Historical Accuracy Of '12 Years A Slave' Already Being Discussed

Further proof this year's awards season is on something akin to performance enhancing drugs? Michael Cieply's piece in the New York Times about the historical accuracy of presumed Best Picture front-runner "12 Years A Slave," a film that doesn't even arrive in theaters for another three weeks.

According to Cieply, who spoke with historians and "12 Years A Slave" screenwriter John Ridley for the report, no one goes so far as to doubt the film's story -- which focuses on Solomon Northup, a free New Yorker who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841 -- but rather how much of Northup's ensuing memoir was enhanced for maximum impact. From Cieply's piece:

For decades, however, scholars have been trying to untangle the literal truth of Mr. Northup's account from the conventions of the antislavery literary genre.

The difficulties are detailed in “The Slave’s Narrative,” a compilation of essays that was published by the Oxford University Press in 1985, and edited by Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Mr. Gates is now credited as a consultant to the film, and he edited a recent edition of “Twelve Years a Slave.”)

“When the abolitionists invited an ex-slave to tell his story of experience in slavery to an antislavery convention, and when they subsequently sponsored the appearance of that story in print, they had certain clear expectations, well understood by themselves and well understood by the ex-slave, too,” wrote one scholar, James Olney.

Capturing the expectations of the story was on director Steve McQueen's mind as well. After the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, McQueen told Film.com that he had to restructure the book's layout, because he didn't want to "exhaust people" with the physical and emotional violence Northup endured for 12 years as a slave.

"If I was to illustrate the book -- I'm not an illustrator -- it would be far more worse than what I filmed. If you count the incidences of violence you can see [there are five]," he said. "It’s not that many scenes, but within the structure of the narrative, it feels like much more. I’m very proud of it because I can't back off things like that. It’s about slavery."

"12 Years A Slave," of course, isn't the first film based on a true story to find itself at the center of some controversy during awards season. Last year's Best Picture winner "Argo" successfully batted away similar slings and arrows about its truthiness, while "Lincoln" and "Zero Dark Thirty" did not. For what it's worth, the timing of Cieply's story was questioned by at least one prominent awards writer:

For the full piece on "12 Years A Slave," head to the New York Times.

[via NYT]

2013 Toronto International Film Festival