Steve McQueen’s new movie, 12 Years a Slave, is getting justifiably rave reviews for its unflinchingly brutal portrayal of slavery and a terrific performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role.
The film is based on the memoir Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, a New York farmer who was kidnapped in 1841 and lived under brutal slave conditions for a dozen years. McQueen, the English artist-turned director, whose harrowing features include Hunger, about Northern Irish martyr Bobby Sands, and the sex-addiction drama Shame, said his goal in making the movie was to bring the book to the public’s attention. Twelve Years a Slave, he said, should be treated with the same regard as The Diary of Anne Frank (McQueen lives in Amsterdam) and should be taught in every American school.
The notion that the book is being resurrected by the film was mentioned several times in TIFF press conferences for the film, one with the director and producers, and another with the cast. Harvard professor and historical consultant Henry Louis Gates qualified that slightly, noting the book wasn’t actually “lost” but known only to scholars and African-American literature students. That should change, he added, with the new Penguin Classics edition, edited by him.
Truth is, the book is hardly unknown. A bestselling abolitionist indictment of slavery when first published in 1853, it was republished in 1968 by Louisiana historian Sue Eakin, and there have been numerous editions available. These include an adaptation for young readers, three different audiobook versions (including one read by Lou Gossett Jr.) and a dramatic adaptation on American Playhouse in 1984 by Shaft director Gordon Parks. And for the past 14 years, the town of Saratoga Springs, NY, where Northup and his family lived and worked, have celebrated a Solomon Northup Day.
On the other hand, another statistic that Gates offered gave pause for reflection: Of the more than 200 slave memoirs written before and after the American Civil War, Twelve Years a Slave is the first to have been turned into a major motion picture.