12 Years a Slave from Memoir to Movie

Imagine being offered a good job. One that can support you and your family. A job often defines a person’s identity, especially to a man in nineteenth century America. A good job was even more meaningful to a free black man in the 1800s. Imagine some men tell you about a job and you go to them only to be drugged and sold into slavery by those men who are actually slave catchers.

You don’t have to imagine because it happened. Countless times people of African descent in the North who were free-born (I’m not talking about runaway slaves though it tragically happened to them too) were captured and sold into bondage. One of the best known incidents of this in mid-19th century America happened to Solomon Northup (born July 1808 and died sometime between 1864 and 1875, the circumstances of his death are not known). He was from Saratoga Springs, New York and was enticed to go to Washington D.C. in 1841 where he was then transported to New Orleans and sold. Having floated through a few families in Louisiana and spending twelve years in bondage he finally regained his freedom in January 1853.


Mr. Northup’s memoirs can be found online thanks to Documenting the American South and Google Books.

This October, Fox Searchlight Pictures will release the theatrical movie “12 Years a Slave” based on Northup’s memoirs.  The cast includes some big names like Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, and Alfred Woodard. There are relatively newcomers whose popularity has soared recently like Benedict Cumberbatch and Quvenzhané Wallis. British actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor will be Solomon Northup (who also appeared in the film, Amistad back in 1997). 

I admit, typically, I avoid Hollywood productions of history, but I am going to see this and be excited to do so because Northup’s story is one that is horrifying but also highly emotional. The link to the trailer is attached here and I hope you’ll check it out.

Which brings me to a question: What stories of enslaved people do you think should be turned into a documentary, TV-miniseries, or movie? How can they be done so in a way that draws in audiences and makes them want to learn more?

If you have thoughts, leave ’em in the comments. I’m building a small following here and while many of you write to me private electronic correspondence, I think the other followers may like to build in-depth conversations on the blog here. Thanks!



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8 responses to “12 Years a Slave from Memoir to Movie

  1. Oh my! This trailer is AMAZING!!! I anxiously anticipate the release of the film. Thanks for posting this great news.

  2. Chris

    So many great stories about the enslaved & indentured fill the archives…
    Anthony Johnson, who was one of the first indentured Africans to arrive on North American soil, Native Americans who were sold into slavery in the West Indies by the Europeans, Cherokee who adopted the way s of the colonists & owned plantations complete with slaves of African descent, The International company Armstrong was started just a few generations after the immigrant Armstrong was listed in a Lancaster PA newspaper as a runaway indentured servant… Etc etc etc There are thousands of stories worthy of being told!

  3. Jeremiah DeGennaro

    I’m so glad you posted this, I actually saw the trailer this morning and can’t wait to see it!

    For selfish reasons, I would especially like to see adaptations of two stories, both of people enslaved at parts of the plantation where I work. The first would be the story of Mary Walker, who escaped while accompanying her owner’s family in Philadelphia and spent the next 16 years trying to get her children out of slavery. A film adaptation of the book about her story (http://www.amazon.com/To-Free-Family-Journey-Walker/dp/0674062124) seems inevitable, as long an interested filmmaker gets a hold of the book.

    The other story I’d like to see on the screen would be that of Morgan Latta, born in slavery in Wake County, NC, educated at Shaw University in Raleigh and who eventually founded Latta University to educate freedmen during the late 19th and early 20th century. This story is particularly interesting to me as I would like to see a film whose characters experience both the ordeal of slavery and the hardships of life in the postwar South.

    For that matter, a film/documentary about “the Colored Bard of North Carolina,” George Moses Horton, would also bridge the span between slavery and emancipation, and would be great to see.

    Both Latta and Horton are part of that generation that experienced both slavery and freedom; that generation interests me greatly. I wonder if other readers of this blog would favor adaptations of stories from certain time periods or that cover certain aspects of the slavery experience?

  4. Lindsey Brown

    I know as a Georgian I may be biased, but I think the story of the Crafts could be successfully put on film.

  5. Marvin-Alonzo Greer

    I would love to see the story of William and Ellen Craft made into a movie or the story of Harriet Jacobs who hid for 7 years in the attic. But these are the ones we know. The story of any enslaved person who escaped would be interesting because these people not only risked their lives but the lives of their families and friends.

    To film it correctly is the more difficult part. Hollywood always attempts to make history more “interesting” by adding a love story or placing characters in the film that either never existed or are not correct for the scene. If you leave history as is and tell the story from the point of view of the person living it you garner understanding, empathy, and encourages the audience to go out a do more research on the individual(s) that are depicted in said film.

  6. Matt White

    Though it would have to be incredibly delicately done because of one of the main characters, I’d like to see a movie that focuses on Washington’s slaves. Washington’s (and the early Republic’s) relationship with slavery and his slaves would make for an intriguing film. The stories of the lives of the slaves are particularly compelling, and we know a great deal more about them than many other African-Americans of the period who were held as slaves simply because of the notoriety of Washington. In my mind, what could be a better way to dissect race and the debate about slavery than to explore the relationship between slavery and someone who is thought to represent all that is good about the United States: George Washington.


  7. Kyle M. Stetz

    I’ve long felt that John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in October of 1859 would make for a great film. I could see such a film catering to many audiences be it history fans or the general movie-goer due to its dramatic events. Though this film might not portray the day-by-day institution of slavery, it could definitely address the larger debate, and in this case, the lengths at which some would go to eradicate the institution from America.

    As for a documentary, I’d like to see a multi-part series on slavery broken down first by time period and second by region. I think there is a widely held belief by most people that slavery was one thing from beginning to end. I’d also hazard a guess that when most Americans are asked about slavery they immediately think of the Civil War era, when in fact the Civil War is at the far end of the time-line. Each state had its own laws, customs etc. in regards to slavery; i.e. not all salves were picking cotton on huge plantations from 1619-1865. Break this documentary down into 17th/18th century and 19th century slavery, then by upper-south, mid-south, deep south, and gasp…northern slavery.

    Just some thoughts.

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