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12 Years A Slave

The seed for a television version of Twelve Years a Slave was planted in 1976 through conversations between producer Shep Morgan and University of North Carolina-Wilmington historian Robert Brent Toplin. Toplin suggested that Morgan make use of a recently awarded NEH planning grant to produce a series of dramatic films on American slavery based on true historical figures and events.

12 Years A Slave


The timing seemed right for Morgan and Toplin to forge ahead with their audacious plan. The success of the television miniseries Roots (1977) demonstrated a public interest in slavery. Equally important, by the late 1970s, assumptions about slavery had changed dramatically. A new generation of historians revealed the ways slaves forged communities, challenged their masters, and preserved their humanity. Many of these scholars participated on an advisory board that offered input into what Morgan and his team of producers envisioned as a three-film series on American slavery.

Steve McQueen and John Ridley have also benefited from good timing with their recent film. Representations of slavery on film have experienced a remarkable evolution since the days of Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, with their depictions of a benign institution filled with happy slaves who unconditionally loved their masters. By the 1990s, new scholarship and changing racial attitudes had debunked this view of slavery and allowed for films like Glory, Amistad, and Beloved to reach mainstream audiences. More recently, films such as Lincoln and Django Unchained have shown that movies about slavery can achieve box-office success and garner critical acclaim.

Many viewers have remarked that the violence in 12 Years a Slave is at times too difficult to watch. That is exactly the point. The violence must be unbearable to look at for the very reason that the real violence of slavery was so unbearable for those who experienced it on a daily basis.

After "Django Unchained" and Lee Daniels' "The Butler," both informed by the shameful legacy of slavery and institutionalized injustice in America, you might think you have satisfied your quota of viewing incidents of racial hatred, sexual abuse and ugly brutality in the past year.

For once, history is presented as personal and immediate, not a saga relying on scholarly works and court records à la "Amistad." The source is a rare first-hand account based on the best-selling 19th-century memoir written by Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who suddenly had his liberty torn away after being kidnapped and sold for slave labor in Louisiana.

Like Lee Daniels in "The Butler," McQueen capitalizes on his growing rep to stack the casting deck with recognizable faces, many plucked from the indie universe. Paul Giamatti lends a grubby gruffness to his all-business slave trader. Benedict Cumberbatch is Northup's first master, the (comparatively) kindly William Ford, who treats Solomon and his skills as a violinist and craftsman with respect while wrestling with the contradictions that their relationship presents.

Paul Dano performs his nasty plantation overseer John Tibeats, who considers Northup's every move a personal affront, with all the hysteria he afforded his preacher in "There Will Be Blood," plus a sadistic streak. "Mad Men" costar Bryan Batt invests his Judge Turner with effeminate affectations, while Alfre Woodard's fancy lady slyly sips her tea at her leisure as an ex-slave who uses marriage as a passage to freedom. There is even room for "Beasts of the Southern Wild"'s Dwight Henry (as a slave) and Quvenzhané Wallis (as Northup's daughter).

But by the time that Brad Pitt, one of the film's producers, arrives late in the tale with a highly disruptive cameo as a Canadian carpenter who provides hope to Northup that the end to his decade-plus nightmare is nigh, most viewers will be too overwhelmed and stunned to much care. And as they wipe their tears and gather the strength to leave their seats, their minds will be filled with one thought: That they have actually witnessed American slavery in all its appalling horror for the very first time.

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

Banks was an inept general, and his 1863 campaign was a debacle from a military point of view, but Burrud and his fellow soldiers were authorized by the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves they found in Confederate territory, and they freed thousands. Some of them, Burrud discovered, knew Northup.

For 12 years, violinist Solomon Northup toiled as a slave in Louisiana in secret, after being kidnapped from his home in Saratoga, New York, and sold for $650. Finally, on January 4, 1853, after an allied plantation worker sent several letters north on his behalf, Northup was freed, and returned home.

