U.S./1812 – 1865; Literature/U.S. (Slave Narrative); Biography; Diversity/African-American;



AGE: 15+; MPAA Rating — R for violence/cruelty, some nudity, and brief sexuality;

Drama; 2013, 2 hrs. 14 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.


Note to Teachers:

While TWM has created a useful Learning Guide for this film, it is very long for classroom use. As an alternative, teachers can assign the film for viewing at home and require students to fill out TWM’s Movie Worksheet for 12 Years a Slave. Reviewing responses to the worksheet can be a classroom activity. Watching the film at home can be supplemented with a shorter documentary, Unchained Memories (one hour, 15 minutes) in which actors read from interviews with the last generation of former slaves.

Give your students new perspectives on race relations, on the history of the American Revolution, and on the contribution of the Founding Fathers to the cause of representative democracy. Check out TWM’s Guide:


One of the Best! This movie is on TWM’s short list of the best movies to supplement classes in United States History, High School Level.

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This movie is a cinematic representation of the best selling slave narrative of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in upstate New York who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery. The film shows the life of a slave in the American South primarily on two plantations: one governed by a relatively benevolent master and the other subject to a brutal tyrant. They also expose the particularly hard lot of slave women and the operation of the slave trade. The movie is an excellent resource for 12th grade and college classes in U.S. History and for ELA units on the slave narrative genre.


Selected Awards: 2014 Academy Awards: Best Picture of the Year; and numerous other awards.

Featured Actors: Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup; Kelsey Scott as Anne Northup; Adepero Oduye as Eliza; Benedict Cumberbatch as Ford; Liza J. Bennett as Mistress Ford; J.D. Evermore as Chapin; Paul Dano as Tibeats; Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps; Sarah Paulson as Mistress Epps; Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey; Alfre Woodard as Mistress Shaw; and Brad Pitt as Bass

Director: Steve McQueen


It is important for students to understand the brutality and thoroughness of slavery as practiced in the American South and which was eradicated only a brutal and bloody civil war. It is also helpful for students to understand the worldwide dimensions of slavery, the current status of slavery, and to read at least parts of a slave narrative, the first genre of African-American literature.

Students will have a vivid understanding of the lives endured by slaves in the American South. Students will be introduced to slavery as a worldwide phenomenon that has existed for millennia and which continues to exist. Students will be introduced to the slave narrative, the first genre of African-American literature.


Problems Here.


Watch the movie with your child. When the film is over, tell him or her that the film is mostly historically accurate except that Solomon Northup was not as well-off or accepted by whites in Upstate New York in 1841 and that it is very unlikely that a black mistress was presiding over a plantation or that she would give tea to a slave from another plantation.




The book, Twelve Years a Slave, is a traditional American slave narrative told by Solomon Northup to ghostwriter David Wilson. It is one of the most important of the slave narratives because it was published shortly after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s immensely popular and influential novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Twelve Years a Slave validated the claims of slave-owner brutality made in the novel. In addition, Twelve Years a Slave was a best-seller in its own right when it was first published in 1853. The historical accuracy of the book has been exhaustively vetted by Professor Sue Eakin of Louisiana State University. The culmination of her efforts are contained in the recently republished Enhanced Edition of the book which contains more than 100 pages of notes and supplemental materials. With a few exceptions, Professor Eakin has found the Northup/Wilson narrative to be accurate.

The film is a work of historical fiction based on the events set out in Mr. Northup’s book. To create an entertaining story arc and to fit the tale into a two-hour film, a number of events described in the book have been eliminated and others have been telescoped together. On a few occasions actions by one person have been attributed to another or scenes have been added to support the story. Except for the prelude, the scenes before the kidnaping, the murder of a slave by a sailor on the Orleans, and the tea scene with Mistress Shaw, the scenes shown in the film were taken from the book or are reasonable approximations of events that could have happened given current-day understanding of the history of the era.

On the whole, the book and the film are reasonably accurate representations of what life was like for a slave in the American South under one of the best masters (Ford) and later under one of the worst (Epps, who was not only sexually predatory but also extremely violent). The terrible way in which slaves were treated by slave traders and the awful plight of some slave women is also shown.

Set out below are comments on selected scenes in the film. Citations to the slave narrative itself are referred to as “Northup”. Citations to Professor Eakin’s notes are referred to as “Eakin”. Other citations are to articles in the Links to the Internet Section below.

