Script Analysis: “12 Years a Slave” — Part 1: Scene By Scene Breakdown
Reading scripts. Absolutely critical to learn the craft of screenwriting. The focus of this weekly series is a deep structural and thematic analysis of each script we read. Our daily schedule:
Monday: Scene-By-Scene Breakdown
Today: Scene-By-Scene Breakdown. Here is my take on this exercise from a previous series of posts — How To Read A Screenplay:
After a first pass, it’s time to crack open the script for a deeper analysis and you can do that by creating a scene-by-scene breakdown. It is precisely what it sounds like: A list of all the scenes in the script accompanied by a brief description of the events that transpire.
For purposes of this exercise, I have a slightly different take on scene. Here I am looking not just for individual scenes per se, but a scene or set of scenes that comprise one event or a continuous piece of action. Admittedly this is subjective and there is no right or wrong, the point is simply to break down the script into a series of parts which you then can use dig into the script’s structure and themes.
The value of this exercise:
* We pare down the story to its most constituent parts: Scenes.
* By doing this, we consciously explore the structure of the narrative.
* A scene-by-scene breakdown creates a foundation for even deeper analysis of the story.
This week: 12 Years a Slave. You may download a PDF of the script here.
Screenplay by John Ridley based on a “Twelve Years a Slave” by Solomon Northup.
IMDb plot summary: In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.
12 Years a Slave
Scene by Scene Breakdown
By Georgevine Moss
1–5: April 1841. Black SOLOMON NORTHUP is a talented violinist, appreciated by his white rich patrons. Solomon is also a happy family man in a town where free blacks mingle with the whites and the well-treated black slaves from the south.
Solomon can provide for his family, even affording some luxuries, but by no means is he well-off. He is a respected man and very much a part of the community and along with his other fellow citizens he signs a condolences book for the widow of the recently deceased President Harrison.
5. This free, happy family man entering a store to purchase items with his wife ANNE and children MARGARET and ALONZO — this time a new carry all for Anne’s annual journey — is an absolutely mesmerizing sight to JASPER, a slave in town with his master. Inside the store Jasper is treated by the store owner, MR. CEPHAS PARKER, just like any other respected client, a behavior Jasper doesn’t know how to respond to, since his current primary state is that of fear.
Just as Parker is offering Jasper to buy a new cravat, Jasper’s Master FITZERALD enters the store and apologizes for Jasper’s intrusion to Parker, dismissing Solomon’s presence with a cold stare.
6. At the Northup house, Anne prepares dinner, while Solomon reads to his children about President Harrison’s funeral arrangements. The happy family enjoys a nice warm meal with the children left waiting, eager, to have their first violin lesson after the meal is over.
7. It’s bedtime at the Northup home and both parents enjoy the gift of tucking in their kids to bed. Savoring every moment in bed — this perfect for each other couple — talk about not wanting to part ways as Anne has to go away as a cook for a few weeks, but it’s good money.
9. Anne and the children board a carriage as Solomon waves them “a hefty goodbye”.
10–11. Solomon is introduced to two gentlemen by “Mr. Moor himself”, MERRIL BROWN and ABRAM HAMILTON, both finely dressed. Solomon is presented as an expert violinist to the two men, who are in search of “distinguished individuals”. They usually work for the circus in Washington. They offer good money to Solomon to join them in New York for a few performances. Travel expenses paid too. Solomon, wanting to visit the metropolis and the money being enticement enough, accepts.
12. Solomon packs for the trip. Violin included.
13. Solomon is trying to write a letter to his wife of his journey plans. A task that is very difficult for Solomon, to communicate by letter. [A letter at the beginning of the story could have saved Solomon from what came next — but because such communication was difficult for him the letter was never written — his life in the end depends on a letter.]
14. Solomon boards the carriage with his two companions. No letter to post.
15. At a roadside pub, Solomon plays the violin to “not a select audience”, while his companions perform a magic routine.
16. After the show, Solomon — empty of alcohol and calm — sits with Hamilton and Brown as they count — disappointed — the night’s profits. Brown suggests that the trio now is known enough to be able to make more money, as promised to Solomon, in Washington. Would he join them?
A man of Solomon’s skills would do well with the circus. He’d build a reputation that would bring a fortune for a lifetime. Solomon agrees for a “one trial engagement”. Brown and Hamilton suggest that Solomon should get his free papers as they would be entering slave states, six shillings worth. They’ll see to it in the morning.
18. Washington. The people are in mourning for the loss of President Harrison. Hamilton, Brown and Solomon ride in their carriage.
19. At the hotel’s dining room, Brown gives 43 dollars to Solomon as wages and an advance from the circus. The director was impressed to hear of Solomon’s abilities; alas he could not join them tonight.
Hamilton and Brown drink in honor of the late President. Solomon reluctantly joins them. Twice.
