An Escape From Slavery, Now A Movie, Has Long Intrigued Historians, Michael Cieply, New York Times, September 22, 2013.
In the age of “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” questions about the accuracy of nonfiction films have become routine. With “12 Years a Slave,” based on a memoir published 160 years ago, the answers are anything but routine. Written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave,” a leading contender for honors during the coming movie awards season, tells a story that was summarized in the 33-word title of its underlying material.
Published by Derby & Miller in 1853, the book was called Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, From a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana. The real Solomon Northup — and years of scholrly research attest to his reality — fought an unsuccessful legal battle against his abductors. But he enjoyed a lasting triumph that began with the sale of some 30,000 copies of his book when it first appeared, and continued with its republication in 1968 by the historian Sue Eakin.
Speaking on Friday, Mr. Ridley said he decided simply to “stick with the facts” in adapting Northup’s book for the film, which is set for release on Oct. 18 by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Mr. Ridley said he was helped by voluminous footnotes and documentation that were included with Ms. Eakin’s edition of the book. For decades, however, scholars have been trying to untangle the literal truth of Mr. Northup’s account from the conventions of the antislavery literary genre.
The difficulties are detailed in “The Slave’s Narrative,” a compilation of essays that was published by the Oxford University Press in 1985, and edited by Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Mr. Gates is now credited as a consultant to the film, and he edited a recent edition of “Twelve Years a Slave.”) “When the abolitionists invited an ex-slave to tell his story of experience in slavery to an antislavery convention, and when they subsequently sponsored the appearance of that story in print, they had certain clear expectations, well understood by themselves and well understood by the ex-slave, too,” wrote one scholar, James Olney.
Mr. Olney was explaining pressures that created a certain uniformity of content in the popular slave narratives, with recurring themes that involved insistence on sometimes questioned personal identity, harrowing descriptions of oppression, and open advocacy for the abolitionist cause. In his essay, called I Was Born: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature, Mr. Olney contended that Solomon Northup’s real voice was usurped by David Wilson, the white “amanuensis” to whom he dictated his tale, and who gave the book a preface in the same florid style that informs the memoir.
“We may think it pretty fine writing and awfully literary, but the fine writer is clearly David Wilson rather than Solomon Northup,” Mr. Olney wrote.
Text Source and Full Text Continued at New York Times, September 22, 2013