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0:27:47 From “Solomon Northup” to “Pratt”

My Name Is Solomon Northup

By Nicole O’Connell, Katelyn Norsworthy, and Travis Nichols

[1] Steve McQueen’s 2013 film 12 Years a Slave drags viewers into the past and subjects them to the dehumanizing environment of slavery. The scene in which “Solomon Northup” is renamed “Platt” strips him of his identity and forces him away from the free life he had inhabited just days earlier. The constant reminders and nuances of both freedom and enslavement enhance the mood of Northup’s helplessness in this scene.

[2] The mise-en-scene, featuring a busy port with people moving freely, portrays the cruel, miserable experience of the slave trade. The slaves held by the slave trader Theophilus Freeman (whose very name seems to mock them) are the one exception to the bustling action. Northup and the other slaves look defeated, and the overcast sky echoes their dark moods and confusion. The enslaved people sit next to each other, scared and silent, only moving when named during Freeman’s roll call. Their freedom of movement is suddenly snatched away by malicious slave owners. The people moving around on the ship have a purpose, but what purpose does Northup have if he is no longer himself?

[3] Northup’s loss of his name serves as one of the major turning points in the film. From this point forward, he retains little remnant of his old life. Before being kidnapped, Northup lives his life as a free individual who loves his family and plays music; however, enslavement changes this. Slaves are grouped together and considered chattel, or property. Families become irrelevant, and little time remains for leisure or culture. The institution of enslavement diminishes the individual until that person recedes to merely a thing. Before being renamed Platt, Northup was still Northup. Hope remained that he could return to his home and to his life. However, by being forced to become Platt, a new identity and status was forced upon him.

[4] Costumes also represent Northup’s descent into slavery. In this scene, none of the enslaved people wear hats, unlike all the free people at the port. At the start of the scene, a man on the right adjusts his hat, and another passerby does the same behind Freeman while he calls out names. Because hats are a symbol of status, these moments emphasize the differences between the enslaved and free people. Clothing is also a powerful marker of status. Freeman wears an expensive ensemble, including spectacles and a cravat, while Northup and his male companions wear basic shirts and trousers, all of which are torn and dirty. The enslaved women wear formerly elegant dresses, which are also now torn and dirt-stained. These outfits echo their positions: they were once prosperous and bright, but now have been tainted and damaged by slavery.

[5] The audio elements of the scene, like the costumes, also showcase the differences between freedom and slavery. Music plays an important role in 12 Years a Slave; however, this scene does not include any non-diegetic sounds. Instead, many different diegetic sounds influence the scene. The horses and the rolling carriage wheels on the gravel street establish that Northup is situated in a busy part of a city, and yet no one stops to help him and his fellow slaves. The sounds of the chains on Northup and the other slaves remind the viewer of their restricted position. The sounds of the seagulls enhance the setting of a port but also represent, like other flying birds, freedom, something unattainable to the enslaved people.

[6] The camera angles of the scene play a critical role in establishing the contrast between the elusive notion of freedom and the cruel reality of enslavement. The first viewpoint examines the action from across the street from where Northup and the other enslaved people wait, almost as if they are posing for a family or group picture with the ships and docks in the background. The second and third are both shots focusing on either Freeman or Northup. However, Northup’s shots are always more zoomed in than the shots on Freeman, showing that Northup remains chained and restricted, while Freeman freely moves around and breathes. Later, when Freeman slaps Northup and insists that “your name is Platt,” the camera focuses on Northup’s passive reaction, as if he accepts this new identity in that moment as a tool to survive through the miserable experience to come.

[7] Motifs in this scene also appear in other scenes throughout the film. At the start of this scene, the enslaved people look as if they are arranged for a portrait; a similar tableau occurs in the beginning of the film in which the enslaved people are arranged in a field listening to the demands of labor for the day, where they also appear to be posed for a portrait. However, this stillness does not last as random violence is also a motif throughout the film. When Northup is renamed Platt, Freeman suddenly strikes him. The viewers’ are bewildered by this attack in an otherwise calm scene. The violence is not the first he has faced since being captured. After waking up from being kidnapped, he is severely beaten while chained in a basement. Throughout the film, whips and strikes fall upon Northup, in attempts to beat the humanity out of him.

[8] Another echo of the renaming scene appears at the end of the movie when Northup is freed. In this later scene, a man comes to the plantation, and, like Freeman, calls for the person named Platt. This time, Northup responds to the name Platt and states it is his own. After twelve years it seems as if he has accepted his new identity and no longer recognizes himself as Northup. When asked if he has had any other name, however, he replies that his name is Solomon Northup and claims his freedom. Unlike the scene in which he becomes “Platt” and in which asserting his true name is dangerous, in this later scene, claiming his true name is his only key to freedom. At first, it may seem that the loss of Northup’s name represents nothing more than the changing of a label; nicknames are often given and changed frequently without major alterations to the person’s identity. Northup’s name, in contrast, proves essential to his existence: losing his name means losing his freedom, and reclaiming his name lets him reclaim his freedom. When all seems hopeless, Northup successfully crosses the abyss between slavery and freedom by taking back his name.