The quote comes right from Solomon Northup‘s 1853 book, 12 Years A Slave. Screenwriter John Ridley said he tried to remain true to the original:
To modify the man, no matter how sincere the desire, would have ultimately been dishonest. Solomon’s story begs for honesty. As the voice of his own history, what he wrote deserved fidelity.
12 Years A Slave is the story of a New York State-born free African-American man who was kidnapped in Washington DC by two con men in 1841 and sold into slavery. Northup was put to work on plantations in Louisiana for 12 years before being released. Most of the characters in the film were real people.
The film was directed by Steve McQueen. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Northup, with supporting roles from Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, and Alfre Woodard. It was shot at four historic antebellum plantations.
12 Years A Slave won three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress for Nyong’o, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Ridley. McQueen became the first black British producer to ever receive the award and the first black British director of a Best Picture winner. 12 Years A Slave also won the Golden Globe Award and the BAFTA, plus Best Actor award for Ejiofor.
Like this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, Green Book, 12 Years A Slave had many critics citing it as an example of the white savior narrative in film. Many people doubted its ability to truly bring about a new racial consciousness among mainstream audiences who saw it as a period piece that featured a happy ending with a ”white savior” in the form of Brad Pitt’s character. I found it very uncomfortable to watch, the agony of the main characters’ lives was palpable. I’m not certain how to consider black-themed films that seem created for white, liberal audiences to engender white guilt and make them feel better about themselves. I just know that 12 Years A Slave, for me, is superior filmmaking. It was named as one of the best films of 2013 by most critics, appearing on 100 critics’ Top Ten lists, with 25 critics group putting it in their Number One spot.