AFI Movie Club: 12 YEARS A SLAVE
Adapted from Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir, 12 YEARS A SLAVE, directed by Steve McQueen and written by John Ridley, centers on a free man – played by Chiwetel Ejiofor – who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. The film was honored with an AFI AWARD in 2013 – recognizing it as one of the year’s outstanding achievements in the art of the moving image.
Watch director Steve McQueen talk about the film in this exclusive video from the AFI Archive:
Movie Trivia About 12 YEAR’S A SLAVE
DID YOU KNOW? 12 YEARS A SLAVE is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, an African American man who was born into freedom, but was kidnapped and sold as a slave. After his emancipation, Northup penned a memoir about his experiences that was published in 1853. Northup became an abolitionist, as well as an active participant in The Underground Railroad that led fugitive slaves to freedom.
DID YOU KNOW? The memoir of kidnapped and emancipated slave Solomon Northup, 12 YEARS A SLAVE, was previously adapted in director Gordon Park’s made-for-television movie SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY, which aired on PBS in 1984.
DID YOU KNOW? Director Steve McQueen discovered the story of Solomon Northup through his wife, Bianca Stigter, an art historian and writer. At the time, McQueen was in the early stages of developing an original screenplay about slavery for Plan B Entertainment. Although he reportedly worked on early drafts of 12 YEARS A SLAVE, John Ridley received sole writing credit onscreen.
DID YOU KNOW? 12 YEARS A SLAVE was originally financed for $30 million, but the project was made for closer to $16 million, after working under budget and receiving tax rebates from filming in Louisiana.
DID YOU KNOW? 12 YEARS A SLAVE was filmed entirely in Louisiana over seven weeks, beginning in June 2012. The production was challenged by hot weather that exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and a hurricane that partially destroyed the set. Shooting took place at various plantations including Felicity, which was built in 1846 and was in close proximity to the actual plantation in which Solomon Northup was kept as a slave.
DID YOU KNOW? Director Steve McQueen reported that the hardest part of the production was depicting violence against African Americans. Months after filming ended, McQueen returned to Louisiana to reshoot the scene of Solomon’s hanging. It was located at a tree where real-life slaves had been hanged in the 19th century.
DID YOU KNOW? Fox Searchlight was initially concerned that the film’s bleak subject matter would hinder box-office numbers, so the studio negotiated to share earnings with the film’s financiers instead of solely subsidizing domestic distribution rights. Advertisements featured scenes of redemption, as well as actor Brad Pitt, who played the bit part of a benevolent abolitionist.
DID YOU KNOW? 12 YEARS A SLAVE premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on August 30, 2013. It also screened at the New Orleans Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the top audience prize. It grossed $9 million in its first two weeks of limited release in October 2013. By mid-December, its earnings reached $35 million worldwide.
DID YOU KNOW? Along with winning an AFI AWARD as one of the best movies of 2013, 12 YEARS A SLAVE was honored with three Oscar® awards for Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o), Adapted Screenplay (John Ridley) and Best Picture. It was also nominated for six additional Oscars®, including Best Director (Steve McQueen), Best Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Best Supporting Actor (Michael Fassbender), Best Costume Design (Patricia Norris), Best Film Editing (Joe Walker) and Best Production Design (Adam Stockhausen and Alice Baker).
DID YOU KNOW? 12 YEARS A SLAVE marked the first and only Oscar® wins to date for Lupita Nyong’o, screenwriter John Ridley and director Steve McQueen – who, in addition to receiving a nomination for directing, became the first Black producer to receive an Academy Award® for Best Picture, as well as the first Black director of a Best Picture winner. John Ridley was only the second Black person to win an Oscar® for Best Screenplay to date.
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-In 12 YEARS A SLAVE, Solomon Northup’s freedom is contingent on a slight variation in his geographic location at the Mason-Dixon line, which separated the North from the South. How does the film signify other differences between Solomon and the other slaves he is grouped together with?
-12 YEARS A SLAVE is based on the memoirs written by Solomon Northup about his real-life experiences. How does the film adaptation reference its literary source, and why is it important to know that it is based on a true story? Does this change the way you see this movie? Would the experience of watching 12 YEARS A SLAVE be different for you if the narrative was fictional?
-Describe the differences between Epp’s treatment of Patsey and Solomon. What does this tell you about the life of slaves, and its impact on men and women? How did you feel about Solomon leaving her behind?
-12 YEARS A SLAVE was hailed by critics, many of whom rated it the best film of 2013 and the greatest film ever made about slavery. Have you seen other movies that depict this reprehensible part of American history? How does 12 YEARS A SLAVE distinguish itself from Hollywood’s legacy of representing slavery?
-12 YEARS A SLAVE depicts brutal violence toward African Americans. Why do you think the filmmakers chose to recreate these scenes with so much attention to detail? Do you believe it was effective, or do you think the depiction of these horrors is exploitative? Does showing violence actually resuscitate its power? How does the film’s narrative fit into today’s climate of Black Lives Matter—when violence toward African Americans is broadcast daily in the news? How does it ask viewers to confront America’s legacy of injustice and inhumane brutality toward African Americans?
-Slaveowner Epps quotes the following Bible passage as a means of justification: “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.” How is the Biblical scripture twisted to serve Epp’s own needs?
-While Solomon is able to regain his freedom, he depends upon his white friends to transport his letter and help him along the way. Is it problematic that Solomon’s freedom is contingent on benevolent white men in certain ways?
-How would you rate 12 YEARS A SLAVE?
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