In the film portrayal of 12 Years a Slave, Edwin Epps (played by Michael Fassbender) is a cruel plantation owner who demands more of his slaves than they are able to produce. In this still shot, from the movie, we see Epps with Patsey (a hardworking slave played by Lupita Nyong'o) and Platt (Solomon Northup’s slave name). Platt is portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor (known, among other things, for his award-winning performance as Shakespeare’s Othello). Still-shot, copyright Fox Searchlight, all rights reserved. Image online, via Fox Searchlight, and provided here as fair use for educational purposes.
Surviving the swamp, Solomon learned important news when he next-saw Tibeats. The man who had nearly killed his slave had sold him to a new owner called Edwin Epps.
Northup’s life would now enter a different, not necessarily better, phase.
Edwin Epps was a large man. Northup describes him with these words:
At the time I came into his possession, Edwin Epps was fond of the bottle...a roystering, blustering, noisy fellow, whose chief delight was in dancing with his “n___,” or lashing them about the yard with his long whip, just for the pleasure of hearing them screech and scream, as the great welts were planted on their backs.
When sober, he was silent, reserved and cunning, not beating us indiscriminately, as in his drunken moments, but sending the end of his rawhide to some tender spot of a lagging slave, with a sly dexterity particular to himself. (12 Years a Slave, at page 162 of an online version of Solomon Northup's book.)
Epps wanted to get the most out of his “slaves.” One of them, a girl called Patsey, was particularly hard-working. She could pick cotton at astonishing rates, and Epps liked her.
Mrs. Epps, however, despised Patsey and wanted her husband to beat the girl. When he refused, the Epps would quarrel with each other. When Epps was away, “the mistress” often asked Solomon to beat Patsey. He would refuse, with the excuse that he did not want to upset the “master.”
There came a time, according to Solomon’s narrative, when the "the green-eyed monster" also crept into the soul of Epps. When that happened, he joined his wife in making Patsey’s life even more miserable than it already was.
Sometimes, just to seek consolation elsewhere, Patsey would visit her friend Harriet Shaw (whose husband owned a nearby plantation). Epps began to grow suspicious. Why was Patsey visiting the Shaws? Did his plantation-owning neighbor have eyes for her, too?
One day, when Epps called-out for Patsey, she was nowhere to be found. She had gone to the Shaw plantation, with a specific request for something she did not have. Despite her hard work, picking cotton faster than anyone else, she was without soap:
"Missus don't give me soap to wash with, as she does the rest," said Patsey, "and you know why. I went over to Harriet's to get a piece," and saying this, she drew it forth from a pocket in her dress and exhibited it to him. "That's what I went to Shaw's for, Massa Epps," continued she; "the Lord knows that was all." (12 Years a Slave, at page 165 of an online version of Northup's book.)
Epps did not (or would not) believe her.
Photo inside the text depicts the plantation house of P.L. Shaw, a neighbor of Edwin Epps and the place where Patsey (the slave “owned” by Epps) went to get some body soap. The text notes that this house closely resembles the Epps house at the time of the Civil War. From "Backtracking Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup Trail Guide," n.d, p. 11, vertical file. Online via Common-Pace.org; courtesy of the Ethel and Herman Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies, New Orleans, Louisiana.
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