  • Prelude: The orgasm scene. This is not referred to in the book and was made up by the screenwriters to show “a bit of tenderness … Then after she climaxes, she’s back . . . in hell.” However, it would seem that Solomon Northup, who claims to have been strictly faithful to his wife for 12 years, would have been scandalized by this scene. Berlatsky
  • Before the Kidnapping Northup was not in the middle class nor, in all probability, was he as well accepted by white society as shown in the early scenes of the film. His slave narrative makes no such claims. Northup lived in Saratoga Springs, a summer resort in upstate New York working as a carriage driver for a large boarding house during the summer season. He often had difficulty finding work during the rest of the year. Northup pp. 5 & 7. As shown in the film, he was a talented violinist and would get occasional jobs playing the violin for parties and dances. His wife had steady work as a cook although, as shown in the film, during the offseason she would have to work 20 miles from home, a long distance in those days when inland travel was by foot or by horse. Eakin 261 & 262. Northup himself comments about his life in Sarasota Springs: “Though always in comfortable circumstances, we had not prospered.” Northup pp. 5. Nor would people in New York and in Washington D.C. have been as accepting of a black man as to hail him strolling as an equal through a city park or to allow him to eat at fine restaurants, or shop as an equal without care for the cost in the stores. In the 1840s U.S. society, North and South were extremely prejudiced against blacks. Eakin p. 261. Northup, for example, reports that when he was with the two kidnappers in Washington, D.C., they would order drinks and occasionally hand them to him. He was not necessarily sitting at the table with them. Northup p. 12.
  • The Kidnapping: The kidnapping scenes do not follow Northup’s recollections in several ways. He doesn’t report, for example, being cared for in bed by the kidnappers, one of whom seems to regret what will happen to him. However, these scenes in the film add color to the bare historical facts of the narrative and, unlike the false prosperity and acceptance by whites shown in the scenes of Northup’s life in Saratoga Springs and his trip to D.C., these changes are appropriate poetic license in a work of historical fiction.
  • In the D.C. Slave Pen: These scenes are realistic enough with touches of details from the book. Northup was indeed put in a dark cell, beaten with a paddle-shaped piece of wood until it broke, and then whipped with a cat-nine-tails. He was stripped naked before the beating. The slave pen was in sight of the U.S. capital. One of the jailers appeared to try to be nicer, as a ploy. A woman name Eliza, her children and several men were held at the pen with him. What the movie omits for lack of time are the fascinating and touching stories of these people. See Northup pp. 16, 19 – 23 and Assignment #1.
  • The Trip to New Orleans: To shorten the narrative, the stop at a slave pen in Richmond is omitted. The facts of the aborted conspiracy are changed. Northup does not report that Eliza was taken to the upper deck for sex with a sailor as implied in the film. Robert dies from smallpox, not from a sailor’s knife; a sailor would not be so quick to kill such a valuable piece of property as shown in the film. Otherwise, the changes in the scene appear reasonable approximations of what could have happened and are true to Northup’s story.
  • The Rescue of a Slave: One of the slaves with Northup on the ship Orleans, a man named Arthur, was reclaimed by his master, much to his delight. This scene is based on that report from the book. Northup p. 38.
  • New Orleans: These scenes follow Northup’s recounting of what happened to him including: the scenes in which slaves are instructed to wash and are dressed up and offered for sale; the separation of Eliza from her children; Eliza’s protests and crying, Mr. Ford’s slight and ineffectual effort to convince Mr. Freeman (yes, that was the name of the New Orleans slave dealer) to sell him Eliza’s daughter at a reasonable price; and the characterization of Mr. Freeman the slave-trader.
  • Arrival at Ford’s Plantation: Mrs. Ford is not reported as saying, “Something to eat and some rest – your children will soon be forgotten.” but this is a fair representation of the attitude of most plantation owners to the miseries of their slaves.
  • The song Run Nigger Run: This is a Negro work song and if a white man ever sang it, it would be with the irony used by the character of Tibeats in the film. These scenes are not in the book but they are legitimate poetic license in a work of historical fiction.
  • A Slave Work Party meets the Indians: Northup recounts meeting Native Americans who lived in the woods and watching them dance. Northup pp. 54 & 55.
  • Northup Successfully Floats Logs Down the Bayou: This is from the book, including Northup’s success, Ford’s admiration, and Tibeat’s opposition and resentment when Northup is successful.
  • Ford gives Northup a violin: Actually, it was Epps, at the request of Mrs. Epps. Northup p. 106.
  • Northup’s Conversation with Eliza This is not reported in the book but it is a legitimate literary device to explore issues and develop themes. Eliza is still wailing about losing her children. Northup tells her to get over it. Eliza accuses Northup of being no better than prized live stock and laments that she has done dishonorable things to survive which ultimately did her no good. Northup’s position is that survival is everything.
  • The Sunday Religious Service at the Ford Plantation: Eliza cries throughout the service. Mrs. Ford comments that she cannot have that depression about the plantation. This scene is not in the book, but again it is consistent with the cold and heartless attitude of the plantation elite toward the miseries that they caused to their slaves.
  • Eliza taken away crying “Solomon”: This particular scene is not reported in the book. It is a dramatization of the fact that Northup was helpless to even protest the profound loss that Eliza was forced to endure. Northup reports that Eliza withered away and died of a broken heart. Northup p. 92.
  • Flashback of Eliza Talking: Again, not in the book, but again a legitimate device by writers of historical fiction to bring out themes. “When I say I had my master’s favor – you understand – and for 9 years he blessed me with every comfort.” . . . “Such was our life, and the life of this beautiful girl I bore for him. But Master Berry’s daughter . . . she always looked at me with an unkind nature. She hated Emily no matter she and Emily were flesh of flesh. As Master Berry’s health failed, she gained power in the household. Eventually, I was brought to the city on the false pretense of our free papers being executed. If I had known what waited; to be sent south? I swear I would not have come here alive.”
  • Fight With Tibeats – Northup Bound and Almost Hung: Northup reports a fight with Tibeats who was unhappy with nails Chapin had given to Northup. Northup thrashed Tibeats. Tibeats fled but returned with two other men. They bound Northup hands and feet and put a noose around his neck, but it was not strung up to a tree as in the movie. The tiptoes business is poetic license. Chapin, with pistols drawn, did chase off Tibeats and the two men, leaving Northup standing in the sun for hours, still bound hands and feet. Chapin sent for Ford who, as shown in the film, came and cut the cords. Solomon spent the night in the main house, guarded by Chapin, not by Ford. Northup pp.70 & 71. These scenes are basically true to the story. However, Northup relates two fights in which he thrashed Tibeats. Northup pp 63 – 72.
