The year is 1841. A 32 year-old free black violinist named Solomon Northup is performing in Saratoga Springs when he meets two white men, Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell. They invite him to travel to New York City to play for a circus. The pay is decent and Solomon has a family to support. He decides to make the short trip. The three have moderate success and Merrill and Russell suggest something even grander. Washington D.C. Bigger audience, bigger take. Never mind that Washington D.C. is a slave district, home to some of the most notorious slave markets in the nation. Solomon is a free man and he trusts these men. The three take the train to Washington D.C.
At the same time, a New York judge named Thaddeus St. John is also heading to Washington D.C. He recognizes Merrill and Russell on the train and notes to himself that they have a black companion. Surprising, perhaps, but not altogether unusual.
What is unusual is when he sees them again later on their way back to New York without their black companion. Jokingly, he asks, “Did you sell him for $500?” No, one of them men jokes back. “Try $150 higher.”
In 1841, Solomon Northup is drugged, bound and sold into slavery for $650. In 1853, he escapes. He then writes a book chronicling his twelve years a slave. In 2013, his book becomes a movie. On Sunday, that movie might just win an Academy Award.
My Thoughts On 12 Years A Slave
12 Years A Slave is, quite simply, the best movie that has ever been made on American slavery. It is not an easy movie to watch, any more than Solomon’s story is an easy one to read. Director Steve McQueen shows every whip lash, every sweaty brow, every bloody finger, every painstaking, horrible day of years and years and years of enslavement.
There is a scene in the movie that has stayed with me several months after first seeing the movie. It takes place shortly after Solomon suffers yet another horror at the hands of a vicious slave-owner. The actor who plays Solomon, Chiwetel Ejiofor (also up for an Academy Award), has large, luminous eyes that director Steve McQueen uses to great effect throughout the movie. None more so than in a shot that lasts for a long beat of time. In it, Solomon stares out into the Louisiana landscape, baffled as to how he, a man born free, could have ended up a slave. His expression is one of pain, suffering, exhaustion, defeat, but most of all, disbelief. How can this horror exist? How can these people exist? And how can these people have held on to this horror for so long?
As Solomon would soon learn, part of the reason was the law. No decision summarizes the state of blacks under the law than the infamous Dred Scott decision. In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court held that blacks in America, slave and free, were not citizens of the United States. In explaining the decision, Chief Justice Robert Taney wrote that, in the minds of the Founding Fathers, Negroes were “an inferior order,” “altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations.” They were, in fact, “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” As such, “the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”
Dred Scott wasn’t decided until several years after Solomon left slavery. However it is to that legal reality that Solomon returned when he sought justice for the crimes committed against him.
The book, and the movie, end with Solomon’s return to Saratoga Springs. However his story continues long after that. Before Solomon even returned to Saratoga Springs, he went to Washington D.C. to sue James Birch, the slaver to whom he had been sold. However under the law of our nation’s capital, Solomon was not allowed to testify against Birch because Birch was white and Solomon was black. Case dismissed. Birch then accused Solomon of fraud. Solomon was arrested and detained until Birch decided to dismiss the complaint. Justice lost.
Solomon returned to Saratoga Springs and eventually published the bestseller, 12 Years A Slave. In Fonda, New York, a judge named Thaddeus St. John read the book and recalled seeing two friends, Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell, riding a train to Washington D.C. in 1841 with, then later without, a black man in tow. The judge met with Solomon and the two worked together to bring Merrill and Russell to justice. In 1854, authorities arrested Merrill and Russell in upstate New York. They were indicted on four counts of kidnapping and one count of selling a free man. Justice regained, at least temporarily.
See, Merrill and Russell’s lawyer had two tricks up his sleeve. Jurisdiction and the statute of limitations. As to the first, Solomon had willingly traveled with the men to Washington D.C. It was in Washington D.C., not New York, that the kidnapping and sale had taken place. New York lacked jurisdiction over the crimes. As to the second, it had been thirteen years since the kidnapping had taken place. The statute of limitations had run.
The trial court agreed in part with the kidnappers’ lawyer, but the state appealed all the way to the New York Court of Appeals. The Court remanded back down to the trial court and the case stayed in limbo until 1857 when the prosecution dismissed the indictment.
Why was the case never re-tried? No one knows. Politics, waning of interest, witness intimidation. And, of course, the Dred Scott decision that came down the same year. But whatever the reason, the law never gave to Solomon Northup the justice he deserved.
For two-hundred and forty-six years, slavery legally existed in the United States of America. On December 6, 1865, three-fourths of U.S. states ratified the Thirteenth Amendment and 4 million slaves in America were set free. As for Solomon Northup, it’s unknown whether he lived to see emancipation. His later life is shrouded in mystery. But the book he wrote rattled a nation’s conscience and, in its small way, helped defeat the institution that had stolen twelve years of his life.
On Sunday, 12 Years A Slave might win a richly deserved Best Picture award. Take the chance before then to go see this movie. Learn about Solomon Northup and the horror of American slavery. And at the end, think on the words of another man who suffered and survived legalized injustice. To quote Nelson Mandela: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.” 246 years of American slavery. Never, never and never again.