Steve McQueen's "Twelve Years a Slave" Set to Shine Light on Solomon Northup's Ordeal

Steve McQueen's "Twelve Years a Slave" Set to Shine Light on Solomon Northup's Ordeal
A Detail of a woodcut-portrait of Solomon Northup that accompanied the published account of his ordeal.
(Collection New-York Historical Society)

The artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen is close to completing a deal to direct his third feature, “Twelve Years a Slave,” based on the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup.

As reported by Deadline yesterday, Arnon Milchan’s New Regency Productions is likely to join with Brad Pitt’s Plan B and Bill Pohlad’s River Road to finance the $20 million movie, with New Regency distributing through 20th Century Fox.

Chiwetel Ejiofor has been cast as Northup and Pitt as a lawyer who helped free him. Michael Fassbender, feted for his outstanding performances in McQueen’s “Hunger” and “Shame,” will play a plantation owner, though it’s not clear whether he will play one of the men who mistreated Northup or the sole planter who treated him humanely. A June start in Louisiana has been targeted.

Northup was born the son of the African-American freedman Minton Northup and his wife, who was of African, European, and Native American ancestry, in Essex County, New York State in 1808. Minton had his two sons educated and Solomon became an accomplished violinist. He married Anne Hampton, of mixed race, in 1829 and they had two daughters and a son. For a while they lived prosperously on their farm, which they sold in 1834 before moving to Saratoga Springs.

In 1841, Northup fell in with two men who offered him work as a violinist in Washington, D.C., then still a slave state. There he was kidnapped by a slave trader, robbed of his freedom documents, beaten, and sold into slavery in New Orleans. He was eventually acquired by a northern Louisiana planter and Baptist preacher called William Ford, of whom Northup wrote favorably in his memoir. He was treated cruelly by his two subsequent owners, the second of whom kept him for 10 years and frequently had him whipped.

Eventually, Samuel Bass, a Canadian carpenter friend of Northup, risked his life to alert Northup’s wife of his whereabouts. The New York governor intervened to have Northup freed in 1853 after his long, brutal ordeal. He subsequently sued his persecutors and defended himself in a countersuit, but neither case came to anything.

Capitalizing on the success of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published in 1852, Northup’s “Twelve Years a Slave,” co-written by a sympathizer, sold 30,000 copies.

Having rejoined his family, Northup became an abolitionist and lectured on slavery in the Northeast in the 1850s, possibly earning his living as a carpenter. He disappeared from local records after 1863 and no details of his death are known.

In 1984, Avery Brooks played Northup in Gordon Parks’s PBS movie “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey.” Solomon Northup Day is celebrated annually in Saratoga Springs on the third Saturday in July. McQueen’s high-profile movie should have the benefit of bringing Northup’s appalling experience more fully into the national consciousness.