I read Solomon Northrup’s personal account of slaverylong enough ago that I decided to pick it up again in light of having seen the movie. It’s hard not to be impressed with how close the movie actually follows the narrative, but specific choices made by director Steve McQueen stand out. Consider this passage from very early in the book:
With the return of spring, Anne and myself conceived the project of taking a farm in the neighborhood. I had been accustomed from earliest youth to agricultural labors, and it was an occupation congenial to my tastes. I accordingly entered into arrangements for a part of the old Alden farm, on which my father formerly resided. With one cow, one swine, a yoke of fine oxen I had lately purchased of Lewis Brown, in Hartford, and other personal property and effects, we proceeded to our new home in Kingsbury. That year I planted twenty-five acres of corn, sowed large fields of oats, and commenced farming upon as large a scale as my utmost means would permit. Anne was diligent about the house affairs, while I toiled laboriously in the field. (p. 9)
Those of you who’ve seen the movie already know that McQueen chose to begin his story with the Northrup family already established in Saratoga Springs, New York. Solomon is shown well dressed and walking in a park with an individual that he is unable to identify in his narrative, when he is approached by two strangers who were ultimately responsible for his kidnapping and enslavement. Northrup’s life prior to this is ignored entirely.
There are any number of reasons as to why the director might have left this earliest phase of the book out, but it is hard to deny that having done so impacts our perception of Northrup. We see him as a refined, talented and prosperous free black man, who apparently interacted with the elite white community of his community. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this picture, though I do question whether the movie’s depiction of Northrup at this stage distorts the reality of life for most free blacks in Saratoga Springs and New York generally. I think I know the answer to this question.
Even if we grant the accuracy of the movie’s depiction of Solomon it might be helpful to consider how audiences might have responded if he was shown ‘toiling laboriously in the field.’ Would it muddy the sharp contrast of life before and after his visit to Washington, D.C.? Might audiences have less sympathy for a former hard working farmer (as opposed to a refined musician) who finds himself enslaved on a Southern plantation in Louisiana?