22. In an alley outside the pub, Solomon is ill. Hunched over. Retching. Brown and Hamilton are watching.
23. Brown and Hamilton help Solomon to his room at the hotel. Hamilton seems disappointed. They exit, leaving Solomon in the dark, moaning.
24. Solomon wakes up in a room with iron bars in the window and a well-locked door. BURCH’S DUNGEON. His hands are cuffed and his legs in irons. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot get free.
25. The next day Solomon awakes. This time the door opens and in enters JAMES BURCH, the man who runs the slave pen and EBENEZER RADBURN, the overseer. Solomon states he is a free man. Burch asks for his papers.
Solomon searches his pockets, but someone has stolen his papers. Burch eggs Solomon to acknowledge he is not a free man from Saratoga, but a Georgia runaway. When Solomon stands quiet, Burch whispers to Radburn to bring a paddle and a whip. As Solomon remains quiet, both men grab him and pull him over a bench. Burch beats Solomon hard until he wears himself out.
When asked again, Solomon insists he’s a free man. Burch gets back to work, beating Solomon and telling him he’s a Georgia slave. The paddle breaks in half and Burch grabs the whip instead. The strikes continue until Burch cannot go on. He exits, while Radburn stays, telling Solomon that there’s no need for this violence, if only Solomon was of a “cooperative nature”. Radburn exits.
Solomon tries to get free of his chains to no avail. He calls out for help.
26. A shot of Burch’s dungeon. Exterior. Washington.
27. Another day at the dungeon. The door leading to the yard opens.
30 (page 21). In the yard there’s educated 25 year old CLEMENS RAY. 20 year old JOHN WILLIAMS — a born slave — and RANDALL, a 10 year old. They and Solomon stand naked. Radburn throws cold water on them and orders them to wash up. Solomon tries to help Randall, but the child starts crying, asking for his mom. Solomon lies to the boy to silence him and avoid a beating.
32. Back at Burch’s dungeon, Radburn gives Solomon some food and a shirt. Solomon protests when Radburn takes his old tattered shirt. It was from his wife. Radburn exits with the shirt.
At the yard are Clemens Ray, John Williams and Solomon — now close enough to trust a few words to each other. Randall wanders around calling for his “mamma”. Just background noise.
Solomon argues that a sympathetic ear will be enough for everyone to realize they are free men only to be countered by Clemens Ray. Solomon insists. This was a trap. Someone tampered with his drink. His artist friends could explain all this. Surely they are looking for him. Clemens Ray argues they were probably behind the whole thing.
Clemens lays down their fate. They’ll be send southward and sold to the market. John is filled with panic. That will not be his fate. He’s being held as debt. His master will come for him.
Randall calls for his mother again. This time they all turn to him. There’s Burch with two women at the yard door. One of them, ELIZA, is the boy’s mother — a slave, but well-taken cared of one since she was a mistress. The other is EMILY, Randall’s half-sister. Eliza and Randall are reunited.
33. At Burch’s dungeon, Solomon now shares the space with Eliza and the children. Eliza tells Solomon of her fine life, in her own house and with more favor than her master’s wife for 9 years with the child she bore for him. Until master Berry’s health failed and his daughter sent her here at the pretense of gaining her free papers.
34. Night at the dungeon. Burch and Radburn enter and demand everyone to get to the yard. Just going for a boat ride, nothing to be scared for.
35. At the yard, Solomon, Clemens Ray, John Williams, Eliza and her children are cuffed together. John pulls back, scared. John’s master is going to pay his debt, he says. Burch beats him silent. Emily and Randall used to seeing this sort of thing are apathetic.
36. The slaves, hidden in a horse and carriage, are transported in haste. They are transferred on a steamboat. Captain, crew and a mulatto woman watch — out of their way.
37. Down in the boat’s hold, chained, John and Eliza are crying in the dark while Solomon seethes silent with rage. Burch and Radburn don’t even notice.
38. A steamboat engine room shot and an exterior shot of the steamboat moving between Washington and Norfolk.
43. Later. At the hold, the slaves eat and pray. Clemens Ray advises Solomon to not tell anyone he can read and write or he’ll die.
At the Norfolk port. 15 new slaves, the chief of them ROBERT, are shoved into the hold. Burch and Radburn depart and the steamboat ORLEANS, leaves port again.
44. Solomon is cleaning at the Orleans’s galley, noticing Robert’s knife skills as he prepares the food.
45. Robert is shackled at the hold with a muzzle over his face. A sailor comes down and removes it. Robert urges Solomon and Clemens Ray to fight against the crew and free themselves. Clemens Ray counter argues that to survive they have to keep their head down. Solomon agrees with Robert. He doesn’t want to survive, he wants to live, he says. [Here he acts still as a free man, later as the years go by as a slave, we notice the change in Solomon for the need to comply to survive, sounding more like slave-born John.]
