Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Slave Owner Who Had a Secret

By Gary North

I was hoping that 12 Years a Slave would win the Academy award as the best movie. It did.
I am teaching a course for the Ron Paul Curriculum for first-year high school students. It is a detailed examination of classic autobiographies. Before I had seen the movie, I had selected Twelve Years a Slave as one of them. Now that the movie has won the Academy Award, my students will pay much closer attention to the book.

It is a very good movie. In relation to the amount of money spent to make it, it is the best recent Hollywood movie I’ve seen. They spent about $20 million on this movie, not counting marketing. This is incredibly low. Yet the production quality is excellent. The photography is excellent. Everything about it is excellent. It shows that you can produce a really good movie cheap, as long as you can get cooperation from the actors: pay percentages, not salaries. There were only two big-money actors in it, Brad Pitt, who was a co-producer, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who is a hot property these days. Also in the cast were Paul Giamatti and Alfre Woodard, but neither is a headliner.

Unlike most Hollywood historical movies, this one was faithful to the original book. When it says that it is based on a true story, it is being accurate. There are a few discrepancies, but with only two exceptions, they are minor. In one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, where Brad Pitt’s character argues against a slave owner with respect to the ethics of slavery, the dialogue is taken right out of the autobiography. Other sections of the movie are also taken directly from the autobiography.

This is one of the greatest autobiographies I’ve ever read. It is amazingly eloquent. It is a page-turner. Even without the movie, I think students probably would have been interested in it. Now, because of the movie, I don’t think there’s any question about this.

I went back again this week to see it a second time, because I had to produce a lecture on the accuracy of the movie in relationship to the book. I wanted to make certain that I have the facts correct. I was once again struck by this fact. The most evil man in the movie, who was the owner of the author for a decade, was portrayed by a very skilled actor, Michael Fassbender. He gained a nomination for best supporting actor.
The character he plays was a monster. But he made a mistake, a mistake that is now legendary. He did not know that one of his slaves was not only literate, he was one of the great prose writers of 19th-century America: Solomon Northup. He also had something like a photographic memory. Even more damaging, he remembered the highlights with great precision, and he was able to put them in prose that was spellbinding. His literary skills were aimed at his owner, and when you are done reading about the owner, you realize that the actor, if anything, underplayed the extent to which the man was a monster.

One hundred and sixty miles down the Red River lived the richest slave owner in Louisiana. He was the most beloved slave owner in America — beloved by his slaves, not his peers. His name was John McDonogh.


He alone among all the slave owners in the South for over 200 years devised a system that made his slaves incomparably efficient. They were so efficient that he ceased to have any responsibility for managing his plantation, including all of the rental properties that he owned. The slaves did everything. They worked like maniacs. They literally ran from job to job. Another slave owner wanted to buy one of them. He was willing to pay $5,000 — in the range of $100,000 in today’s money. McDonogh refused to sell. He had a secret.


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