'12 Years A Slave': 160 Years Later, A Memoir Becomes A Movie

Oct 17, 2013
Originally published on October 18, 2013 12:09 pm

Solomon Northup was born free in early-19th-century upstate New York. He lived the life of a respected and elegant musician until 1841, when he was lured South by the promise of a lucrative stint playing his fiddle in a traveling circus.

In Washington, D.C. — in the shadow of the Capitol — Northup was drugged. When he came to, he was in chains: a slave headed for the hellish world of plantation life. Only the hope of being reunited with his beloved wife and children kept him going.

In the new film Twelve Years a Slave, British director Steve McQueen tells the largely forgotten, true story of Northup's capture, struggle and eventual freedom. McQueen is also known for provocative films like Hunger, about a hunger strike at a prison in Northern Ireland.

McQueen and British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northup in the film, tell NPR's Renee Montagne about the perils of plantation life and the inspiration they drew from Northup's own words.


Interview Highlights

On using the memoir as a guide for the character and the story

Ejiofor: He starts out in the story and in the book, really, with the idea that he is in a struggle for his freedom, which seems clear, which seems obvious, you know. But at a certain point that changes, and he realizes that he's in a struggle for his sanity. And I think that that difference, that point of change, when it comes, is quite startling. It is that kind of Alice in Wonderland feeling.

McQueen: For me, I always thought to think of it as a fairy tale, because when he is seduced to go to Washington to actually work in the circus, it's like Pinocchio. So I had to handle it in that way. Always in the fairy tale, it starts off beautifully and wonderfully, and then, of course, it goes dark. And then, obviously, you go through this darkness hopefully to come out into the light. So I was very much interested in that kind of Brothers Grimm sort of fairy tale.

On slaves being at the mercy of plantation owners' whims

Ejiofor: That's the extraordinary tension, I think, of the plantation where Solomon ends up, is that it's not the actual acts that are the problem. But it is the moments of tension in the threat of the acts is what really holds people in that kind of bondage.

McQueen: And also, slavery was a place where you didn't know what was to happen next. Tomorrow, you could be sold. Tomorrow, you could have your children taken away from you. So that kind of instability was the norm — worse than torture.

On the sometimes inexplicable behavior of Epps, the plantation owner

Ejiofor: His behavior is peculiar because he is, you know — they're all slightly mad. They've sort of been driven mad by these circumstances, by this oppression, effectively. And Epps' mind is something that is completely fragile and fraught. And he has a complete dependency on the slaves. And it's a very complicated place for him, a very lonely place.

McQueen: I do feel sympathy for Epps because, you know, he's in a system where he has to uphold — and he does uphold it with an iron fist. But at the same time, he's in love with his slave called Patsey and he can't understand why he is in love with his slave. And he goes about destroying his love for her, which is basically destroying her physically. And that kind of perversity is sort of inherent in slavery, not just through this weird love story. And it manifests itself within horrible acts of violence. But at the same time, you know, he's a human being.

On a particularly stunning scene, in which Northup is punished by near-hanging, with just his toes touching the ground

McQueen: It was a norm. Death and torture was the norm. And you see how people sort of get used to it, get numb to it. So, for example, you see in that shot when he's hanging there, slaves going about their business and not interfering with him hanging there. Yes, I wanted it in the film to be sort of the lynching of all lynchings in film, because somehow this had to portray all of what happened in the past, which never got brought into the light.

On what enabled Northup to survive 12 years of slavery

Ejiofor: That is what I was always searching for in the book. It is so extraordinary, what he did. The first clue that I got was ... the scene where Solomon is hanging in the sun. There's a description in the book when he's describing that day, and after several hours, you know, it's boiling hot and he's hanging there, and he says in his kind of typically understated fashion that he would have given more years of servitude if they had only moved him a few feet into the shade. And there was something about that line that I thought, well, there is his resolve. There is the depth of his spirit. This man is somehow, gently, unbreakable.

McQueen: This film, for me, is about love. And it's a word that should be tossed around not, obviously, frequently, but when you mean it. It has to do with his humanity. He kept hold of his humanity, his dignity, through all kinds of unfortunate situations. And it's difficult just to get through a day sometimes, but he managed to get through 12 years of the most horrific ordeal you could imagine and held onto a kind of truth, which I think is just extraordinarily beautiful and a lesson for us all.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's hear, now, about a new movie that shines a light on the true story of one man caught up in the long, horrifying history of slavery in the U.S. Solomon Northup was born free in upstate New York, living the life of a respected and elegant musician until a fateful moment in 1841, when he was lured South by the promise of a lucrative stint playing his fiddle in a traveling circus.

In Washington, D.C. - in the very shadow of the Capitol - Solomon Northup was drugged and comes to in chains, a slave headed to the hellish world of plantation life. Only the hope of being reunited with his beloved wife and children keeps him going.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (As Solomon Northup) Days ago, I was with my family. Now you tell me all is lost. Tell know one who I am - that's the way to survive? Well, I don't want to survive. I want to live.

MONTAGNE: There, as Solomon Northup, is British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. We invited him, along with director Steve McQueen, to talk about the movie, "12 Years A Slave." McQueen, also British, is known for provocative films like "Hunger," about a hunger strike at a prison in Northern Ireland.