  • Sale to Epps: At this point in the narrative, the movie skips several incidents in Northup’s career as a slave, including the second fight with Tibeats and Northup being hired out to other plantations to cut sugar cane. It is Tibeats rather than Ford who sells Northup to Epps. Northup pp. 75 – 93. The conversation with Ford in which Northup tries to tell Ford that he is a free man but Ford wouldn’t listen did not occur. Northup never reports trying to tell Ford that he was a free man. While generally complimentary of Ford in the book, Northup never trusted him enough to tell him the truth. This scene, while it didn’t occur, rings true. No matter how good a slaveholder might be, he was still a slaveholder.
  • Epps preaching to the Slaves on Sunday “That servant which knew his Lord’s will and prepared not himself neither did according to his will shall be beaten with many stripes. . . . 150 lashes. That’s scripture.” This is an example of how religion was bent and perverted to support the interests of the slaveholders.
  • Scenes in the Fields Picking Cotton: These scenes, some of which are not specifically in the book, are consistent with Northup’s description of life on the Epps plantation. See e.g., Northup pp. 94 – 99, 105. The authenticity of some of these scenes are doubted by Professor Eakin, specifically (1) “It is doubtful that [Patsey] possessed the skill to pick 500 pounds [of cotton per day].” Eakin p. 301, note 127; (2) it is unlikely that slaves were whipped in the fields from morning till night because this would violate the the “Plantation Survival Code” and harm the property of the plantation owner, Eakin pp. 300 – 301, notes 125 & 126; see also Note 112, pp. 295 & 296 for more on the Plantation Survival Code; note however, that Northup states that Epps was, except for one other master, the most violent master on the Bayou Boeuf, p. 108, and the question is not whether this was usual but whether it would be tolerated by other slaveholders; (3) Northup complains of being given a foot-wide board to sleep on with wood blocks for pillows “seems to stretch credulity” according to Professor Eakin because scraps of cotton were always left in the fields and could be used to stuff mattresses and plantation owners would want their slave to get rest. Eakin, Note 130 p. 302. Professor Eakin also notes that no one could live on small portions of corn and pork as described by Northup. Ibid This is correct but in several places Northup states that slaves had access to other food, such as raccoon, possum and fish. (Northup pp. 117 & 118. Professor Eakin attributes these likely errors to Northup’s ghost writer, David Wilson.
  • Patsey making dolls and singing to herself: This scene, again not in the book, is to show that Patsey was still just a child in her development despite the fact that she was in her twenties during the years when Northup knew her.
  • Epps Making Slaves Dance at Night: This is reported by Northup. Northup p. 107.
  • Patsey’s Sexual Abuse by Epps/Jealousy by Mrs. and Mr. Epps:
  • Northup also describes the fact that Epps required Patsey to submit to his sexual advances as well as the jealousy of Mrs. Epps and her general persecution of Patsey. He also described the jealousy of Mr. Epps when Patsey went to the Shaw plantation, for what he imagined was sex with Mr. Shaw. The abuse of Patsey shown in the film, including the whippings, the bottle hurled at Patsey, Epps’ refusal to sell Patsey, and Mrs. Epps’ humiliation are all derived from episodes in the book. See pp. 111, 116, 117 and 151 — 154.
  • Getting paper: When sent to purchase goods at the store, Northup appropriates a piece of paper on which to write a letter home. This is in the book. Northup p. 136.
  • Run-in with a Gang of Patrollers: Called Pattys or Patty Rollers by the slaves. See generally Northup pp. 130 & 131. The hanging by a patrol is not mentioned in the book, however, hangings of slaves planning an insurrection is mentioned.
  • Northup Running Away to the Swamp The time when Northup ran away from Tibeats through the swamps is related at pp. 77 — 83.
  • Northup is Sent to Retrieve Patsey from her Visit to Mistress Shaw, a Black Woman This scene is not realistic and is a bit of tongue-in-cheek to provide comic relief. However, the scene is not quite as unrealistic as it may at first seem. Plantation owners, with a few limitations, were seen as the lords of their manor and had complete discretion about how the ran their plantations. A few white plantation owners lived openly with their black concubines. On occasion, these men acknowledged their mulatto children, freed them, sent them north to be educated, and left them property. See Eakin Note 115, second paragraph, page 297. However, much more often than not, children of Master/Slave unions were treated as slaves. For an example of the unnatural lack of fatherly feeling of slave owners for their children, see the second anecdote taken from the life of Thaddeus Stevens in TWM’s Lesson Plan on the End of America’s Nightmare Dance With Slavery Using Spielberg’s Lincoln. It is hard to believe that other plantation owners would allow one of their fellow slave owners to install a black woman as the mistress of a plantation as shown in the tea scene in this film.
  • Patsey asks Northup to Kill Her: – She says, “I ain’t got no comfort in this life.” He turns his back; she cries. This is apparently based on a misreading of the book at page 111, although with all that Patsey endured, a wish to end it all seems understandable. However, it was Mistress Epps who tried to bribe Northup to murder Patsey.
  • The Caterpillars Eating the Cotton and Slaves Being Hired Out This comes from the book at pages 112, et seq.
  • Armsby Incident: Northup did ask a white man who was working in the fields to help him, gave the man his savings, and was betrayed. Northup saved himself by lying to Epps, claiming Armsby just wanted to be his overseer, stressing that Northup had no one to write to, etc. Northup then burned the letter to avoid his lie being found out. The film’s rendition is reasonably accurate. Northup pp. 136 – 139.
  • Death of a Slave — & “Roll Jordan, Roll”: This is fictional but realistic. Northup begins to sing accepting the fact that he is going to be a slave for a long time, perhaps forever.
  • Northup Asks Bass for Help: This is a reasonable approximation of what occurred as reported by Northup. For more on Bass, see pp. 325 & 326.
  • Liberation from the Field: This is a reasonable approximation of what occurred. Patsey’s Last Word to Northup “Oh! Platt,” she cried, tears streaming down her face, “you’re goin to be free — you’re goin way off yonder where we’ll neber see ye any more. You’ve saved me a good many whippins, Platt; I’m glad you’re goin’ to be free. — but oh! de Lod, de Lord! What’ll become of me?” Northup p. 187.
  • Omitted from the film: No movie of reasonable length can include everything in a book of 200+ pages. Some of the incidents and scenes omitted include

