'12 Years' Gets Story Right But Context, Some Details May Be Off

The film 12 Years a Slave tells the real-life story of Solomon Northup. In 1841, Northup, a free black man, was drugged and then sold into slavery. How faithfully does the movie capture Northup's life? As part of our week of truth-squadding some of this year's film biopics, Robert Siegel talks with William Andrews, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He wrote To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel and this week, we are subjecting some of the year's biopics, films based on real events and people, to a little truth swatting. Often these people are big historic figures, Jackie Robinson, Nelson Mandela, Princess Diana. While other films focus their lens on other small lives lived in extraordinary circumstances.

That's the case in the film, "12 Years A Slave." "12 Years A Slave" was actually a famous book, a memoir published in 1853. It's the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York. In 1841, Northup was drugged and then sold into slavery in the South.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (As Solomon) Days ago, I was with my family in my home. Now you tell me all is lost. Tell no one who I am, that's the way to survive. Well, I don't want to survive. I want to live.

SIEGEL: That's actor Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays Northup. How faithfully does the film capture Northup's life, his book and the institution of slavery? Well, here to help us answer those questions is Professor William Andrews of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He's the author of the book "To Tell A Free Story: The First Century of Afro American Autobiography." Welcome to the program.

WILLIAM ANDREWS: Thank you. Glad to be here.

SIEGEL: And let's start with Northup's book. How famous a book is this? How well read was it back in the 19th century?

ANDREWS: The book was widely read. During the first three years of its existence from 1853 to 1856, it sold about 30,000 copies. To compare that to some of the classics of American literature, Walden was published in 1854, Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" was published in 1855, Ralph Waldo Emerson had a book called "English Traits" published in 1856. If you put the sales of all three of those books together, they would not have combined equal the sale of "12 Years A Slave" during that three year period.

SIEGEL: Well, how well do you think the film captures Northup's ordeal as he tells it in the book?

ANDREWS: I think it's very faithful to the main events in Northup's life during the 12 years that he was enslaved. It presents the two major slaveholder who claimed him as their property. It presents them at a pretty accurate light. If we assume that the way that they're portrayed in the book is accurate, the film is pretty close to the book in those respects.

SIEGEL: Which raises the question that the book, while it was Solomon Northup's memoir, was kind of an as-told-to book, we would say now. A white writer, David Wilson also wrote it with him. Do we think it actually is a very accurate account of his life?

ANDREWS: Yes. He chose David Wilson, but Northup was, himself, a literate person. So David Wilson says in the preface to the book, which, of course, was ghost written by David Wilson, Northup did not write it. Wilson says in the preface that Northup read the manuscript and told him where he thought things should be changed and that he made those changes.

So in this regard, Northup seems to have been pretty actively involved in the production of the narrative itself.

SIEGEL: There are scenes in the movie of his life in Saratoga, in upstate New York, which describe not just a comfortable life. It looks like a rather grand - we would today see it as a kind of suburban life. Do we think Northup lived that well before his kidnapping?

ANDREWS: No. That's an exaggeration in the film. Northup and his wife were comfortable. He uses that word in his book, but they did not live at that high level of class. I think that's a Hollywood exaggeration to draw attention to the depths to which he falls when he becomes a plantation slave in the deep South.

SIEGEL: There are some stunning shots in the film, "12 Years A Slave" of slaves at work in the cotton field or cutting cane on another plantation. And in the book, "12 Years A Slave" Northup offers these rather lengthy descriptions of how you plant cotton and how you then take care of the cotton fields and later, how you plant and harvest cane.

And it occurred to me that he's writing for a readership, I guess, mostly in the North that would find these things as exotic as people today, who don't live on plantations, would find them.

ANDREWS: Yes. And the information is also there to authenticate the fact that Northup was actually in the deep South, that he actually did this kind of work, that he knew this economy thoroughly. We have to remember that to be an abolitionist, even in 1853, was considered to be, by most ordinary white people in the North, to be some sort of lunatic, fringe radical.

So a lot of white readers would need this kind of information about how cotton is grown, about how sugar cane is harvested in order to convince them that this man is really who he says he is.

SIEGEL: Is there any way in which Northup's role as a slave, his life as a slave is, you'd think, misrepresented here?

ANDREWS: For instance, in the narrative, Solomon Northup works for Eps, the master, and Northup has, over the last roughly eight years of his enslavement, as a slave driver. The film never says that this is what Solomon Northup did, but he was and he acknowledges that in his autobiography. He says that every day that he worked for Eps in this capacity, he wore a whip around his neck.

But in the film, of course, Northup never has a whip in his hand until one is thrown into his hands by Eps when you have this horrific scene of the beating of Patsy.

SIEGEL: He is obliged to whip his fellow slave by the slave owner, yeah.

ANDREWS: That's right. So the film could be more accurate in terms of showing exactly the kinds of pressures that Solomon Northup was under, trying to figure out a way to prevent using that power in a way that would bring special harm.

SIEGEL: What happened to Solomon Northup after the book was published and I guess he gave speeches about abolition? What became of him?

ANDREWS: No one knows what ultimately became of Solomon Northup. The book sold well and certainly he reaped some financial reward from the book. It's certainly true that for a while, he was tremendously famous and celebrated and he tried to make the most of that fame while he could. But it didn't last. And when it didn't last, he gradually faded into obscurity.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Andrews, thank you very much for talking with us today.

ANDREWS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's William Andrews, professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He's the author of "To Tell A Free Story: The First Century of Afro American Autobiography," and we were talking about the movie "12 Years A Slave."

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