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Sin? There is no sin! A man does how he pleases with his property. At that moment, Platt, I am of great pleasure. You be goddamn careful I don't come wanting to lightening my mood no further.
~ Edwin Epps to Solomon after he whips Patsey.
Edwin Epps is the main antagonist of 12 Years a Slave.
Epps was a particularly infamous slave-owner known to take in and "break" slaves, even those others found troublesome - hence when William Ford was forced to give up Solomon after a confrontation with the plantation's carpenter turned into a near-fatal feud it was Epps who would take Solomon in and very quickly he saw Solomon as clever and this sparked an intense and twisted relationship between the pair, with Epps repeatedly threatening to beat or murder Solomon yet always relenting, seeming to find a strange fascination with his rival and seeking to destroy his spirit (and thus earn himself a victory and prove that he was indeed superior).
Edwin is first seen using biblical "wisdoms" to force the slaves to comply to his demands. He forces Solomon Northup to work for him and treats Patsey, a female slave, like his love, raping her on a regular basis. The next day, he gets furious with Northup for Patsey's disappearance and attacks him. He catches Patsey with soap, believing she has stolen it, and forces Northup to whip her. Northup begins to do so, but Epps grabs the whip and lashes Patsey ferociously. However, Epps is defeated when Northup is set free and taken home to his family.
Unlike William Ford, Epps is a vicious brute who takes sadistic pleasure in torturing, sexually abusing and killing his slaves, rationalizing his behavior by saying, "A man does what he likes with his property". He despises all black people as less than human, put on earth for the sole purpose of being abused, worked and tortured. Nevertheless, he is infatuated with his slave Patsy, whom he rapes regularly and with whom he has an out-of-wedlock child. He is also a sexual sadist; he throttles and hits Patsy while having sex with her. On top of this, he doesn't even care about his wife as he still continues to rape Patsy despite knowing it makes her jealous. If anything, he likely has sex with Patsy to make both of their suffering worse.
Even though Epps knows that black people are able to think and feel, he thought they deserved only the worst possible existence. He took pride in his sadism and found the idea of racial equality humorous, making him one of the evilest slave owners of all time.
Right before Patsy was whipped, Epps was initially reluctant due to his fascination with her. However, his fear of being made a fool of (which his vile wife used to manipulate him) and his love for cruelty to his slaves was stronger than his mercy and he allowed himself to be established as irredeemably evil by torturing the innocent Patsy almost to death. He then went and made it worse by verbally admitting that he enjoyed it. Simply put, it was his disregard for other people's freedom and his ability to make them suffer without second thought that makes him the horrific monster he truly is.
In the film, Epps is shown to be extremely unstable and temperamental, and has wild and unpredictable mood swings accompanied by great violence and confusing changes of whim - often threatening to torture or kill mass numbers of his own slaves when enraged only to slowly "calm" himself into a more rational (yet still vicious) state. Furthermore, the film despite toning down his more violent traits, establishes him as a pure evil monster who revels in his sadisim.
Despite his hatred of African Americans, he develops a twisted admiration of sorts towards Solomon, fascinated by Solomon's strength and resilience in the face of his cruelty. He makes it his "mission" to break Solomon's spirit. If not for Solomon getting freed, Epps might have suceeded in his goal.
Epps was guilty of other crimes in real life that the film does not show. In Solomon Northup's autobiography, Epps would get drunk and make the slaves pull his carriage while whipping them for fun.
Michael Fassbender was nominated for 22 acting awards for his portrayal of Epps including a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and an Oscar and won 13 other acting awards.
Epps real house is a modern day historic site.
There is a scene where, after Epps' slaves return from Shaw's, Epps is shown being very friendly to an African American child. People have debated this kindness he holds towards her given this is completely out of character for him. Considering she is never seen again after her one scene, her fate is left ambiguous. Since Patsey was crying as he carried the child, this most likely implies he had something bad in store for her. According to Michael Fassbender in an interview, Epps was raising her to be his next sex slave: "It says so much with him holding her hand, not wearing pants: He is priming the next Patsey. So you find those little elements that add to the character and tell things without any exposition". This would make Epps somewhat pedophilic in his nature (in fact Epps was a pedophile as in reality he raped Patsey many times, even when she was under 16 years of age).
Epps read Solomon Northup's autobiography and confirmed it was mostly true, praising Solomon's cleverness. This information was accumulated by Union soldiers during the Civil War.
Michael Fassbender was so uncomfortable with the rape scene involving Edwin and Patsey, that he momentarily passed out after filming it.
Epps and his wife died in 1867, two years after Abraham Lincoln (which by extension means they lived to see slavery abolished) of unknown circumstances. Though many speculate it was due to yellow plague.
Patsey was taken from Epps' plantation roughly a decade after Solomon was freed. According to another slave named Bob, Patsey "went away with our army last week, so she is at last far from the caprices of her jealous mistress." The circumstances of her death remain unknown but she at least lived her final years free of Epps & his wife.