The smallpox outbreak on the boat, Northup’s illness when he contracted smallpox, his stay in the hospital and recovery; Chapters V and VI;

Ford’s financial embarrassment which caused Ford to sell Northup to Tibeats; Chapter VIII;

Northup’s flight from Tibeats through the swamps back to Ford’s plantation; Chapter X;

The New Years celebrations and the few days that slaves didn’t have to work; XV;

The months’ long wait for Bass’ efforts to bring someone down from the North; Chapters XIX and XX;

The careful groundwork laid by Henry Northup to make his rescue of Solomon a success; for example, Henry Northup secured declarations from people who knew Solomon and took them to the governor of New York; as a result, under the authority of a ten-year-old law designed for the retrieval of kidnapped free blacks, Henry secured an appointment as an official agent of the state to reclaim Solomon; he then went to Washington D.C. and convinced a senator from Louisiana to write letters of recommendation to local officials; Northup p. 177; once in Louisiana, Henry hired a highly respected attorney to represent him; Ibid; they secured a court order and the cooperation of the sheriff before going to the Epps plantation. Northup pp. 181 & 182.

Henry Northup’s search for Solomon and the lucky chance that he found Mr. Bass who directed him to Northup’s location; the rush to liberate Northup before word of the rescue effort got to Epps who would have hidden Northup so that he could not be liberated.


Before Showing the Film:

Consider distributing and having students review, TWM’s Movie Worksheet for 12 Years a Slave. Modify the worksheet as appropriate.


Information Helpful to Students:

Relate the following information to students to give them a better understanding of the movie.