In his new film, the director's vision is shaped by a subject's own words. In 1853, Solomon Northup was freed and soon documented his ordeal in a memoir. Steve McQueen says it was a best seller in its day.

STEVE MCQUEEN: It was the only firsthand account of a free black man who went into slavery and came out the other end, who actually regained his freedom. But then "Uncle Tom's Cabin" came out the year after and obliterated it, and it was buried. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In fact, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was published before Northup's memoir.] And I was really upset with myself that I did not know about this book. No one knew about this book. And it just became my passion, sort of - make this book into a film.

MONTAGNE: And Chiwetel Ejiofor: As the actor, the person who played Solomon Northup, how much did you look at this memoir - or to this memoir - as a guide to the character on screen?

EJIOFOR: Yeah. He starts out in the story and in the book, really, with the idea that he is in a struggle for his freedom - which seems clear, which seems obvious, you know. But at a certain point, that changes; and he realizes that he's in a struggle for his sanity. And I think that that difference, that point of change, when it comes, is quite startling. It is that kind of "Alice in Wonderland" feeling.

MONTAGNE: Well, in a nightmarish way.

MCQUEEN: Yeah. I mean, for me, I always thought to think of it as a fairy tale because when he is seduced to go to Washington, to actually work in the circus, it's like Pinocchio. So I had to handle it in that way. Always, in the fairy tale, it starts off beautifully and wonderfully and then, of course, it goes dark. And then, obviously, you go through this darkness, hopefully, to come out into the light. So I was very much interested in that kind of Brothers Grimm sort of fairy tale.

MONTAGNE: And then there's something else. These slaves are, as you portray them, not just under the constant threat of violence or held down, which I think one expects, but what you find out is they're at the mercy of the moods - and whims, even - of the master and the mistress and the overseer. There never seems to be anything that is dependably, right to do.

EJIOFOR: That's the extraordinary tension, I think, of the plantation where Solomon ends up, is that it's not the actual acts that are the problem. But it is the moments of tension in the threat of the acts - is what really holds people in that kind of bondage.

MCQUEEN: And also, slavery was a place where you didn't know what was going to happen next. Tomorrow, you could be sold. Tomorrow, you could have your children taken away from you. So that kind of instability was the norm, worse than torture.

MONTAGNE: Hmm. And yet there were also weird moments. There's a scene where Epps, the plantation owne - he drags everybody out of bed for what amounts to a little dance party.

EJIOFOR: His behavior is peculiar because he is, you know, they're all slightly mad. They've sort of been driven mad by these circumstances, by this oppression, effectively. And Epps' mind is something that is completely fragile and fraught. And he has a complete dependency on the slaves. And it's a very complicated place for him, a very lonely place, you know.

MONTAGNE: I have to say, you're sounding almost sympathetic - and Epps is a cruel, cruel man.

MCQUEEN: Well, you know, I do feel a bit of sympathy for Epps because, you know, he's in this system where he has to uphold, and he does uphold it - with an iron fist. But at the same time, he's in love with this slave - called Patsey - and he can't understand why is he in love with this slave? And he goes about destroying his love for her, which is basically destroying her physically. And that kind of perversity is sort of inherent in slavery, not just through this weird love story. And it manifests itself within horrible acts of violence. But at the same time, you know, he's a human being.

MONTAGNE: Hmm. I want to talk to you about, I think, was the most stunning scene in a movie that has a lot of stunning scenes. There comes a time when Solomon thrashes one of his white bosses, and they nearly hang him; but Solomon Northup is cut down just enough that his toes are touching the ground. This scene goes on for minutes on screen, and it seems like a pastoral painting with a horror at its center.

MCQUEEN: I mean, it was a norm. Death and torture was the norm. And you see how people sort of get used to it, get numb to it. So, for example, you see in that shot when he's hanging there, slaves going about their business and not interfering with him hanging there. Yes, I wanted it in the film to be sort of the lynching of all lynchings in film, because somehow this had to portray all of what happened in the past, which never got brought into the light.

MONTAGNE: Well, in the end, do you have any idea of what it was about Solomon Northup that allowed him - enabled him, really - to survive 12 years.

EJIOFOR: That is what I was always searching for in the book. It is so extraordinary, what he did. The first clue that I got was - you were talking about the scene where Solomon is hanging in the sun. There's a description in the book when he's describing that day and after several hours, you know, it's boiling hot and he's hanging there. And he says, in his kind of typically understated fashion, that he would have given more years of servitude if they had only moved him a few feet into the shade. And there was something about that line that I thought, well, there is his resolve. There is the depth of his spirit. This man is somehow, gently, unbreakable.

MCQUEEN: This film, for me, is about love. And it's a word that should be tossed around not, obviously, frequently, but when you mean it. It has to do with his humanity. He kept hold of his humanity, his dignity, through all kinds of unfortunate situations.

And it's difficult just to get through a day, sometimes, but he managed to get through 12 years of the most horrific ordeal you could imagine, and held onto a kind of truth, which I think is just extraordinarily beautiful, and a lesson for us all.

MONTAGNE: Thank you both very much for joining us.

MCQUEEN: Thank you.

EJIOFOR: Pleasure, thank you.

MONTAGNE: Steve McQueen directed, and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor starred, in the new film "12 Years A Slave," based on a memoir of Solomon Northup. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.