Posted on Tuesday, August 16th, 2011 by Russ Fischer
Steve McQueen followed his debut film Hunger with Shame, which reunites him with actor Michael Fassbender and will premiere shortly at the Venice Film Festival. Now he’s got his post-Shame project set: a film called 12 Years a Slave, in which Chiwetel Ejiofor will star.
McQueen wrote the film with Red Tails screenwriter John Ridley, and the story follows Solomon Northrup, born the free son of a manumitted slave and who was living as a free New York citizen when he “was kidnapped in Washington in 1841 and rescued from a cotton plantation in Louisiana in 1853.”
Make that ‘true story.’ Often in cases like this, saying that something is a true story doesn’t add much in terms of expectation, but with Hunger Steve McQueen proved that he can respect a subject’s actual experience and turn out one hell of a film at the same time.
SlaveryInAmerica offers some more history on Solomon Northup’s horrifying story:
In 1841, while working in Saratoga Springs, New York, Solomon met two white men named Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton. The men overheard Solomon playing his violin and approached him claiming to work for a traveling circus. They proceeded to offer Northup a job providing musical entertainment for the circus at the rate of $1 a day and $3 for each performance. The two men informed him that they would need to travel to Washington D.C., where the circus currently was located but that they would then be traveling back north. Believing he would only be away from home for a short period of time, Solomon did not notify his family that he was leaving. Little did he know that this trip would mark the beginning of the twelve longest years of his life.
Even though Solomon was a free black man, Washington D.C. in 1841 was a place where slavery was legal. Free blacks traveling through areas where slavery was legal needed to furnish papers certifying their free status or face the possibility of being accused of being a runaway slave. Thus, before Solomon and his new companions left the state to begin their trip to Washington D.C., he secured papers declaring his status as a free black citizen of New York. Unfortunately, these papers would not be able to protect Solomon once he reached the nation’s capital.
The three men arrived in Washington in April of 1841. Upon meeting with the other employees of the circus, Brown and Hamilton announced they would remain in the city one more day to pay their respects to the President of the United States, William Henry Harrison, who had just passed away by attending his funeral procession through the streets of the city. Solomon stayed in a hotel room in the back of Gadsby’s Hotel, which was the only place in the establishment where blacks were allowed to stay. After watching the funeral procession for the President, the three men spent the rest of the afternoon at a saloon. It was here that Solomon, never knowing through the rest of his life if he was poisoned or not, became violently ill. He returned to his hotel room with a blinding headache only to be awakened in the middle of the night by the promises he was being taken for medicine. He was so ill that for a period of days he was in and out of consciousness. When he finally did awake, Solomon Northup, a free black man found himself alone in the darkness of a basement in chains. In the course of his sickness, he had been robbed of his documents, money, and ultimately his freedom. Over the next few days it became clear to him that he was being held in a slave pen owned by a man named James H. Burch.