Hollywood villain? No... our slave owner great grandfather was the very model of morality! Astonishing claim by family outraged by Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal in hit film 12 Years A Slave
- McQueen's 12 Years A Slave hailed as compelling account of slave era
- But its critics, including slave master's family, say film distorts the truth
- William Ford was 'a highly moral man' and his character has been 'exaggerated' in the nine Oscar-nominated film, his family say
- Free American Solomon Northup, who was bought by Ford, also praised clergyman in his autobiography
By Sharon Churcher and Barbara Mcmahon
PUBLISHED: 17:02 EST, 25 January 2014 | UPDATED: 18:39 EST, 25 January 2014
Slave owner William Prince Ford taken in the early 1860s. His family say Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of their relative in 12 Years A Slave is exaggerated
The respectable southern gentleman with a balding head, straggling white beard and a well-filled but slightly shabby suit hardly looks like the whip-wielding monster of plantation legend. Yet this is William Prince Ford, the Louisiana slave master at the heart of 12 Years A Slave, the blockbuster movie currently packing cinemas in Britain and America.
The film, based on the remarkable autobiography of free black American Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery in the Deep South, has been acclaimed as one of the most compelling accounts of the brutal slave era ever made.
The issue remains so politically toxic in the US that it took a British director, Steve McQueen, and a British star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, to bring the project to the screen. In the wake of great critical acclaim, both have been nominated for Oscars as part of an extraordinary total of nine nominations.
However, the film also has its critics, who say it ignores the kindness that Ford is known to have displayed towards his slaves and claim that the film-makers are promoting a distorted and simplified version of the truth.
Ford is played in the film by a frock-coated Benedict Cumberbatch. The Baptist minister and cotton-grower is portrayed as a pompous hypocrite; a weak-willed man unable to protect Northup and his fellow slaves from sadistic overseers in the cotton fields.
In the movie, Ford’s Christian sermonising is overlaid with the agonising screams of a female slave grieving for her stolen children, an effect aimed at underlining the minister’s double standards.
But Northup had little but praise for the clergyman who bought him for $1,000 at a New Orleans slave market and put him on a horrific path of servitude in which terrible injury and death were never far away.
In his memoir, published in 1853, Northup, who had been a prosperous married farmer and talented violinist in upstate New York before his kidnap, insisted: ‘There never was a more kind, noble, candid Christian man than William Ford.’
The faded photograph, the only known picture of Ford, shows him on his estate in Cheneyville, a village in dusty central Louisiana, and has been kept by members of his family.
They venerate him as one of the most generous and principled of slave owners in a terrible period in American history when a series of bloody slave rebellions had thrown the pre-Civil War South into turmoil.
The most serious of these was Nat Turner’s rebellion of 1831, when an armed band of slaves went on the rampage in Virginia, killing 65 people.
In the brutal reprisals that followed, 56 slaves were executed by the State of Virginia for taking part in the rebellion and an estimated 200 black slaves who had nothing to do with the conflict were killed by armed militias.
Across the South, laws were passed prohibiting the education of slaves and free blacks, and restricting their rights of assembly and other civil rights.
McQueen’s film spares little in its unflinching account of the events that cast such a long shadow over American society.
But critics of the film believe that his portrayal of Ford is little more than a cartoon characterisation, simplifying the realities of life in the slave-era Deep South.
Benedict Cumberbatch as plantation owner William Ford and Chiwetel Ejifor, who plays Soloman in the film
Many of Ford’s descendants still live in the Cheneyville area and some were tracked down by The Mail on Sunday.
One was his great-great-grandson, 77-year-old William Marcus Ford, who described the film as ‘too dark and exaggerated’.
He added: ‘By all accounts, my great-great-grandfather treated his slaves well and did his best for them.
‘He was born at a particular time in history when slavery was accepted throughout the South.
William Marcus Ford
Great-great-grandson of William Prince Ford
‘It wasn’t illegal. That doesn’t make it right or moral by today’s standards but back then it wasn’t an ethical issue. Northup saw him as a kindly person. He was a highly moral man.’
The film, says Mr Ford, ignores the fact that ‘slaves were regarded as valuable pieces of property and that it wouldn’t be in an owner’s interest to treat his slaves badly’.
He said: ‘Good field-hands had worth. They were valued. A skilled craftsman like Northup would have been valued. There might have been a few bad apples, but I don’t think there was widespread brutality.’
While it is true that the white Establishment of the Deep South has a long history of attempting to minimise the region’s brutal history, independent experts concur that William Prince Ford treated his slaves with at least a modicum of respect and kindness.
Charles Neal, an assistant director of the Louisiana History Museum, said he was ‘horrified’ by the unremitting scenes of brutality in the film.
‘It was evil white folks beating on poor black folks and it’s not what Solomon Northup intended when he wrote his book,’ he said.
‘He thought Ford was a really good master. He was treated right and he was treated like family.’