47. Exterior shot. The steamboat at sea.
48 (page 32). At the hold. Night. Slaves asleep. A sailor approaches Eliza’s daughter. Eliza stops him and leads him off into a corner. Solomon witnesses the scene. Clemens Ray too. Robert is the only one who reacts. He blocks the sailor’s way. A moment. The sailor smiles, then Robert looks down to see a knife is stuck between Robert’s ribs. He collapses.
51. Day. On deck, Solomon and Clemens Ray dump Robert’s body at sea.
52. MID MAY 1841. At the busy port of New Orleans. The slaves are put in a holding pen off board. JONUS RAY — Clemens Ray’s master — and DAVIS, Mr. Ray’s solicitor, are here for Clemens. He in turn is delighted for his approaching “freedom”.
Master Ray provides papers to the captain, which verify that Clemens as his property, one that should be returned immediately. The captain frees Clemens. Solomon looks upon the master-slave reunion with hope, but it, along with Clemens and Mr. Ray, fades away as they walk off out of sight.
53. Hours later, the slaves wait at port. THEOPHILUS FREEMAN calls names off a list. John, Eliza, Platt. No slave stands at the sound of Platt. Freeman checks out Solomon. He fits the description. They are all shackled away.
54. Burch’s stock: Eliza, her children, John and Solomon are carted off. At the busy port, Solomon experiences true slavery for the first time. Scared, shackled and attacked slaves is the norm under this system of oppression.
55. Burch’s slaves arrive at Freeman’s slave pen.
56. Later. The slaves wash up.
57. CAPE, Freeman’s house slave, gives new clothes to the slaves.
58. At Freeman’s great room. Freeman tries to line up the slaves. The slaves must make a good impression to sell.
Solomon asks Cape if he can play a reel on the fiddle. Cape is not a good player. Freeman wants to see what Solomon can do. Solomon plays masterfully. The slaves clap and dance along the music. Freeman enjoys it too, but not Cape.
59. Customers have come for Freeman’s slave. They inspect their bodies, teeth and ask of their skills. WILLIAM FORD, a buyer, asks the price of Platt and Eliza. He’ll buy them. Eliza is upset . She begs Ford to buy her children too.
Another buyer then interrupts and asks Randall’s price. Done. Ford — touched by Eliza’s panic — tries to buy Emily for her. Freeman isn’t selling her. She’s a beauty, not of cotton-picking quality. Lots of money to be made off her. Ford fails to buy her.
Eliza makes a scene, upsetting the buyers. Freeman orders Solomon to play something on the fiddle, loudly. Nothing. Cape stuffs a rug in Eliza’s mouth and hauls her away.
60. Solomon and depressed Eliza are driven to the Ford plantation.
At their arrival, Mr. CHAPIN — a white overseer — asks SAM, a slave, to call for Mrs. FORD. She with RACHEL, her cook and also Sam’s wife, exit the great house. They want to see the new slaves.
Ford instructs Chapin to fix a meal for the new slaves and let them rest. Work begins tomorrow.
61. (page 42) JOHN TIBEATS — chief carpenter — and Chapin stand before the slaves at Ford’s work area, giving instructions to the slaves. The scene ends with shots of Solomon and the slaves doing manual labor while Tibeats sings the song “Run Nigger, Run.”
Early June 1841. Solomon is chopping trees for timber with other slaves.
62. More hard work under the hot sun, loading timber on a wagon.
63. The slaves walk down a long road alongside a wagon.
64. Ford’s work area. Along a river, the slaves pile and chop timber. JOHN TIBEATS, carpenter, and customers placing orders are present.
65. At the Ford plantation. Mid June 1841. The slaves are dressed brightly with their “finest” clothes. It is Sunday.
Ford reads from the scripture and the slaves and Mistress Ford listen. Eliza, sitting a bit aside from the others, weeps gently. Mistress Ford is unsettled by it.
70. At Ford’s work area during lunch. Solomon reads the Bible to the other slaves. WINSLOW, a white customer, annoyed at the sight, grabs the Bible off Solomon’s hands. Winslow can’t believe this behavior is proper. Ford comes over and explains that as a Christian he encourages this. Winslow moves off, yelling his opinions: a slave that reads is dangerous and so Ford is unfit to own one.
72. The slaves are trudging along the wagon carrying timber to Ford’s work area when they stumble upon a group of Chickasaw Indians who are carrying the carcass of a deer.
73. A the end of the day the Indians and the slaves are sitting all together, roasting the deer, the Indians dancing under the tune of an Indian fiddle. Solomon listens, enthralled by the music.
74. Solomon distances himself from the group to defecate amidst some tall grass by the river bank, but stops as a thought possesses him, staring at the water.
75. Solomon is at the work area with Ford and Tibeats, explaining to them how they could transport the timber via the river at a lower cost. Impressed of Solomon’s knowledge and past experience, Ford gives him permission to try out his plan of clearing the river.