The terms “paddy” and “pattyrollers” or “paddy rollers” were names given by slaves to patrols of whites who were paid to be on the lookout for fugitive slaves and to hunt down runaways. Paddy’s were armed and often brutal.

The culture of the people living in what is now the U.S. has been a slave culture or has tolerated slavery from 1619 when the first slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia until 1865. That is a period of 245 years, almost a century longer than the period since slavery has been abolished. Slavery was so intertwined with the culture of the American South that it took the bloodiest war in U.S. history to make it illegal. Even then substantial portions of the slave society survived for another hundred years in Jim Crow laws and customs. The country is still not completely free of the racism that aided and abetted slavery.

Solomon Northup’s book Twelve Years a Slave is one of the most important examples of a genre of American literature called the slave narrative. In fact, African-American literature in the U.S. begins with the slave narrative, most of which were told to white abolitionist ghost writers after slave had escaped from the South. Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave became a best-seller in 1853 and then a major motion picture 160 years later.


Test Your Historical Instincts Exercise:

Tell students the following: (1) It’s time to test your historical instincts. (2) The movie is reasonably historically accurate except for a few scenes. (3) As you watch the film, look for these scenes. After watching the movie, there will be a class discussion in which you may be asked to identify an inaccurate scene or set of scenes.

Note to Teachers: The heart of this exercise is the discussion after the film. Teachers can prepare for this discussion in about five minutes by reviewing the highlighted sections of TWM’s Essay on Historical Accuracy.

As an alternative to class discussion, students can be asked to write a paragraph on a scene or a set of scenes that their instinct tells them are inaccurate and why. The paragraphs will be graded only on the quality of the writing.

After Showing the Movie:


Complete the Test Your Historical Instincts Exercise:

Suggested Responses:

There are three substantial inaccuracies in the film: (a) the set of scenes before the kidnapping showing Northup as a prosperous individual fully accepted by white society; (b) the scene in which a lone sailor comes into the hold of the Orleans to take Eliza up to the deck and then knifes a slave who tries to protect her; and (c) Mistress Shaw giving Patsey tea.

There are no specifically correct answers to the questions about why the filmmakers chose to include these obviously incorrect scenes. A good discussion will raise the following issues.

As to the first scenes of the wealth and acceptance of Solomon Northup, one possible explanation is that the people who made the movie wanted to draw a contrast between the life that free blacks lived in the North and the life they lived as slaves in the South. A second possible reason is that the filmmakers didn’t want to alienate their audience by showing that blacks were discriminated against in the North before the Civil War and did not have equal rights. Another possibility is that the filmmakers wanted generally affluent filmgoers to be able to identify with the character of Solomon Northup. Whatever the reason, the filmmakers vastly underestimated their audience. Scenes showing Northup having a poor and struggling but intact family in New York would have been more accurate historically and also true to the tale told in Northup’s slave narrative. Properly presented, it would still have provided a stark contrast to Northup’s life as a slave in which families were routinely broken up and family values were routinely ignored by most slave masters.

On the trip, the New Orleans the movie shows the slave being stabbed to death by a sailor when the slave tries to protect Eliza from being taken up to the deck, presumably for sex. This scene didn’t occur. A slave did die on board the ship, but he died from smallpox. The historical record was altered and this incident was added because it’s very dramatic for Robert to be murdered while trying to protect Eliza. However, in 1841 a healthy male slave was worth $650 (estimated to be about $18,000 in 2014 dollars using an adaptation of the Consumer Price Index. It is unlikely that a sailor would so quickly kill such a valuable piece of property. In addition, it is unlikely that a sailor would have gone alone into the hold of a ship containing a number of unchained male slaves.

The scenes of the black Mistress Shaw taking tea with Patsey could have been placed in the film to show that there were a very few slaveholders who honored their slave concubines and freed them or their children. The scene is played “tongue-in-cheek” and could have been placed in the film solely for comic relief.

Additional Information for Students

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was published in 1852, a year before Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave. The novel was one of the most popular books ever published and historians say that it was an important factor in turning the North against any expansion of slavery into the Western Territories. Twelve Years a Slave was published the next year and confirmed the indictment of slavery contained in Stowe’s novel. The connection between the two books was not lost on the Northern Press. Eakin, pp. 262 – 265.

Twelve Years a Slave was ghostwritten for Northup by David Wilson, a lawyer/author. Wilson wrote the book and had it published in a period of three months. a very short period of time. He was spurred on by attorney Henry Northup, the family friend who went to Louisiana to free Solomon. Attorney Northup “figured that information from the forthcoming book would reach readers who could and would identify the kidnappers. Attorney Northup was correct.” Eakin p. 263 at note 3. While the kidnapers were found and prosecuted, they were not convicted because the proceedings were delayed by appeals and before the case could come to trial, Solomon Northup had disappeared again, this time for good. No one knows what happened to him or how he died.

