Download 12 Years a Slave: A Masterpiece of Cinema Based on an Amazing Book
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Director Steve McQueen (left) works with actors on the set of 12 Years A Slave. The film was shot on a Louisiana plantation that sits next door to where Solomon Northup spent his years as a slave. Jaap Buitendijk/Fox Searchlight Pictures hide caption
McQueen: It was a norm. Death and torture was the norm. And you see how people sort of get used to it, get numb to it. So, for example, you see in that shot when he's hanging there, slaves going about their business and not interfering with him hanging there. Yes, I wanted it in the film to be sort of the lynching of all lynchings in film, because somehow this had to portray all of what happened in the past, which never got brought into the light.
Ejiofor: That is what I was always searching for in the book. It is so extraordinary, what he did. The first clue that I got was ... the scene where Solomon is hanging in the sun. There's a description in the book when he's describing that day, and after several hours, you know, it's boiling hot and he's hanging there, and he says in his kind of typically understated fashion that he would have given more years of servitude if they had only moved him a few feet into the shade. And there was something about that line that I thought, well, there is his resolve. There is the depth of his spirit. This man is somehow, gently, unbreakable.
McQueen: This film, for me, is about love. And it's a word that should be tossed around not, obviously, frequently, but when you mean it. It has to do with his humanity. He kept hold of his humanity, his dignity, through all kinds of unfortunate situations. And it's difficult just to get through a day sometimes, but he managed to get through 12 years of the most horrific ordeal you could imagine and held onto a kind of truth, which I think is just extraordinarily beautiful and a lesson for us all.
12 Years a Slave is a 2013 biographical drama film directed by Steve McQueen from a screenplay by John Ridley, based on the 1853 slave memoir Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, an African American man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. by two conmen in 1841 and sold into slavery. He was put to work on plantations in the state of Louisiana for 12 years before being released. The first scholarly edition of David Wilson's version of Northup's story was co-edited in 1968 by Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon.
Solomon Northup is a free African-American man in 1841, working as a violinist and living with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York. Two white men, Brown and Hamilton, offer him short-term employment as a musician in Washington, D.C.; instead, they drug Northup and deliver him to James H. Birch, who owns a slave pen. Northup is savagely beaten when he proclaims his freedom.
He is shipped to New Orleans with other captives, who tell him he must adapt if he wants to survive in the South. Slave trader Theophilus Freeman gives Northup the identity of "Platt", a runaway slave from Georgia, and sells him to plantation owner William Ford. Ford takes a liking to Northup and gives him a violin. Tensions between Northup and plantation carpenter John Tibeats break when Northup defends himself from Tibeats and beats him with his own whip. Tibeats and his men prepare to lynch Northup but are stopped by the overseer. Northup is left on tiptoes with the noose around his neck for hours before Ford arrives and cuts him down. Northup attempts to explain his situation, but Ford sells him to Edwin Epps.
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Epps, unlike Ford, is ruthless and sadistic to his slaves. Northup meets Patsey, a favored slave and Epps' top cotton picker. Epps regularly rapes Patsey, and his jealous wife abuses her. Cotton worms destroy Epps' crops, so he leases his slaves to neighbor Judge Turner's plantation for the season. Turner favors Northup and allows him to play fiddle at a celebration and keep his earnings. Northup returns to Epps and pays white field hand and former overseer Armsby to mail a letter to his friends in New York. Armsby takes Northup's money but betrays him. Epps questions Northup at knifepoint, but Northup convinces him Armsby is lying. Northup burns the letter. Patsey is caught by Epps going to a neighboring plantation to acquire soap, as Mrs. Epps will not let her have any. Epps orders Northup to whip Patsey, which he does, but Epps demands he strike her harder, eventually taking the whip and beating Patsey nearly to death. Enraged, Northup destroys his violin.
Northup begins constructing a gazebo with Canadian laborer Samuel Bass. Bass, citing his Christian faith, strongly opposes slavery and castigates Epps, earning his enmity. Northup reveals his kidnapping to Bass and asks for help sending his letter. Bass hesitates because of the risk but agrees. The local sheriff arrives, and Northup recognizes his companion as Mr. Parker, a shopkeeper he knew in New York. As they embrace, Epps furiously protests and tries to prevent Northup from leaving but is rebuffed. Northup bids farewell to Patsey and rides off to his freedom.
