Twelve Years a Slave: The Narrative Behind the Film

12 Years a Slave movie poster 2013On October 18, Fox Searchlight will release 12 Years a Slave. The film, directed by Steve McQueen, boasts an impressive cast, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, and Brad Pitt, as well as acclaimed newcomers like Lupita Nyong’o. It also features a score by Hans Zimmer and has already racked up accolades after its screenings at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals.

The film tells the story of Solomon Northrup (Ejiofor), a free man and fiddle player from New York who was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery in Louisiana. It explores Northrup’s efforts to retain his dignity in the face of inhumanity as he longs for the family he was taken from and hopes for freedom throughout time in the employ of three different masters, ranging from a kindly preacher (Benedict Cumberbatch) to a cruel plantation owner (Fassbender).

Remarkably, and horrifically, the story is a true one. The film is based on the account Northrup gave to Dave Wilson, a white lawyer from New York. Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 was published less than a year after Northrup’s escape and went on to sell over 30,000 copies. The narrative includes wry humor in the commentary on life as a slave, bouts of travel writing remarking on the southern landscapes Northrup found himself in, and characterizations of the other slaves, making it “one of the most detailed and realistic portraits of slave life,” according to one slave narrative scholar.

UNC Press has made Twelve Years a Slave available as part of our DocSouth Books program. We have partnered with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library to bring works from the digital collection of Documenting the American South back into print for scholars, students, and general readers. The titles are available as e-books or as print-on-demand paperbacks.

This also isn’t the first time that a DocSouth book has intersected with Hollywood. As our editorial assistant Alison Shay explained last year, Elizabeth Keckley was featured as a character in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Keckley was a former slave, dressmaker, and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln who recorded her life in Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House.

Take a look at the full list of DocSouth books to see what other historic autobiographies and narratives are available. Who knows, maybe they’ll be coming to a theater near you next year.

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