76. End of June 1841. Slaves work, chopping trees along the river banks and building a raft under Solomon’s instructions.
77. Slaves, Ford and Tibeats stand at the river bank beyond the work area. When they see Solomon’s raft they all cheer save for Tibeats. He is pissed. He’d argued it couldn’t be done.
78. Ford gifts a fiddle to Solomon as a thank you for his hard work.
79. End of July 1841. At the slave shack, the slaves eat in silence except for permanently depressed Eliza who weeps. Solomon snaps. He asks her to stop, shaking her. As he “accuses” her of allowing falling in despair, she in turn “accuses” him of having settled for being Platt. His argument against her “accusations”: he is surviving until an opportunity of freedom comes up. Her final words: She too did dishonorable things to survive and still is in no better circumstances than if she had stood up for herself.
80. August 1841. Sunday. The slaves are gathered at the plantation’s rose garden, listening as Ford reads from the Bible. Eliza sobs uncontrollably. Mrs. Ford does not like it.
81. January 1842. Winter at Ford’s work area. Tibeats gives Solomon an inspection with Ford present. Ford has accumulated debts. Solomon will now be owned by Mr. Tibeats.
82. End of January 1842. At the Ford plantation Solomon is working as a carpenter, building a Weaving House to the side of the Great House. Tibeats is not satisfied with Solomon’s fine work. There is an argument. Tibeats wins as Solomon doesn’t argue further but concedes to “do as ordered, sir”.
Solomon watches Eliza — his last connection as a free man — being driven away as Mistress Ford and Rachel watch.
83. Morning. Solomon is back at work.
84. A less than sober and belligerent Tibeats approaches Solomon at mid-morning and negatively criticizes his work.
He’s looking for some fault in Solomon’s work. Finds it. When Solomon talks back to him, defending his work, Tibeats gets angry. He fetches a whip and asks Solomon to strip his clothes. Solomon does not obey Tibeats order. He is alone, save for Rachel and Mistress Ford. She runs to fetch Chapin.
When Tibeats grabs Solomon by the throat, Solomon fights back, in the end grabbing the whip himself and striking Tibeats. Tibeats threatens him, but Solomon keeps on hitting him. Chapin rides at the sight and asks what the problem is. Solomon explains that Tibeats wanted to whip him for using the nails Chapin had given him.
Chapin defends Solomon. Tibeats moves off, threatening that he “will have flesh”. This isn’t done. Chapin warns
Solomon not to run. If he does, there’s no protecting him. Chapin disappears in the log kitchen with Rachel.
Solomon is left alone.
Chapin returns, but does not approach Solomon. Solomon waits until Tibeats rides in the scene with RAMSAY and COOK, carrying whips and rope. The men tie up Solomon and suspend him from a tree. Chapin, who was gone for a few moments, reappears with guns in both hands. Ford holds a mortgage on Solomon and as overseer he cannot let them hang him.
A simple threat from Chapin is enough for Ramsay and Cook to ride away. Tibeats departs as well. Chapin, unsure of what to do with Solomon, leaves him dangling from the tree and instructs Sam to ride to Ford and inform him they are trying to murder Solomon.
85. The slaves go on about their business, while Solomon is dangling from the tree. Chapin, a pistol in each hand in case Tibeats returns, does nothing to help Solomon.
87. Drenched in sweat and delirious from lack of water, Solomon hangs from the tree. Rachel approaches timidly and gives him some water.
88. Evening. Ford finally arrives. He cuts Solomon loose. Solomon passes out.
89. Solomon regains his consciousness, lying in a blanket in the well-decorated Ford house foyer. Ford is frank with Solomon. Tibeats is around somewhere. It is not safe here anymore. He has transferred his debt to EDWIN EPPS. Solomon tells Ford that before he came to the plantation he was a free man. Ford will not hear him out.
90. (page 60) End of January 1842. A repulsive, uneducated man, Edwin Epps reads the Bible to his eight slaves. Amongst them is PATSEY, a 23-year old who “brims with unconversant sexuality”. Mistress EPPS is also present, being very “motherly” to the slave children, and TREACH, Epps’ overseer, who has a loaded pistol at all times.
Reading from the Bible, Epps explains to the slaves that the Lord equals the Master and they’ll be whipped if they don’t obey him.
91. August 1842 at Epps’ plantation. It is cotton picking season and Patsey masterfully picks up cotton ahead. Way back, Solomon clumsily tries to the job he’s not trained for. He gets a lash.
The slaves work with no stop for water and are whipped without reason.
92. Work’s over. Treach is weighting the baskets of cotton each slave has gathered. Solomon has the lowest numbers. Epps isn’t happy. He pulls Solomon aside. Counting continues. Patsey has the highest numbers by far. Epps praises her work. The counting continues. More slaves are set aside.
