In this installment of the Beat Breakdown we’ll take a look at the 2013 biographical drama 12 Years a Slave, written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen. The film won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 86th Academy Awards.
To view a .pdf of the screenplay, click here.
In the antebellum US, a free black man is kidnapped from his home in New York and sold into slavery. What follows is a harrowing odyssey through the American south as our brave protagonist, Solomon Northup, is stripped of his dignity and is forced to survive at the mercy of a sadistic slave master. Throughout his ordeal, Solomon experiences both incredible suffering and unexpected compassion as he seeks a way to reunite with his wife and children.
(Pages 13-16) After some brief exposition during which we’re introduced to Solomon and his family, we move quickly to the inciting incident; that is, of course, Solomon’s kidnapping. As his wife and children travel, Solomon is propositioned by two seemingly trustworthy men who suggest that he accompany them to Washington, so that he may exhibit his skill as a violinist. It soon transpires that this prospective business venture is only a pretense, however, and Solomon, in his revelry, is poisoned and rendered unconscious. He awakes in chains, and in short order is subjected to the first of many instances of physical and psychological abuse.
PLOT POINT ONE
(Pages 38-40) After Solomon’s imprisonment, he makes the acquaintance of other erstwhile freemen who, like him, have been ignominiously kidnapped. Together, the prisoners are transported via steamboat from Washington to Norfolk, where they are to be sold at auction. After being forced to wash and dress, Solomon is presented to prospective buyers, not as a man, but a product. Presently, a slave master named William Ford makes a bid for Solomon, purchasing him for one thousand dollars.
(Pages 55-57) While on the Ford plantation, Solomon and his fellow slaves are tormented by one of Ford’s malevolent overseers, John Tibeats. Tibeats delights in exercising petty authority over the slaves and especially resents Solomon for winning Ford’s favor. When Tibeats’s long-standing hatred boils over, it soon comes to blows between the two. Tibeats, momentarily defeated, vows revenge against Solomon. Ford intervenes in an attempt to save Solomon’s life, selling him to a new plantation with a new master, and likely saving his life in the bargain. It soon becomes clear, however, that Solomon’s new master does not share Ford’s benevolent sensibilities.
PLOT POINT TWO
(Pages 111-116) What follows is an emotionally distressing descent into the maelstrom, as it were, as Solomon endures the savage cruelty of his new master, Edwin Epps. Solomon witnesses others slaves being whipped and beaten within an inch of their lives, and is even asked to mercifully end the life of a fellow slave who is frequently sexually abused by Epps. The second major plot point, however, coincides with the arrival of Canadian abolitionist Samuel Bass. Bass confronts Epps about the treatment of his slaves, prompting Solomon to ask Bass to secretly deliver a letter to his home in Saratoga Springs. Bass, considering it his duty to help the disenfranchised Solomon, vows to aid him.
CRISIS AND CLIMAX
(Pages 118-121) The climax occurs shortly afterwards. While Solomon works in the fields one day, a carriage pulls to a stop outside of Epps’s estate. A sheriff and a certain Mr. Parker, whom Solomon was acquainted with in Saratoga, dismount and address Solomon, who doesn’t immediately recognize him after such a long period of separation. After the sheriff positively identifies Solomon, the two men hustle him into the carriage amid Epps’s impotent protestations. Immediately before departing, Patsy, the same slave who once begged Solomon for death, embraces him in an emotional gesture of finality. Solomon rides away from Epps’s plantation, still trying coming to grips with the fact that his tortuous ordeal is finally over.
(Pages 121-123) The climax is followed by an extremely short period of falling action, which is in turn followed by a few brief expository title cards. Solomon arrives home, visibly aged and hesitant to enter a home that now seems almost alien to him. The film has such a beautifully understated ending, which consists of perhaps three our four line of dialogue from Solomon. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted, Solomon finds himself unable to maintain his façade of strength and stoicism any longer. On the verge of breaking down, he says simply: “I apologize for my appearance. I have had a difficult time of things these last few years.” With his family surrounding him, Solomon finally sees the end of the twelve long years of suffering that had separated him from his loved ones as we fade to black.