People are still kidnapped and sold into slavery all over the world. Most current-day slavery in the U.S. is sexual slavery in which girls and young women are forced to be prostitutes.

Grave Suspicions about the Death of Solomon Northup: After he returned to freedom, Northup gave lectures to spur sales of his book, assisted in the Underground Railroad, and addressed abolitionist rallies.

He also pursued the criminal prosecution of the kidnappers who claimed that they hadn’t kidnapped Northup at all, but that it was a scheme that he had participated in to cheat Burch out of the money he paid to the kidnappers. They claimed to have done this before with a free black man from the North. Northup steadfastly denied this charge. Eakin pp. 215 & 216.

The criminal prosecution of the kidnappers ended when, after many years of delays in the Court proceedings, Northup disappeared and the case was dropped. Eakin pp. 210 – 214. Many who knew Solomon Northup believed that he was murdered by his kidnappers or kidnapped again and sold into slavery a second time.

The following is from the ending of Dr. Eakin’s study of Solomon Northup’s life at pages 217 & 217:

John Henry Northup, born in Sandy Hill [New York] in 1822, a nephew of Henry Northup, was well acquainted with both Solomon and Henry Northup. [He would have been 19 at the time of the kidnapping and 31 when Solomon Northup returned to New York.] He wrote his version of the story in 1909 in a letter to his cousin . . . who recounted it:

John Henry Northup said not long after they came home, Henry B. “got a lawyer to hear Sol’s story. Soon by questions he got enough to write a book.” According to John Henry, Solomon Northup: 12 Years in Slavery, written quickly and published in 1853, “created a sensation for it came out a short time after Uncle Tom’s Cabin . . . by Mrs. Stowe. The last I heard of him,” said John Henry in 1909, Sol “was lecturing in Boston to help sell his book . . . All at once said John Henry, “he disappeared . . . We believed that he was kidnapped and taken away or killed or both.”

Additional Curriculum Materials:

Teachers may want to provide students with the following handouts prepared by TWM. (1) The Slave Narrative as Literature and (2) Slavery: A World-Wide View, Then and Now (placing American slavery into a global and historical context). As to the latter TWM has prepared a homework assignment to test comprehension of the materials in the essay.


Turning Students Toward the Written Slave Narratives:

After students have seen the movie, turn their minds back to the written slave narratives by having them read all or a portion of Northup’s Twelve years a Slave (see assignments 1, 3 & 4 below) or by having them read all or a portion or another slave narrative, such as Frederick Douglass’ The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. Set out below are several excerpts and one abridgment of slave narratives prepared by TWM for shorter student reading assignments.

  • Chapters I – III of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written by Himself;
  • Short excerpt from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself describing Mr. Douglass’ decision to learn to read at whatever cost;
  • Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery chapters I – VI describing his experiences as a boy during slavery and just after Emancipation;
  • Sojourner Truth’s speech “Ain’t I A Woman?” delivered in 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio; the link is to a web page setting out the best version of the speech in the vernacular and also a translation to standard English;
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself by Harriet Jacobs; (TWM has prepared a six-page handout intended to capture the imagination of students and interest them in reading Ms. Jacobs’ narrative (this document alone will convey many of the lessons contained in Ms. Jacobs’ narrative); for teachers who don’t want to assign the entire book, TWM has abridged this work and cut it to about 1/3rd its original size; see TWM’s Abridged Version of “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself”).

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After watching the film, teachers can engage the class in a discussion about the movie.

1. Have the class read the following excerpt from pages 48 & 49 of Northup’s book. Then ask the class to evaluate the character of William Ford.

Our master’s name was William Ford. He resided then in the “Great Pine Woods,” in the parish of Avoyelles, situated on the right bank of Red River, in the heart of Louisiana. He is now a Baptist preacher. Throughout the whole parish of Avoyelles, and especially along both shores of Bayou Boeuf, where he is more intimately known, he is accounted by his fellow-citizens as a worthy minister of God. In many northern minds, perhaps, the idea of a man holding his brother man in servitude, and the traffic in human flesh, may seem altogether incompatible with their conceptions of a moral or religious life. From descriptions of such men as Burch and Freeman, and others hereinafter mentioned, they are led to despise and execrate the whole class of slaveholders, indiscriminately. But I was sometime his slave, and had an opportunity of learning well his character and disposition, and it is but simple justice to him when I say, in my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. 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. Nevertheless, he was a model master, walking uprightly, according to the light of his understanding, and fortunate was the slave who came to his possession. Were all men such as he, Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness.

Suggested Response:

Make sure that all sides are represented. If there is a consensus in the class for one side or the other, the teacher should make the contrary argument.