93. The “pulled aside” slaves are given a whipping by another slave.
94. More work for the slaves. Evening chores.
95. At the slave shack at night the slaves fix their own dinner.
96. A drunken Epps storms the slave shack, waking up everyone.
97. The slaves, fully dressed, are placed in the middle of the floor at the main house. Solomon plays a tune and the slaves dance, wearily. Epps does these dances just so he can watch Patsey dance. Mistress Epps is aware of this. Finally, jealousy abounding, she grabs a carafe and throws it at Patsey in the face. She insists Epps sells Patsey. Epps refuses.
When threatened, Epps is clear. If she’s not pleased with what he gives her, she can go. But he will not get rid of Patsey.
Mistress Epps storms off and Epps orders the slaves to dance.
98–99. August 1843. The slaves begin work at yet another day on the plantation.
100. Mistress Epps — piece of paper in hand — calls upon Solomon.
Mistress Epps gives Solomon a list of goods for him to go purchase, ordering him to return immediately. When Solomon — carelessly — reads the list, Mistress Epps asks him if he can read. Solomon denies it. Her advice: “Do your work, anything more and you will be punished.”
101A. On the road to the shop Solomon witnesses patrollers preparing for a lynching of two young men. He shows the patrollers his free pass and they let him go with a hard kick.
101. At the store, BARTHOLOMEW fills the order, placing a quantity of foolscap in the bag. Solomon looks around at all the slave restrains available for purchase.
102. Solomon delivers the items to Mistress Epps.
104. July 1844. Patsey is having tea with Mistress HARRIET SHAW, a black former slave. Their table is attended by a house slave. White man, Master SHAW is grooming a horse on the lawn.
A105. Solomon running along the road.
B105. Solomon reaches the Shaw House. He is there to retrieve Patsey, as ordered by Master Epps. Mistress Saw asks Solomon to sit for tea.
Mistress Shaw wants to gossip about Epps’ concern regarding PATSEY. Solomon — as diplomatically as he can — tells her Epps has the impression Master Shaw is “something of a lothario…”
When Solomon apologizes if he’d offended her, Mistress Shaw explains she doesn’t mind if Master Shaw sleeps around if it means she’s no longer cotton-picking in a field or being whipped.
105. Back at the Epps plantation, a drunken Epps calls for Patsey as she and Solomon return. Solomon tells Patsey to not look at Epps and keep going. Epps, annoyed being ignored, picks a fight with Solomon, chasing him around but failing to catch him. Eventually, Epps drops down.
Epps apologizes and asks Solomon to help him up. Once Solomon does, Epps chases him again, failing, dropping down. The same scene unfolds one more time, this time with a knife, when Mistress Epps interrupts.
Solomon explains how the “misunderstanding” began. At the mention of Patsey, Mistress Epps scolds her husband, calling him a “filthy, godless heathen”. Epps defends his position and walks past Mistress Epps to the house.
106. August 1844. Slaves picking cotton at the Epps plantation under extreme heat.
107. Slave shack. October 1844. Epps awakes the slaves, whip in hand. No dancing this time. He’s here for Patsey.
108 (page 75). At the back of the smoke house, Epps rapes Patsey, who stands still, not responding. Epps, annoyed by her passiveness, turns violent, slapping, punching and whipping her.
109. November 1844. Solomon fills another order at Bartholomew’s. Again among the items is a quantity of foolscap.
110. Along the road, careful that no one is around, Solomon removes a single sheet of paper from the sack and hides it in his pocket.
112. Solomon hides the paper in his fiddle.
113. Epps main house. December 1844. Solomon plays the fiddle at another “dance”. Mistress Epps interrupts, bringing a tray of pastries for all to try. The slaves file toward the tray. When it is Patsey’s turn, Mistress Epps denies her one. Patsey turns away, but Mistress Epps starts a scene, accusing Patsey of insolence. Epps tries to defuse the situation, unsuccessfully. Mistress Epps continues berating Patsey and Epps, calling him manless. When Epps does again nothing, Mistress Epps drives her nails into Patsey’s face and orders Epps to beat the slaves.
Epps takes his whip and pulls bloodied Patsey out of the house under Mistress Epps’ satisfied gaze. The rest of the slaves are ordered to eat and dance.
114. The slaves sleep, all except Patsey. She gets up and removes a lady’s finger ring which she’d hidden. She asks Solomon to keep it and in return to kill her. Solomon refuses. She begs him, but Solomon won’t do it. Patsey lays down back to her spot.
115. July 1846. At the Epps planation, the cotton crop is ruined by cotton worm.
Epps thinks God is punishing him and it’s the slaves fault. He goes around whipping any slave in sight.
117. (page 80). October 1846. Solomon and four other slaves are delivered to JUDGE TURNER. They are to work for him until Epps’ crop returns.
