Film

'12 Years a Slave': Neglected tale of slavery gets Oscar boost

Nadia Neophytou

Critics are predicting great things for "12 Years a Slave", Steve McQueen's film based on a 160-year-old slave narrative penned by Solomon Northup.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup in '12 Years a Slave'. (Supplied)

Moments after Searching for Sugar Man debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in the United States in January 2012, a man in the audience stood up and said he needed to speak. "Thank you South Africa, for giving us back something we didn't know we'd lost," he said, before the rest of the crowd – the first people to see the film – joined him in enthusiastic applause. It was that first buzz from the film festival that set Sugar Man on course for a ride into movie history. The story of two South African fans who set out to discover what had happened to the forgotten Detroit musician, Sixto Rodriguez, captured imaginations and awards across the globe, and culminated in the highest of accolades – the 2013 Oscar for best documentary. 

This year, another neglected story – albeit dealing with a far more grave and important subject – also gets a second chance at being told thanks to the buzz it received on the film festival circuit. The film, 12 Years a Slave, which opens in South Africa this weekend, has been one of the most talked-about, if not the most talked-about movie of the awards season since it premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado in August last year. 

Word-of-mouth acclaim for the film, directed by Steve McQueen, the Turner Prize-winning artist-turned-filmmaker, started there, and grew louder at the higher-profile Toronto International Film Festival, where 12 Years showed a few days later and scored the festival's top prize – the people's choice award. Last weekend it scooped a Golden Globe for best drama.

Based on the memoir penned by Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave follows the incredible story of a freeman living in upstate New York in the mid-1800s, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the US's Deep South (See "Who was Solomon Northup", below). Northup's book, when it was published a few months after his rescue, just before the American Civil War, sold 17 000 copies and was considered a bestseller. 

The book that had once rocked the US fell out of circulation, and the story sank into oblivion in the years that followed. Reissuing the memoir and adding it to some school curriculums did little to help it stay in the collective conscience of American society. Like Rodriguez, whose music was not known by the audience he had recorded it for, Northup's tale of misery and hardship – and the testimony of his spirit – was not popularly known by his fellow countrymen. 

More important than any song, though, lost with Northup's tale was the opportunity to address the issues lingering behind slavery's legacy.

One hundred and sixty years later, McQueen believes the time is right to revisit Northup's forgotten slave narrative and reintroduce him to the world. "I think about the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, and the 50th anniversary of the [Civil Rights Movement] March on Washington [last year], and it's that kind of perfect storm," McQueen said during an interview ahead of the film's United States release. "People are ready to see and look and reflect on the unfortunate past, and maybe at other times they weren't."


Director Steve McQueen with actors Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor. (Photo supplied)

It's been a subject McQueen had been wanting to explore ever since he moved into film as a medium for expressing his art, with the debut of his first feature, Hunger, in 2008, about the hunger strike of Irish Republican Army volunteer Bobby Sands. 

That debut earned him the Cannes film festival's Palme d'Or, and he went on to make Shame, again starring Michael Fassbender in the lead role, about sexual addiction. But he'd always had the aim of taking a story about a man who was once free, having been captured and enslaved in a very real sense, and putting it on screen.

Fortuitously, McQueen's wife came across Northup's book, when McQueen himself was ready to tackle the sensitive subject. "When 12 Years came into my hands I couldn't believe it," he said. "I was trembling. I'd had this idea that we as the audience would go along with a free man as he gets lost in this maze of slavery, and here was the narrative, fully formed. Each page was already written like a script."

But the 44-year-old London-born director, with parents of West Indian descent, remembers being upset with himself at the time for not being aware of the story before. "How did I not know about it? I live in Amsterdam and for me it was like reading Anne Frank's Diary for the first time. Slowly, though, I found out that no one knew about this book and it became my passion to make it into a film," he said. 

Although the book has, since the film's release, entered many bestseller lists again, McQueen said he was aware of the responsibility he had. For many, his film will be the extent of their engagement with Northup's story. "The film is not the book. It's one thing reading about what happened; seeing it is another. When I was reading it, I thought ‘I want to see these images'." 

The images of the film, artistic as they are, force audiences to look at slavery in the most detailed and visceral way ever portrayed on the big screen – given the director's trademark unflinching attention to detail. This has become both the film's draw-card and its downfall. Much has been written about the challenges of marketing such a story to cinema-goers who are traditionally looking for escapist entertainment. 

"I'm not out to shock people," said McQueen. "I'm out for understanding." His hard-to-watch scenes of a mother separated from her child, rape and near-lynching take the audience, and the cast itself, to places many would rather not go. How does McQueen know how far to push it all? 

"It's a dance," he said. "It's about the emotion of the scene – the context and the emotion of the scene – and how far you can actually bend without breaking it completely. It's a fine balance – a ballet in a way, in how one can actually balance. It's a situation where if you've got great actors and DPs [directors of photo-graphy], you can get there."