Indeed, Northup recalls in his book that the minister rescued him from a lynching and instructed him on how, if he led an ‘upright and prayerful life’, he would be rewarded in the next life in heaven. Ford even gave him as a gift a fiddle, which he played at neighbouring plantations, as seen depicted in the film.
But this was a time when the southern states were gripped by mounting fear of their own slave populations, and Louisiana historian Frank Eakin pointed out that Ford may have had other motives for trying to treat his slaves well. ‘Violence had worked in the past as a means of control but now the worry for slave-owners like Ford was that if you were violent to a slave, he might kill you,’ he said.
Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. In his autobiography, Northup had little but praise for the clergyman who bought him for $1,000 at a New Orleans slave market
William Prince Ford would have been well aware of the threat. A few months before Northup was shipped to Cheneyville, an overseer at a plantation owned by one of Ford’s neighbours was hacked to death by a young slave.
The youth and several other slaves were hanged after an informant claimed that the men were plotting to murder ‘every white person’ in the area.
Mr Eakin added: ‘Compared to some sadistic masters, Ford was relatively benevolent but this was part of a strategy that he devised to try to preserve the slave system’s status quo.
‘There was tremendous fear because of the purported murder plot and there also was a growing problem of slaves absconding.
‘Solomon Northup actually quotes Ford as saying that “a little kindness” would be far more effectual than mistreatment in restraining them,’ he said.
The family photo of William Prince Ford forms part of a remarkable archive assembled by Mr Eakin’s late mother, a Louisiana history professor who is buried in Cheneyville. She was so intrigued by Northup’s memoir that she devoted 40 years of her life to documenting, annotating and reviving interest in the book.
In an annotated edition of Northup’s work that was re-released last week, she writes that, while Ford undoubtedly set out to reform the system, it was rife with the kind of atrocities that are now appalling millions of moviegoers.
In one of the film’s most disturbing sequences, a Cheneyville plantation owner, Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender, repeatedly rapes a female slave, Patsey. During a whipping, he flays the skin from her back.
This incident was certainly real and is mentioned in Northup’s book. He describes how Epps subjected the woman to ‘the most cruel whipping – one I can never recall with any other emotion than horror’.
Lupita Nyong'o who plays Patsey - a save brutally raped in both the film and the book - pictured with Ejiofor
Little now remains of William Prince Ford’s slave estate. Though the minister married into money – his wife Martha grew up on one of the region’s largest plantations with hundreds of slaves – the porticoed Great House they lived in has long since been demolished and his family say his fortunes crumbled soon after he acquired Northup.
Burdened with debts, Ford sold the slave for $400 – a considerable loss on his original investment – to the first of a series of brutal masters. Encouraged by the ambitious Martha, Ford went on to open a variety of small businesses relying on slave labour, including a saw mill, mattress manufacturing plant and a brick works.
But following the abolition of slavery, the family ran into what they describe as ‘business reversals’.
Ford’s great-great-great- granddaughter, Louisiana lawyer Susan Ford Fiser, said: ‘William Ford had a son who sold all the property and lived off the money and did not make any more.
The film was based on the man's remarkable autobiography, pictured
‘My great-grandfather had a road contract with the state of Louisiana but when he died at 43, he was not paid. My grandfather had to drop out of school at 13 to help support his mother.’
Another great-great-great-granddaughter, Anne Marie Ford Barrios, 46, told The Mail on Sunday that the family had always cherished the belief that Ford was just the kind of exemplary man that Northup wrote of in his book, which is now part of the standard curriculum in American schools.
Mrs Barrios, a former space shuttle engineer, said her father would always impress on her that Northup regarded Ford as a ‘model master,’ writing that life on his plantation was ‘the bright side of the picture’.
She recalled: ‘When my sisters or I misbehaved as kids, my father would quote from the passage where Solomon describes Ford as a “noble, candid, Christian man” and tell us we had to live up to that.’
But she acknowledged that others in her family tree did not harbour such scruples.
Martha Ford was known to be a tyrant and her brother Robert, terrorised his field-hands.
‘William Ford married into that,’ Mrs Barrios added.
‘I take comfort in knowing that he was not afraid to challenge convention and that he was kind to Solomon.’ But she is under no illusion that her great-great-great grandfather was trying to shore up an indefensible system.
She adds: ‘Slavery was America’s greatest shame. On the whole, I think the film is great in that it gets the story out there.’
For Frank Eakin, the film is a fitting – if flawed – tribute to his late mother Sue’s life’s work in reviving scholarly and public interest in Solomon Northup’s compelling story.
He said: ‘Mom’s last words in her narrative about the book were, “Solomon’s story, one of the most important in American history, has been authenticated, I have given my fullest effort. Now Solomon and I can rest”.’
But for many it remains a regret that William Prince Ford, the one man who treated Solomon Northup well in life, couldn’t have been given a more three-dimensional portrayal in the film version of his 12 years as a slave.
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