118. The slave shack is packed with barely any room to breathe let alone sleep. Solomon feels at his lowest. Hope of returning to his family is minimal.
119. The overseer explains to the slaves how to work on the cane field.
120. November 1846. Solomon is a lot better at cutting canes than picking cotton. He’s fast and skillful. Judge Turner watches.
121. At the slave shack Solomon, trying to rest, finds himself next to ANNA. She, desperate for some human contact/escape from reality takes Solomon’s hand and puts it on her breast. In the end Anna climaxes, but neither Solomon nor Anna enjoy this.
123. Outside the Great House, Judge Turner first asks Solomon if he is educated, Solomon denies it, then Judge Turner tasks him with playing the fiddle at WILLARD YARNEY’s — a planter — anniversary. What he earns is his to keep.
124. After work, as he eats, Solomon notices the juice berries leave on his plate.
125. Solomon manipulates a cane into a quill.
126. Solomon, alone at the edge of the bay at night, tries to use the berry juice as ink to write in his stashed away paper. But the juice isn’t suitable for writing.
A127. Solomon scratches his wife’s and kids’ names on his fiddle.
127. At Yarney’s House, a happy dance where Solomon plays music. Everyone is having fun.
128. On the road back to Judge Turner’s plantation, Solomon is attacked by two black men. He gets wounded. He fights back, the men retreat.
A129. Uncle Abram tends to Solomon’s wound. He tells Solomon they were probably runaways trying to go to the North. But two of Uncle Abram’s masters have told him of the sorry condition of the northern black.
130. February/March 1847. Alone at the bayou, Solomon meets CELEST. She’s far whiter than most blacks and lovely. Celeste asks Solomon for food and Solomon shares some of his with her. She belongs to MASTER CAREY. She’s sick and can’t work so she ran away, the hounds unable to trace her. She asks for more food. Solomon does as ordered. Her plan is to live in the swamp where the overseers won’t find her. She’ll live free and others will join her. Solomon is to bring her food at night. She leaves.
131. At the food storage Solomon stills some food.
132. Night. Celeste appears again. She devours the food Solomon gives her and asks him for his name. First, he says Platt. Then he tells her his free name, Solomon.
Solomon tells Celeste of his plan to freedom: the letter. One problem with it: going to trust someone to mail it.
135–137. Solomon makes ink out of boiled white maple bark. He writes his letter in secret.
138. Another night with Celeste, telling her about the finished letter.
Celeste has decided to return to her master. She feels lonely and is afraid the animals in the swamp will attack her. Solomon tries to persuade her to go north. He’ll help her. When she leaves, unconvinced, he goes after her. He ends up getting lost in the river with the water up to his neck. He panics. He believes he is going to die before — out of luck — manages to get back to the shore.
139. May/June 1847. At the Epps plantation. Solomon, Uncle Abram, Henry and Bob return to Epps, who is in good spirits. The cotton crop is fully returned.
140. July 1847. White man ARMSBY, unskilled at picking cotton, is working on the field with the slaves.
141. Cotton weighing in the Gin House. Solomon is pulled to the side for poor performance. Armsby’s performance is even worse, but Epps treats him nothing like the slaves. Armsby gets encouragement. Solomon and Abram get a whipping.
142. As Armsby tends to Solomon’s wounds, he talks of his sorry state, reduced to picking cotton even though he’s worked as overseer before drinking rendered him unreliable. The reason for his drinking is that no man can withstand the whipping of others every day. Once he wanted to make a fortune at the field, now he only wants a wage and to get home.
143–144. August 1847. Another day at the cotton field. The slaves singing a spiritual and working until Uncle Abram drops to the ground and doesn’t get up.
145. At the slave’s cemetery. Solomon, Bob and Henry dig a hole and put the body inside.
A148. At the slave cemetery a female singer begins a solo. The slaves on occasion join in, elated.
148. Solomon retrieves the package from its hiding place. Hides the letter and takes the money with him.
150 At Armsby’s shack Solomon asks Armsby to deposit a letter for him which is as of yet not written, in exchange for money — his fiddling proceeds — and asks not to tell anyone about it. Armsby agrees.
151 (page 100). Solomon works at the cotton field with the others except Armsby. He is talking with Epps.
152. Epps shows up at the slave shack at night and orders Solomon up and out in the dark.
153. Epps, bitter and drinking from a flask, guides Solomon into the woods.
Armsby has ratted out Solomon. When questioned, Solomon denies everything. He doesn’t have ink or paper, besides Armsby is a drunk and just wants to be an overseer. Armsby is lying.
Epps was holding a pocket knife against Solomon’s stomach the whole time. Finally, he chooses not to use it.
154. At night, Solomon burns his letter.
A155. March 1852. The slaves work on an extension to the Great House under the direction of MR. SAMUEL BASS, a Canadian.
