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12 Years A Slave: The Historical Reality of a Blockbuster

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Words by Holly Wade

12 Years A Slave won best picture at all of the major award ceremonies. At the Oscars, Steve McQueen dedicated his triumph to “all [of] the people who have endured slavery and the 21 million people who still suffer at the hands of slavery today.”

After first seeing the trailer for 12 Years A Slave, I felt a burning sensation that begged me to read the original story before going to see it on-screen. I spent three days completely engrossed in Solomon Northup’s narrative, but even now, after watching the major award-winning motion picture, audiences are ignorant to the fact that things like this really happened.

Director of 12 Years A Slave Steve McQueen at awards ceremony

Director Steve McQueen

What was interesting about Northup’s narrative was his need to justify dates and provide exact locations and names to reinforce his extraordinary story’s truth. John Ridley, part of the 12 Years A Slave production team, won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Before joining the ceremony, he spoke of Solomon’s “ability to see beauty in a very difficult circumstance”, and how he could only “try” to retell this remarkable story. He said that nothing was added or embellished in the screenplay for dramatic effect. The movie itself is not an exaggeration of Northup’s narrative, though it tells only fragments so as to fit within cinema’s time constraints.

The book’s full title is: Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana. Solomon did not want to produce a ‘story’. Instead, he wanted to truthfully recall his life in an attempt to make audiences aware of the brutality of his experiences as part of the African-American slave trade. The film is certainly a “riveting drama” (remember: this story is real!) surrounding Solomon’s own experiences and memoirs.

Steve McQueen’s curiosity with slavery in America saw him searching for a suitable story for months. In a number of interviews, McQueen detailed his amazement at how nobody had explored the American slave trade before, and how a story like Solomon’s had been overlooked at the time of publication. He was saddened that he had never before come across anything like it. His discovery is explained in the foreword of the re-published editions of Twelve Years A Slave where it is told that it was his wife who had discovered Northup’s narrative. It explains that once his choice had been finalised, he had felt a sense of urgency in producing the picture.

Drawing of Solomon Northup

Solomon Northup

Whilst 12 Years A Slave is an incredibly moving production and has proved to be a major box office hit, I cannot help but wonder why it has taken so long for somebody to tell a story like Solomon’s. It was written just over 150 years ago, a relatively short historical period, yet audiences have left theatres in amazement that a story like Solomon’s was actually possible. In truth, Solomon’s story is just one of millions of others who underwent similar, untold experiences. Solomon is one of few who found liberation from the “mind-forg’d manacles” of the American slave trade.

The American slave trade is not something that exists only on cinema screens; it really happened. Slave narratives fill the void in taught history, as many of us are still fed the one-sided material of the colonist. Until recently, historians have neglected the testimony of victims of slavery entirely. One would hope that they would no longer be overlooked now that millions have been made from just one man’s story.

As translations from book to films go, we should give a high-five to Steve McQueen. He could not have found a richer source material for inspiration. If you left the movie theatre deeply moved, try your hand at the book. Solomon’s story is truly extraordinary, haunting, and unforgettable.

Holly Wade is an English student, aspiring scriptwriter, coffee addict and music lover. She also has an unhealthy addiction to trashy American TV series. Follow her on Twitter here.

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