’12 years a slave’ The true story and incredible film adaptation of Solomon Northup’s life

6b

**

Solomon Northup was born in 1808 as a free man of mixed African, European, and Native American descent. In the winter of 1841, while working in Saratoga Springs, NY, he was tricked into following men he thought were potential employers to Washington, D.C. where he was drugged, beaten, and kidnapped. He woke to find himself in a slave pen and was eventually sold at auction in Louisiana. After 12 years spent enduring the pain and terror of slavery, Northup was rescued in 1853 through the intervention of his family, his friends, and the governor of New York.

**

6c

**

Published by Derby and Miller in 1853 as Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped from Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, From a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana, Northup’s account of his ordeal is surprisingly stark given the social climate of the day, and so it provides historians with a valuable text for understanding the harsh realities of slavery in the American South. It has now served as the inspiration for director Steve McQueen and writer John Ridley’s film 12 Years as a Slave, which stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup and comes out today.

**

**

Northup’s susceptibility to a ruthless kidnapping despite his relatively high status is a perfect illustration of how tenuous freedom was for all black Americans in the Antebellum United States. In addition to its descriptions of the brutality of slavery, his narrative also provides a window into the complex dynamics of class, identity, and race in the tumultuous period leading up the American Civil War.

Northup was born in Essex County, NY, the son of Mintus Northup — a former slave who had received manumission upon the death of his master — and a freed woman of mixed African and European descent. Mintus Northup’s former master was a man named Henry Northup whose son, also named Henry, became a friend to Solomon and, after receiving a letter that Solomon managed to send north, enlisted the help of New York Governor Washington Hunt, who signed a requisition demanding Northup’s return.

In his narrative, Solomon Northup provides vivid descriptions of the physical, psychological, and sexual violence that white slaveholders employed to control and instill fear in their captives. Take, for instance, this passage about a young enslaved woman named Patsey:

If [Patsey] ever uttered a word in opposition to her master’s will, the lash was resorted to at once, to bring her to subjection; if she was not watchful about her cabin, or when walking in the yard, a billet of wood, or a broken bottle perhaps, hurled from her mistress’s hand, and would smite her unexpectedly in the face. The enslaved victim of lust and hate, Patsey had no comfort of her life.  

**

8

**

“12 Years a Slave” isn’t the first movie about slavery in the United States — but it may be the one that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century. Written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen, it tells the true story of Solomon Northup, an African-American freeman who, in 1841, was snatched off the streets of Washington, and sold. It’s at once a familiar, utterly strange and deeply American story in which the period trappings long beloved by Hollywood — the paternalistic gentry with their pretty plantations, their genteel manners and all the fiddle-dee-dee rest — are the backdrop for an outrage.

**

8a

8f

8h

**

The story opens with Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) already enslaved and cutting sugar cane on a plantation. A series of flashbacks shifts the story to an earlier time, when Solomon, living in New York with his wife and children, accepts a job from a pair of white men to play violin in a circus. Soon the three are enjoying a civilized night out in Washington, sealing their camaraderie with heaping plates of food, flowing wine and the unstated conviction — if only on Solomon’s part — of a shared humanity, a fiction that evaporates when he wakes the next morning shackled and discovers that he’s been sold. Thereafter, he is passed from master to master.

**

8g

8e

8d

**

It’s a desperate path and a story that seizes you almost immediately with a visceral force. But Mr. McQueen keeps everything moving so fluidly and efficiently that you’re too busy worrying about Solomon, following him as he travels from auction house to plantation, to linger long in the emotions and ideas that the movie churns up. Part of this is pragmatic — Mr. McQueen wants to keep you in your seat, not force you out of the theater, sobbing — but there’s something else at work here. This is, he insists, a story about Solomon, who may represent an entire subjugated people and, by extension, the peculiar institution, as well as the American past and present. Yet this is also, emphatically, the story of one individual.

**

8c

**

That collective gasp you hear is the audience jolted by intolerable cruelty in 12 Years a Slave. Yet if you think the movie offers a terrible-enough portrait of slavery, please, do read the book. The written account is far worse than what the screen can display.

The film is based on, and very faithful to, the autobiography of Solomon Northup, which was published in 1853 as Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, From a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana . “Think of it. For 30 years a man with all a man’s hopes, fears, and aspirations … then for 12 years a thing,” Frederick Douglass wrote. “It chills the blood.”

**

8b

**

Northup was born in the New York town of Minerva in 1808, and held numerous jobs upstate, one of which was a violinist. “My fiddle was notorious,” he wrote. His wife, Anne, was famous, and well-paid, as a cook. They had three children—Elizabeth, Margaret, and Alonzo—and settled comfortably, but not prosperously, in Saratoga Springs. As a free man, Northup frequently met with slaves, and without fail he counseled them to strike for freedom. His feelings were clear:

“Having all my life breathed the free air of the North, and conscious that I possessed the same feelings and affections that find a place in the white man’s breast; conscious, moreover, of an intelligence equal to that of some men, at least, with a fairer skin, I was too ignorant, perhaps too independent, to conceive how any one could be content to live in the abject condition of a slave. I could not comprehend the justice of the law, or that religion, which upholds or recognizes the principle of Slaver.”

**

9a

**

**

Upon his release, Solomon Northup fought a legal battle against his abductors. The Washington, D.C. court, however, refused to admit the testimony of a black man. Unlike many former slaves, Northup used real names and places in his book and refused to employ euphemisms or pseudonyms. He was able to expose his tormentors to the nation, selling over 30,000 copies of his first edition.

7

Amazon link

Advertisements