B155. When Epps offers a drink to Bass as a respite from the heat, Bass declines. When pressured he tells Epps that the condition of his laborers is bad and that this is wrong. He would never own a slave.
155. (page 106). Sabbath. The slaves tend to their own chores. The women are washing their clothes, except for Patsey. A drunken Epps asks of her. The slaves don’t know where she is.
156. When Patsey returns, Epps is angry. He questions her whereabouts. Epps accuses Patsey that she slept with Shaw. Patsey shows Epps a bar of soap. This is why she went to Shaw’s plantation, because Mistress Epps doesn’t even give her soap to clean with. Epps insists she’s lying. He orders Treach to strip her and tie her to the post. But Epps cannot bear to whip her. Mistress Epps is watching the scene and encourages him, but he can’t do it. He gives the whip to Solomon.
Under Epp’s threat that he’ll kill all the slaves in sight, Solomon delivers many hard blows until he can’t go on. Epps then takes over, hitting Patsey with more power than ever, until she stops struggling, blood flowing from her torn flesh.
When Epps is gone, Solomon unties Patsey and takes her to the cabin.
157. At the cabin, Phebe tends to her wounds. Patsey opens her eyes and just stares at Solomon, until she closes them again.
160. April 1852. Solomon and Bass work alone on the extension of the Great House. Solomon approaches Bass. Should he trust him and tell him about who he is?
161. Hours later. Bass reflects on Solomon’s story. Solomon asks him to write to his friends to the north and they will try to free him. Bass agrees and they continue to work.
A165. Solomon walks down the path back from Bartholomews, when he encounters a woman being lynched.
165. September 1852. Working at the nearly finished Gazebo, Bass informs Solomon that he hasn’t received a letter yet and that work at the plantation is nearly done. Bass tells him he’ll continue to write to Solomon’s people wherever he is. But Solomon is defeated.
A168. Alone at a secluded part of a road by Epp’s plantation, Solomon breaks apart his violin.
168. February 1853. Solomon and the other slaves work on the field, when two men arrive: Parker and the SHERIFF. The sheriff calls for Platt. He asks Solomon whether he knows the man on the carriage. Solomon slowly recognizes Mr. Parker. The sheriff asks him if he has another name. Solomon tells him his name is Solomon Northup. Epps is listening on as the sheriff enquires Solomon about his family.
Solomon runs to Parker and the two men embrace. They are interrupted by Epps.
At the end, when no one is backing up, Epps tells them this is not the end. He’ll have his day in court. Solomon departs.
A169. March 1853. Solomon, visibly aged, stands nervously at the door of his house.
169. The door opens. Anne, grown up Alonzo, Margaret who is holding a bundle and her husband are in the room.
After twelve years they all feel awkward.
Margaret hugs her father. After he is introduced to Margaret’s husband, Margaret presents the bundle, Solomon’s grandson named Solomon Northup Staunton. Solomon breaks down but Anne catches him.
They all hold to each other.
Fade to black.
Writing Exercise: I encourage you to read the script, but short of that, if you’ve seen the movie, go through this scene-by-scene breakdown. What stands out to you about it from a structural standpoint?
Major kudos to Georgevine Moss for doing this week’s scene-by-scene breakdown.
To download a PDF of the breakdown, go here.
Tomorrow: We zero in on the major plot elements in 12 Years a Slave.
I am looking for volunteers to read a script and provide a scene-by-scene breakdown for it to be used as part of our weekly series. What do you get? Beyond your name being noted here, my thanks, and some creative juju, hopefully you will learn something about story structure and develop another skill set which is super helpful in learning and practicing the craft.
The latest volunteers:
12 Years a Slave — Georgevine Moss
Beasts of No Nation — Jacob Holmes-Brown
Bridge of Spies — Scott Guinn
Carol — Jillienne Bee
Celeste and Jesse Forever — Ryan Canty
Diary of a Teenage Girl — Cynthia
Ex Machina — Nick Norman-Butler
Frozen — Doc Kane
Inside Out — Katha
Legend — Olivia
Leviathan — Piotr Ryczko
Locke — Megaen Kelly
Macbeth — Trung
Man Up — Kristy Brooks
Monsters University — Liz Correal
Mud — Kevin
Nightcrawler — DJ Summit
Pawn Sacrifice — Michael Waters
Steve Jobs — Angie Soliman
Straight Outta Compton — Timm Higgins
The End of the Tour — Steve F
The Iron Lady — Leslie
The Way Way Back — The Deuce
Trainwreck — Joni Brainerd
Wreck It Ralph — Kenny Crowe
To see examples of scene-by-scene breakdowns, go here. Part of the goal is to create a library of breakdowns for writers to have at their disposal for research and learning.
You may see the scripts we can use for the series — free and legal — by going here.
To date, we have analyzed 52 movie scripts, a great resource for screenwriters. To see those analyses, go here.
Thanks to any of you who will rise to the occasion and take on a scene-by-scene breakdown.