The actors provide astonishing performances in 12 Years a Slave and elevate McQueen's work from artistic tableau to human portrait. Lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northup, was already an established Laurence Olivier-award-winning name in the theatre world in the United Kingdom where he was born, and his roles in films such as Children of Men and Dirty Pretty Things hinted at his abilities. But with this role he's had cinemagoers and critics around the world learning how to pronounce his Nigerian name (shortened from Chiwetelu Umeadi Ejiofor) correctly in anticipation of awards accolades.

The story of 12 Years a Slave is one that's given Ejiofor the chance to finally show what he is truly capable of as a film actor. Pundits have been predicting Oscar glory for the actor months ahead of the awards season, and so far he has been named best actor by the Chicago Film Critics Association, the Kansas City Film Critics Circle, the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, the Southeastern Film Critics Association and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association. He's received nominations from several others and is up for lead actor in the the Screen Actors Guild and the Independent Spirit awards. 

No mean feat, considering the actor initially said no to the role when McQueen first offered it to him. "I understand why," said McQueen. "He was weighing it up and considering things and when he said yes, I was ready to help him." 

A scene from 12 Years a Slave. (Photosupplied)

The film has been praised for its cinematography, particularly in its depiction of the antebellum South and the alluring landscapes, which are painted even more sharply in contrast with the horrors that took place there. "One had to go to all those places to feel it, because of the responsibility to Solomon [Northup] and to everybody who went through that time," says Ejiofor. 

For first-time actress Lupita Nyong'o, who has one of the film's most challenging scenes, the approach to portraying the brutality was similar (See "Lupita Nyong'o: An actress to watch", opposite). "This isn't just some figment of a person's imagination; this was a real woman who trod this Earth and I definitely felt the responsibility of that," Nyong'o says. 

She calls the film the most artistic portrait of history, but it's a work she doesn't want people to admire from afar. "I would love for audiences to recognise that we have a large potential for cruelty, but also for such resilience." 

Nyong'o – an actress who was born in Mexico but grew up in Kenya – landed what she calls the "kind of role that an actor just relishes", fresh out of studying drama at the Yale School of Drama in the US. "Patsey is such an incredible character to play. She's described as the queen of the field; the fastest cotton-picker of the bayou. She lives large, and at the same time wishes for her death. That kind of complexity is something we as actors are always craving. And so to get it off the bat was such a blessing." She, too, has been lauded with accolades and applause. 

Both Nyong'o and Ejiofor, who was born in London to Nigerian parents but grew up identifying as Igbo, share McQueen's take on being foreigners telling an American story. 

"My parents are from the West Indies and Grenada," said McQueen. "My mother was born in Trinidad, Grenada is where Malcolm X's mother comes from, Trinidad is where Stokely Carmichael coined the phrase ‘black power', and we can go on and on and on.

"That diverse idea of understanding slavery has always been there from day one. It wasn't about ownership. It's part of my history too, and I needed to find a story that I could tell that spoke about that unfortunate time in history."

Although 12 Years is produced by Brad Pitt's Plan B production company, it is still a hard sell, with only a few known names in the cast. Word of mouth has helped to push it into the public realm, with those who have seen it urging others to do so too. 

As 12 Years prepares to realise the full extent of film-festival support, heading into the Academy Awards in early March, a new batch of films screen at this year's Sundance Film Festival, which kicked off this week. The festival that gave Sugar Man its first boost turns 30 this year; Telluride celebrated its 40th last year. 

More than the boost film festivals can give films is the spotlight they can throw on a movie's subject. At a press junket that followed the screening of the movie, an audience member stood up and said she had to speak: "Thank you for making us revisit a question 12 Years a Slave forces us to answer," she said. "Hatred was learned; now love can be taught." 


Who was Solomon Northup? 

A story as unbelievable as Solomon Northup's 12 Years a Slave should surely have been seared on the human collective conscience forever, especially as it was not an unusual one at the time that it took place. 

Historian Carol Wilson documented 300 kidnapping cases in her 1994 book, Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780–1865, and she believes it is likely that thousands more people were kidnapped whose stories have never been documented.

Northup's story starts in Minerva, New York, where he was born a free man – his father's freedom had been decreed by his late master's will. He worked as a farmer and violinist, and had two children after getting married. 

In 1841, Northup met two men, who introduced themselves as entertainers – Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton. They offered him a job as a fiddler for several performances and persuaded him to go with them to the circus in Washington, DC, where he was kidnapped and legally sold into slavery. 

Almost exactly 12 years later, in 1853, Northup was freed with the help of colleagues and friends who helped to prove that he was indeed a free man. 

One of the few free blacks to regain freedom under such circumstances, Northup sued the men involved in selling him into slavery, but because a black person was not allowed to testify in Washington, DC, where the trial was held, his captors were never made to pay for their crime.

Northup documented his story of pain and hardship in the memoir 12 Years a Slave. 

Not much is known about what happened to him in the years after the publication of his book. He all but disappeared, and his cause of death or even the date of it has not been accurately recorded. 

The memoir was reprinted several times in the 19th century, and since 1999 Saratoga Springs, New York – the place where he was living when he was kidnapped – has celebrated an annual Solomon Northup Day. – Nadia Neophytou

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