2. What factors both within Northup and in his situation allowed him to survive the ordeal of being kidnaped and enslaved?

Suggested Response:

They include a) Tremendous patience and perseverance. Northup waited years for opportunities to attempt to regain his freedom. During the interim periods, he kept silent about his kidnapping and his right to be free. b) While the kidnapping was very bad luck, there were many instances in which Northup had good luck. These included: (1) encountering Mr. Bass — people like Bass were hard to come by in the South because the Slave Power didn’t generally allow dissent and abolitionists were expelled or lynched; (2) having a friend in the North like Henry Northup who had the capacity and willingness to secure Solomon Northup’s liberation; and (3) the way in which Henry Northup found Bass before Bass left the state. c) The ability to make Epps believe that Armsby was lying about the letter. d) The fact that the U.S. is a nation of laws in which the State of Louisiana would honor an order from the governor of the State of New York which caused a substantial financial loss to a Louisiana citizen.


3. During WWII the Germans established slave labor camps that were strikingly similar to plantations in the Southern U.S. The Germans imprisoned Jews, Poles, Russians, political dissidents and other people, fed them very little, and compelled them to work hard — all without pay. In the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials the U.S. accused some of the managers of those camps with crimes against humanity. This occurred just 80 years after the slaves on the last Southern Plantation were set free. What does this juxtaposition of facts indicate to you?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct response. Some good ideas are: (1) Human society has advanced in some important ways or, in other words, the arc of history bends toward justice. (2) Like other nations, unless the U.S. is careful, it can act in ways that are oppressive and wrong. George Washington said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” — this applies to monitoring your own actions as well as to being vigilant to protect your country from others.


4. Describe some of the effects of slavery, as practiced in the American South, on the slave and on the slave owner that are exemplified by the characters in this movie.

Suggested Response:

The slaves lost their right to be free, to enjoy the fruits of their labor, sometimes to choose their spouses, to keep their families intact and see their children grow up, to choose their profession, and, for the women, to choose their sexual partners. The slave masters may have profited financially but they suffered personally becoming hypocrites (Mr. Ford), becoming callous to the suffering of others (all of the plantation owners and overseers, including the Fords, the Epps, Chapin and Tibbeats) or by becoming a torturer and abuser of their fellow human beings (Epps and Tibbeats).



See Discussion Question #4.



(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)

See Discussion Questions 1 & 3.

See also Discussion Questions which Explore Ethical Issues Raised by Any Film.


Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:

1. Additional Assignments to Turn Students Toward the Written Slave Narrative

These assignments will require students to read sections of Northup’s book and give reports to the class or write short essays on some of the details in the book that are omitted from the movie. They can also be asked to evaluate whether various scenes accurately reflect what is set out in the book. This assignment will also enhance students’ understanding of the history of slavery. Suggestions for assignments are:

  • Describe in your own words the people Solomon met in the various slave pens in which he was confined before being sent to the plantation of John Ford. They include: Eliza and her children, Clemens Ray, John Williams, and a man identified only as Robert. Read Chapters III and IV and page 92 to get the information for this project. [This assignment can be divided and each student can be given one person to describe.]
  • Describe in your own words the aborted conspiracy on the boat. Describe how the movie differs from the book in the depiction of this episode. Speculate on why the filmmakers made this change. Read Chapter V to obtain the information for this project.
  • Describe in your own words how it came about that Northup sent a letter home. Speculate on why the filmmakers omitted this scene. Read Chapter V to obtain the information for this project.
  • Write an essay on whether the movie portrays what really happened at Freeman’s Slave Pen in New Orleans. Read Chapter V to get the information for this project.
  • Write an essay on whether the movie portrays what really happened to Patsey. Read pages 96, 109 – 111, 116, 117, & 151 – 154 to get the information for this project.

2. Assignments for Research On Topics Relating to Solomon Northup

  • Retrieve and describe documents in the national archive documenting Solomon Northup’s life [Note to Teachers: see The Documents Behind Twelve Years a Slave The National Archives, November 5, 2013];
  • Describe the relationship between Solomon Northup’s book and the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin [Note to Teachers: see Eakin pp.262 – 265.];
  • Write a report on what happened when Solomon Northup returned to Washington, D.C.; [Note to Teachers: see N.Y. Times Article from January 20, 1853, and Eakin pp. 198 — 217 .]
  • Describe the origin and meaning of the song “Run Nigger, Run”
  • Write a short biographical sketch of Henry B. Northup, the attorney who rescued Solomon Northup, and the relationship between the white and the black Northups.[Note to Teachers: see Eakin, note 6, pp. 266 & 267.]
  • The relationship of Dr. Sue Eakin with the book and her contribution to the story of Solomon Northup [Note to Teachers: see the first few unnumbered pages of the Enhanced Edition published by Eakin Films & Publishing.]