The epilogue titles recount Northup's unsuccessful lawsuits against Brown, Hamilton, and Birch; the 1853 publication of Northup's slave narrative memoir, Twelve Years a Slave; his role in the abolitionist movement; and the absence of information regarding his death and burial.
Scott Feinberg wrote in The Hollywood Reporter about a September 22 article in The New York Times that "dredged up and highlighted a 1985 essay by another scholar, James Olney, that questioned the 'literal truth' of specific incidents in Northup's account and suggested that David Wilson, the white amanuensis to whom Northup had dictated his story, had taken the liberty of sprucing it up to make it even more effective at rallying public opinion against slavery." Olney had observed that "slave autobiographies, when read one next to another, display an "overwhelming sameness." That is, though the autobiography by definition suggests a unique and personal story, that slave narratives present a genre of autobiographies that tell essentially the same story. When read in conjunction, as in this anthology, there is a distinct repetitiveness. While this repetitiveness disallows the creativity and shaping of one's personal story, as Olney argues, it was equally important for slave narratives to follow a form that corroborated with the stories of others to create a collective picture of slavery as it then existed. In fact, the "same" form presented in all of these unique and individual stories created a powerful and resounding message of the consistent evils of slavery and the necessity of its demise.
Forrest Wickman of Slate wrote of Northup's book giving a more favorable account of the author's onetime master, William Ford, than the McQueen film. In Northup's own words, "There never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford," adding that Ford's circumstances "blinded [Ford] to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery." The movie, however, according to Wickman, "frequently undermines Ford." McQueen undercuts Christianity itself as well, in an effort to update the ethical lessons from Northup's story for the 21st century, by holding the institutions of Christianity up to the light for their ability to justify slavery at the time. Northup was a Christian of his time, writing of his former master being "blinded" by "circumstances" that in retrospect meant a racist acceptance of slavery despite being a Christian, a position untenable to Christians now and to Christian abolitionists of the 19th century but not contradictory to Northup himself. Valerie Elverton Dixon in The Washington Post characterized the Christianity depicted in the movie as "broken".
After meeting screenwriter John Ridley at a Creative Artists Agency screening of Hunger in 2008, director Steve McQueen got in touch with Ridley about his interest in making a film about "the slave era in America" with "a character that was not obvious in terms of their trade in slavery." Developing the idea back and forth, the two did not strike a chord until McQueen's partner, Bianca Stigter, found Solomon Northup's 1853 memoir Twelve Years a Slave. McQueen later told an interviewer:
After a lengthy development process, Brad Pitt's production company Plan B Entertainment backed the project, which eventually helped get financing from various other film studios. The film was officially announced in August 2011 with McQueen to direct and Chiwetel Ejiofor to star as Solomon Northup, a free African-American who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South. McQueen compared Ejiofor's conduct "of class and dignity" to that of Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. In October 2011, Michael Fassbender (who starred in McQueen's previous films Hunger and Shame) joined the cast. In early 2012, the rest of the roles were cast, and filming was scheduled to begin at the end of June 2012.
We don't know what slaves sounded like in the 1840s, so I just used rural samples from Mississippi and Louisiana [for actors Ejiofor and Fassbender]. Then for Benedict [Cumberbatch], I found some real upper-class New Orleanians from the '30s. And then I also worked with Lupita Nyong'o, who is Kenyan but she did her training at Yale. So she really shifted her speech so she could do American speech.
To accurately depict the time period of the film, the filmmakers conducted extensive research that included studying artwork from the era. With eight weeks to create the wardrobe, costume designer Patricia Norris collaborated with Western Costume to compile costumes that would illustrate the passage of time while also being historically accurate. Using an earth-toned color palette, Norris created nearly 1,000 costumes for the film. "She [Norris] took earth samples from all three of the plantations to match the clothes," McQueen said, "and she had the conversation with Sean [Bobbitt] to deal with the character temperature on each plantation, there was a lot of that minute detail." The filmmakers also used some pieces of clothing discovered on set that were worn by slaves.