According to Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., 101 former slaves in the antebellum South published firsthand accounts of their enslavement. But only one of those stories tells of a 19th-century American — a free person of color — who was kidnapped, sold into slavery and later rescued to resume a life of freedom. That true tale belongs to Solomon Northup of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. and his 1853 book, Twelve Years a Slave. No one knows for sure how may free people of color were kidnapped in Northern states (where slavery had been gradually abolished starting in the late 1700s) and sold into slavery in the South, but experts agree it was thousands per year.
Despite its unique status as a window into our history, Northup's book remained out of print through most of the 20th century. A bestseller in its time, it is not widely read today. Filmmaker Steve McQueen's powerful adaptation of 12 Years a Slave seems destined to restore Northup's story to its rightful place in the public consciousness. The Oscars it likely will earn won't hurt that a bit. It's a film people will watch and talk about for many years to come.
Hollywood has never been shy about depicting slavery as part of America's early landscape, whether romanticizing the lifestyle it afforded Southern whites (Gone With the Wind) or indulging in an overdue revenge fantasy (Quentin Tarantino's recent Django Unchained). 12 Years a Slave seems to exist in its own space apart from cinematic history. Many will have trouble watching scenes that depict the horrors of slavery, but the film is remarkably evenhanded, and has an almost matter-of-fact quality that disguises its expert storytelling. It doles out movie-style drama and emotion in relatively small portions. That approach surely is grounded in respect for the subject matter. But as a British man of African descent, director McQueen seems to have just enough distance from the American experience of slavery to depict it realistically on film for the very first time.
As Northup, award-winning British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (Children of Men) embodies the courage and dignity at the story's center. His understated work is key to the film's success. Then there's Michael Fassbender, who was largely discovered by McQueen and has now appeared in all three of his feature films (including Hunger and Shame). Fassbender's Edwin Epps — a real-life Louisiana plantation owner who remains legendary for his acts of extreme cruelty — is a ferocious creation, a tormented man at odds with his own psyche. Fassbender has five films slated for release in 2014 and suddenly seems an unstoppable force.
There are a lot of major movies shot in the New Orleans area these days, but 12 Years a Slave is one of very few that only could have been made here. All four of the plantations in the film are located 20 to 65 miles miles upriver from New Orleans, and two key urban scenes were shot in the French Quarter and Uptown. It's easy to forget that the nation's largest slave market existed in our city 150 years ago. That shared history may be something we'd rather quarantine to the past, but looking it squarely in the eye is a much better idea. — KEN KORMAN