Solomon Northup, a free man, really was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery. He really did spend a dozen years in captivity. He really did meet a brave young woman named Patsey. He really did survive the experience, secure his release in 1853 and publish a powerful memoir, “Twelve Years a Slave,” that was the basis for John Ridley’s Oscar-winning screenplay.
It took a British auteur and an A-list movie star to bring Northup’s harrowing story to the screen. Steve McQueen, the first Black director of a best picture winner, has said that his wife “discovered” Northup’s book; in fact, it is one of the best-known slave narratives. Producer Brad Pitt provided the box- office clout needed to overcome Hollywood’s reservations about this ambitious film, starring unknown Black actors, that sought to challenge audiences rather than delight them.
No matter. Chiwetel Ejiofor delivered a searing, Oscar-nominated performance as Northup. Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar for making Patsey the film’s most haunting character and has emerged, by consensus, as the year’s brightest new star. And because of the awards, there is new interest in McQueen’s film and Northup’s book — which means that more people will educate themselves about slavery.
I called it the nation’s original sin because slave owners, including the Founding Fathers, knew very well that they were sinners. Owning slaves was a matter of economics — one could hardly be expected to run a plantation without them — and personal luxury.
James Madison called slavery “the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man” — but did not free the slaves he owned. Thomas Jefferson believed slavery should be ended in the future — but continued to own slaves throughout his lifetime. Patrick Henry, who said “Give me liberty or give me death,” believed that slavery was “evil” — but would not free the men and women he owned because of “the general inconvenience of living without them.”