12 Years a Slave: Trek From Slave to Screen

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Long before Solomon Northup’s ordeal hit screens, he wrote about it.

Screenshot from the book 12 Years a Slave; Chiwetel Ejiofor in the film 12 Years a Slave
Screenshot from the book 12 Years a Slave; Chiwetel Ejiofor in the film 12 Years a Slave Jaap Buitendijk/IMDb.com

Editor’s note: This article was first published on Oct. 14, 2013. For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 51: How did the story of Solomon Northup, the real-life protagonist of the film 12 Years a Slave, first become public? 

‘Utter Darkness’

As a literary scholar and cultural historian who has spent a lifetime searching out African Americans’ lost, forgotten and otherwise unheralded tales, I was honored to serve as a historical consultant on Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, most certainly one of the most vivid and authentic portrayals of slavery ever captured in a feature film. In its blend of tactile, sensory realism with superb modernistic cinematic techniques, this film is 180 degrees away from Quentin Tarantino’s postmodern spaghetti Western-slave narrative, Django Unchained, occupying the opposite pole on what we might think of as “the scale of representation.”

No story tells itself on its own; even “true” stories have to be recreated within the confines and various formal possibilities for expression offered by a given medium, and that includes both feature films and documentaries, as well. Both of these films offer compelling interpretations of the horrific experience of human bondage, even if their modes of storytelling are diametrically opposed, offering viewers—and especially teachers and students—a rare opportunity to consider how the ways that an artist chooses to tell a story—the forms, points of view and aesthetic stances she or he selects—affects our understanding of its subject matter.

One hundred and sixty years before Steve McQueen made any artistic choices, Solomon Northup, the narrator and protagonist of 12 Years a Slave, was eager just to get his story out to the public—and have them believe that what had happened to him was authentic. Think of what it must have been like for Solomon during those first disorienting hours in the pitch black, when, in “the dungeon” of Williams’ Slave Pen off Seventh Avenue in Washington, D.C., he had to reckon with the betrayal that had lured him out of a lifetime of freedom into a nightmare of bondage. “I found myself alone, in utter darkness, and in chains,” Northup wrote, and “nothing broke the oppressive silence, save the clinking of my chains, whenever I chanced to move. I spoke aloud, but the sound of my own voice startled me.”

Not only was Northup suddenly a stranger to himself, in an even stranger place, but with his money and the papers proving his status as a free black man stolen and a beating awaiting every insistence on the truth, Northup was forced into a horrifying new role, that of the paradoxical “free slave,” under the false name “Platt Hamilton,” a supposed “runaway” from Georgia. That all this happened in the shadows of the U.S. Capitol—that in cuffs Northup was shuffled down the same Pennsylvania Avenue where just over a century later Dr. King would be heard delivering his “Dream” speech, a few decades before President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle would parade in hopes of fulfilling it—must have made Northup’s imposed odyssey taste all the more bitter. “My sufferings,” he recalled of the first whipping he received, “I can compare to nothing else than the burning agonies of hell!”

But unlike Dante’s Inferno, the outpost to which Solomon Northup was forced to descend was no metaphorical space replete with various circles housing the damned, but the swamps, forests and cotton fields in the Deep South. “I never knew a slave to escape with his life from Bayou Boeuf,” Northup wrote. After that, the driving force of his life—and story—could be summed up in one question: Would he be the exception?

Here are the facts.

Who Was Solomon Northup?

Spoiler alert: This section of the column—and only this section—contains some information also covered in the film.

Solomon Northup spent his first 33 years as a free man in upstate New York. He was born in the Adirondack town of Schroon (later Minerva) July 10, 1807 (his memoir says 1808, but the evidence suggests otherwise). As a child, he learned to read and write while assisting his father Mintus, a former slave who eventually bought enough farm land in Fort Edward to qualify for the vote (a right that in many states, during the early days of the Republic, was reserved for landowners). Solomon’s mother, Susannah, was a “quadroon,” who may have been born free herself. Solomon’s “ruling passion,” he said, was “playing on the violin.”

Married at 21, Northup and his wife Anne Hampton (the daughter of a free black man who was also part white and Native American) had three children: Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo. In 1834, they settled in Saratoga Springs, where Solomon toiled at various seasonal jobs, including rafting, woodcutting, railroad construction, canal maintenance and repairs, farming and, in resort season, staffing area hotels (for a time, he and his wife both lived and worked at the United States Hotel). His “ruling passion,” the violin, also became a way of earning money, and his reputation grew.