3. Students can be asked to create a drawing or write a poem about key scenes from the book. Instruct students to read the indicated pages of the book as they begin the assignment.

  • The scene in the Washington slave pen when Northup realizes that he had been kidnapped; read Northup chapters II & III;
  • The scene when Eliza’s daughter is taken from her in Freeman’s New Orleans slave showroom; read Northup Chapter VI.;
  • The whipping of Patsey — read Northup pp. 96, 109 – 111, 116, 117, & 151 – 154;
  • The scene when Northup is working in the field and is freed by the sheriff and Henry Northup; read Northup pp. 182 – 187;
  • Northup’s reunion with his family, pp. 195 & 196.

4. Write a work of historical fiction, either a screenplay or a short story, describing what happened when Attorney Henry Northup went to Louisiana to free Solomon Northup. You may add or delete scenes but keep your story primarily true to the historical narrative and make it exciting. There is the stuff of drama in this incident!@ Read Northup pp. 168 – 186 to get the information for this project.

5. Research the usual elements of a 19th-century American slave narrative and write an essay describing how the story told by the movie conforms to or departs from those elements.



Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.


Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.


Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.

Speaking and Listening:

Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.

Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.


The book itself is remarkably well written for a work that was pulled together in three months. See the books and materials listed in the Section on Turning Students to the Written Slave Narratives in Helpful Background.


Other lesson plans: Text to Text: ‘Twelve Years a Slave,’ and ‘An Escape That Has Long Intrigued Historians’ By Michael Gonchar and Tom Marshall, October 22, 2013


The works cited in this Learning Guide are the Enhanced Edition of Twelve Years a Slave published by Eakin Films & Publishing, the websites which may be linked in the Guide and the sites listed in the Links to the Internet section.

This Learning Guide was written by James Frieden and first published on July 29, 2014.

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Citations in this Learning Guide are to the Enhanced Edition published by Eakin Films & Publishing. Citations to the slave narrative itself are referred to as “Northup“. Citations to Professor Eakin’s notes and supplemental materials, beginning on page 198 are referred to as “Eakin“.


prestidigitation, paddy, paddy roller, patty roller.

Click here for interesting quotes from the film at the Internet Movie Database. The entire script can be found on Internet Movie Script Database.

Slavery: the Nation’s “Peculiar Institution”:

While most people think of slavery as the South’s “peculiar institution”, in this lesson plan we refer to it as the nation’s “peculiar institution”. The reason for this is that the cotton industry and the Southern slave economy brought benefits to many parts of the nation. Many New England fortunes had been built on the slave trade. The Northern fabric industry was based on cheap, slave-raised cotton. During the Civil War, the mayor of New York, Fernando Wood who is portrayed in the movie Lincoln as a strong defender of slavery, advocated secession from the United States by the City of New York and alignment with the Confederacy in order to preserve New York’s economic ties to the Southern slave power.

RANDALL KENNEDY, Professor, Harvard Law School on the two alternative traditions relating to racism in America:

“I say that the best way to address this issue is to address it forthrightly, and straightforwardly, and embrace the complicated history and the complicated presence of America. On the one hand, that’s right, slavery, and segregation, and racism, and white supremacy is deeply entrenched in America. At the same time, there has been a tremendous alternative tradition, a tradition against slavery, a tradition against segregation, a tradition against racism.

I mean, after all in the past 25 years, the United States of America has seen an African-American presence. As we speak, there is an African-American vice president. As we speak, there’s an African- American who is in charge of the Department of Defense. So we have a complicated situation. And I think the best way of addressing our race question is to just be straightforward, and be clear, and embrace the tensions, the contradictions, the complexities of race in American life. I think we need actually a new vocabulary.

So many of the terms we use, we use these terms over and over, starting with racism, structural racism, critical race theory. These words actually have been weaponized. They are vehicles for propaganda. I think we would be better off if we were more concrete, we talked about real problems, and we actually used a language that got us away from these overused terms that actually don’t mean that much.   From Fahreed Zakaria, Global Public Square, CNN, December 26, 2021

Give your students new perspectives on race relations, on the history of the American Revolution, and on the contribution of the Founding Fathers to the cause of representative democracy. Check out TWM’s Guide: TWO CONTRASTING TRADITIONS RELATING TO RACISM IN AMERICA and a Tragic Irony of the American Revolution: the Sacrifice of Freedom for the African-American Slaves on the Altar of Representative Democracy.

A Great Lincoln Saying

“When I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” Abraham Lincoln to an Indiana Regiment passing through Washington, March 17, 1865 (29 days before he was assassinated). Introduction to the Mr. Lincoln and Freedom Website.

Illustrations from the original edition:

Kidnapping was a very real fear of free blacks in the North.

Very few kidnapped blacks were ever heard from again.

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