And for those of you who have volunteered, please send me your scene-by-scene breakdown as soon as possible!
Circling back to where we started, reading scripts is hugely important. Analyzing them even more so. If you want to work in Hollywood as a writer, you need to develop your critical analytical skills. This is one way to do that.
So seize this opportunity and join in the conversation!
I hope to see you in comments about this week’s script: 12 Years a Slave.
The opening scenes of “12 Years a Slave,” Steve McQueen’s searing adaptation of the true-life account of a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War South, tell you all you need to know about the cinematic experience you’re about to have. A lush, unnerving tableau of a group of black men being taught to cut sugar cane reminds viewers of McQueen’s gift for evoking atmosphere and stark, highly charged emotion, whereas a scene that follows — in which the protagonist, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), attempts to write a letter home with the juice of a few berries — brings viewers into intimate contact with a place and time too often rendered as distant and abstract.
Intense, unflinching, bold in its simplicity and radical in its use of image, sound and staging, “12 Years a Slave” in many ways is the defining epic so many have longed for to examine — if not cauterize — America’s primal wound. But it’s also a crowning achievement of a filmmaker whose command of the medium extends beyond mere narrative and its reductive, sentimental snares to encompass the full depth and breadth of its most expressive and transforming properties. “12 Years a Slave” isn’t just a cathartic experience that happens to be an astonishing formal achievement: It works its emotional power precisely because it’s so elegantly constructed, from the inside out.
From those unsettling initial scenes, “12 Years a Slave” flashes back to 1841, when Northup, a relatively prosperous musician, is living with his wife and children in Saratoga, N.Y. While his family is out of town, Northup is introduced to two self-described talent scouts, who assure him he can get good work as a fiddler with a traveling circus. After a trip to Washington and a night of wine and dining, Northup wakes up in a holding cell, shackled by chains and enshrouded in heavy, unremitting silence.
What follows is a journey of unimaginable suffering and horror, a sort of anti-picaresque during which Northup is beaten for insisting that he’s a free man, then bought and sold and bought again, finally landing at a plantation owned by the merciless Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Much of “12 Years a Slave” centers on Northup’s relationship with Epps, who is smart enough to know he should be threatened by his enslaved servant’s superior intellect and sense of culture — and who processes those conflicting feelings the same way he accommodates his sexual attraction to a field worker named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o): with escalating and increasingly psychotic violence. (Epps’s methods of annihilation extend to the subtle as well, such as when he casually leans on his servants, as if they’re pieces of furniture or wooden fence posts.)
But “12 Years a Slave,” which McQueen directed from a courtly, admirably economical script by John Ridley, isn’t content simply to be an index of human cruelty. Rather, the film offers a panorama, not just of the African American experience in the antebellum South — from the inconsolable wailing of a woman separated from her children to a former slave contentedly ensconced as the wife of her former owner — but of the varieties of racist pathology. White audience members may find it impossible to identify with the sadistically extreme abuse perpetrated by Epps and his own desperate and cruel wife, played in a chillingly good performance by Sarah Paulson. But what of William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), one of Northup’s more benevolent owners, and his passive paternalism?
The challenge in presenting oppression within the traditional grammar of feature films is that the director winds up aestheticizing violence, or keeping it at a safe, deniable distance. McQueen solves this problem by refusing to blink, or at least knowing precisely when to allow his audience to do so.
As he did in the films “Hunger” and “Shame” (also starring Fassbender), McQueen doesn’t go in for a lot of flash edits or self-conscious visual flourishes to put viewers at ease; rather, he invites the audience to sit with him as he gazes, amazed, at man’s inhumanity to man, an unnerving encounter that in this case is heightened by a percussive, adamantly non-period musical score by Hans Zimmer. Whether the filmmaker is holding his camera on Northup as he struggles on his tiptoes, his neck caught in a lynching noose, while the life of the plantation deliberately goes on behind him, or an excruciatingly protracted whipping scene, the net effect is less an indictment of slavery than a far more nuanced portrait of the violence, intimacy, obsession and constant psychological contortions that defined its most toxic enmeshments.
At it most profound, though, “12 Years a Slave” is a captivating study in humanity at its most troubled and implacable, as Ejiofor masterfully portrays Northup’s fight to retain his dignity and identity within an ever-widening nightmare. As such, McQueen’s film deserves pride of place alongside “Gravity,” “Captain Phillips” and the upcoming “All Is Lost” as a breathtaking, ambitious essay on physical and existential isolation. Arguably, the stakes here are higher, not just for Northup, but for the viewers who find themselves caught up in his wrenching journey. It’s improbable that anyone will feel lighter after watching “12 Years a Slave,” but they’re likely to find that their moral imaginations have been newly liberated.
★ ★ ★ ★
R. At area theaters. Contains violence, cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality. 134 minutes.