While suffering with severe pain some persons came in, and, seeing the condition he was in, proposed to give him some medicine and did so. That is the last thing of which he had any recollection until he found himself chained to the floor of Williams' slave pen in this city, and handcuffed. In the course of a few hours, James H. Burch, a slave dealer, came in, and the colored man asked him to take the irons off from him, and wanted to know why they were put on. Burch told him it was none of his business. The colored man said he was free and told where he was born. Burch called in a man by the name of Ebenezer Rodbury, and they two stripped the man and laid him across a bench, Rodbury holding him down by his wrists. Burch whipped him with a paddle until he broke that, and then with a cat-o'-nine-tails, giving him a hundred lashes, and he swore he would kill him if he ever stated to anyone that he was a free man.

By the laws of Louisiana no man can be punished there for having sold Solomon into slavery wrongfully, because more than two years had elapsed since he was sold; and no recovery can be had for his services, because he was bought without the knowledge that he was a free citizen.

Ultimately, Burch was acquitted, because he claimed he'd thought Northup was truly a slave for sale, and Northup couldn't testify otherwise. The identities of the two men who'd originally brought Northup to Washington on business and proceeded to drug and sell him remained a mystery.

12 Years a Slave is a marvel. It works as a film and it works as a story that helps us to remember a part of the American past that is too often forgotten. We have all been made better by this film if we remember the shadow that slavery cast and if we draw strength and inspiration from those who refused to let their enslavement define them and those who, by refusing, helped make real the American ideals of freedom and equality.

Had Northup gained a stronger personal footing among the abolitionists of Auburn, we might know more about his later life and death; why this did not happen is hard to say. As he was not originally a literary man, the fact that his slave narrative is his only work is not a surprise. Even career authors such as Stowe and Wilson, after all, did not always continue writing. But the mystery and relative isolation of his later life and death should not overshadow the small but important role his narrative played in the heated dialogue about slavery in the 1850s, as the evidence of its abuses and cruelty inflamed the nation to a civil war.

By focusing the story of the film on one man, 12 Years a Slave takes the incomprehensible violence of slavery and personalizes it. These are not faceless cotton-pickers representing a moment in time, this is Solomon and the cruelty he knew and by extension the cruelty that defined the lives of millions. Unlike the violence we have come to expect in movies, McQueen never makes this cruelty entertaining; it is gut-wrenching and it is palpable. McQueen also never shows these slaves in a moment of happiness; there is no truth being propagated that the antebellum south was anything but terrifying. 12 Years a Slave hits you with the daily horror, the quotidian violence, and generations of atrocity that this country endured. It's a film that forces a zoom out from the movie violence we grew up with, and a zoom in on what it actually means to be hurt.

For Williams, the story of her ancestor has been part of her life since she was young; her mother was given a copy of the book by her grandmother. Even now, she thinks about what it must have been like for Northup as a free man in the North to suddenly become a slave in the South. Williams notes that it was very different to live in that time knowing about slavery, but believing it happened only to other people.

You can also find the slave holdings of Edwin Epps in the Marksville, Louisiana slave census of 1850. Slaves are not named, but by description, Solomon Northup is the first slave listed.The archives of ft. Worth, where the Northup document was found, is now scanning and digitizing all the slave manifests that came through New Orleans so that some day, people can hunt for their descendants; slaves, slave owners and ship masters.

Based on an 1853 memoir detailing the appalling experiences of Solomon Northup, a free man of color who was brazenly abducted and sold into slavery, this film intends to do more than tell us a story. It wants to immerse us in an experience, and it does.

12 Years a Slave is the brutal real-life story of Solomon Northup, a black freeman living in New York before the Civil War who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Michael Fassbender costars as a sadistic plantation owner with newcomer Lupita Nyong'o playing one of his slaves. Pitt plays a Canadian carpenter who befriends Northup.

Fugitive slave laws allowed African Americans who could not prove their free status to be taken into slavery. What does the political cartoon suggest about negative effects these laws had both on escaped slaves and African Americans like Solomon Northup who were born free? 041b061a72


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