Concerning the Historical Accuracy of '12 Years a Slave'

12-years-a-slave-trueAt first I thought to myself, Here it comes, the negative hit pieces against 12 Years a Slave are already underway, as I started reading Michael Cieply's New York Times piece examining the historical veracity of Solomon Northup's 160-year-old story of how he was abducted as a free man and forced into slavery. The film clearly has the ear of Oscar at this point and is dominating awards chatter out of Toronto as we await the release of the next wave of Oscar hopefuls.

After reading the story, it doesn't have the earmarks of a hit piece, instead an interesting look at a story historians have long pondered and thought the literal truth. As with all films based on supposedly true stories we expect a certain measure of dramatic license and in the case of Lee Daniels' The Butler earlier this year, perhaps a lot of dramatic license.

Screenwriter John Ridley has said he "stuck to the facts" when writing the screenplay, using Northup's "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" as a guide as well as footnotes and documentation included with historian Sue Eakin's 1968 edition of the book.

Speaking with scholar, James Olney, however, Cieply is told, "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."

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.

I can see the point here, and I don't think this harms the story's worth or even the film. In fact, 12 Years a Slave is a film that doesn't have may moments that feel disingenuous or trumped up for dramatic license. They feel organic to the story and while we may be able to recognize moments and situations as the merging of instances rather than moments that actually happened, the overall narrative the film follows feels legit.

I like Ridley's final quote in the piece where he finds the unpredictable nature of the story speaks to its authenticity saying, "Life happens, it's a lot stranger than the false beats that occur when people try to jam a narrative."

12 Years a Slave hits theaters on October 18, you can read my full, "A+" review right here.

  • Winchester

    I'm loathe to comment on the veracity of a story at this point I know little about, I would have to dig into the whole thing more than I really intend to at this point.

    However, no film is 100% factual when you're fictionalising, it's just how far off the degree to what's really known you deviate. The impression early on I got was this wasn't the sort of film to be 90% fiction/10% fact.

  • Newbourne

    Why do people care so much about how factual a movie is? If you want 100% true stories, go watch a documentary.

    • Brad Brevet

      The Times article is referring to the book. You also clicked on the headline so I have to assume there is some care on your part unless you only did it so you could leave this comment.

      However, to answer your question, people care, because they find it interesting and are searching for a greater understanding of what they saw I would imagine.

      • Newbourne

        I know he's referring to the book, but this analysis is being made because of the movie. And like I said, why do people care if Northup's whole story was Argoed from the very beginning? As long as it resulted in an excellent film, it shouldn't matter. And I guess the same goes for an excellent piece of literature.

        • Brad Brevet

          And I answered your question. I also have to wonder, at what point do you care if what you're told is true is actually true or not? Are autobiographies something you routinely question the factual accuracy?

          • Newbourne

            Your answer was that people find it interesting. Obviously, the facts behind historical fiction intrigues us all, but not all of us are bothered when the films/books/stories sway from those facts. My question is why do people care how factual a movie is, not why they care about the facts in general.

            Answering your question, I think the facts are important when your main objective is to partake in a learning experience. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, guides, documentaries, textbooks, history books, newspapers, etc. But if its objective is to entertain you, I don't mind them argoing the facts into a more entertaining story.

            Are autobiographies a learning experience? Just like fiction, some *can* be a learning experience, but in reality, their main objective is to entice the reader with an entertaining tale.

    • conbug

      Because many people are stupid enough to believe that the film is correct in the history it depicts when in fact the film is more fiction than true.

    • its fiction folks

      they faked all these graphic sexual abuse scenes, and rewrote the account of a female slave who they invent a story about wanting to be killed

  • peterike

    What does truth matter when the important thing is hating on whitey.

  • rosie1843

    Let me get this straight. You're willing to condemn "THE BUTLER" for any historical inaccuracies, yet you're willing to make excuses for the historical inaccuracies in "12 YEARS A SLAVE"? Aren't you being hypocritical?

    • Brad Brevet

      Are you making things up, or is that comment meant for someone else? Because you can't possibly be addressing me.

  • Robert

    Remember. He who controls history, controls the future!