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12 Years a Slave: (Movie Tie-In)

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The official movie tie-in edition to the winner of the 2014 Academy Award for Best Picture, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o, and directed by Steve McQueen
 
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12 Years a Slave: (Movie Tie-In)

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Overview

The official movie tie-in edition to the winner of the 2014 Academy Award for Best Picture, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o, and directed by Steve McQueen
 
New York Times bestseller

“I could not believe that I had never heard of this book. It felt as important as Anne Frank’s Diary, only published nearly a hundred years before. . . . The book blew [my] mind: the epic range, the details, the adventure, the horror, and the humanity. . . . I hope my film can play a part in drawing attention to this important book of courage. Solomon’s bravery and life deserve nothing less.” —Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave, from the Foreword
 
Perhaps the best written of all the slave narratives, Twelve Years a Slave is a harrowing memoir about one of the darkest periods in American history. It recounts how Solomon Northup, born a free man in New York, was lured to Washington, D.C., in 1841 with the promise of fast money, then drugged and beaten and sold into slavery. He spent the next twelve years of his life in captivity on a Louisiana cotton plantation.
 
After his rescue, Northup published this exceptionally vivid and detailed account of slave life. It became an immediate bestseller and today is recognized for its unusual insight and eloquence as one of the very few portraits of American slavery produced by someone as educated as Solomon Northup, or by someone with the dual perspective of having been both a free man and a slave.

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  • 12 Years a Slave
    12 Years a Slave  

Editorial Reviews

Various

“I could not believe that I had never heard of this book. It felt as important as Anne Frank’s Diary, only published nearly a hundred years before. . . . The book blew [my] mind: the epic range, the details, the adventure, the horror, and the humanity. . . . I hope my film can play a part in drawing attention to this important book of courage. Solomon’s bravery and life deserve nothing less.” —Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave, from the Foreword

“If you think the movie offers a terrible-enough portrait of slavery, please, do read the book. . . . The film is stupendous art, but it owes much to a priceless piece of document. Solomon Northup’s memoir is history. . . . His was not simply an extraordinary story, but an account of the life of a great many ordinary people.” The Daily Beast
 

“Northup published a memoir of his 12-year nightmare in 1853, the year after Uncle Tom’s Cabin came out, and it was so successful that he went on to participate in two stage adaptations. The book dropped from sight in the 20th century, but the movie tie-in will certainly reestablish its virtually unique status as a work by an educated free man who managed to return from slavery.” The Hollywood Reporter

The Barnes & Noble Review

The excitement surrounding Steve McQueen's rendering of Solomon Northup's slave narrative 12 Years a Slave into a Hollywood film has, with few exceptions, spilled toward the laudatory, the righteous, the historical. Aside from claims that 12 Years is a difficult film to watch because it graphically depicts the violence described in Northup's story, very little criticism of the film has ventured beyond that caveat. It seems as if two factors are at play in the conventional wisdom about 12 Years. First, the film is gorgeous, faithful to its source, contains many wonderful performances, and portrays in dead earnest a historical tale virtually ignored for many years. It's a Good Film. Second, over and above its merits, it's difficult to find fault with a movie whose mere existence seems so vital.

Solomon Northup, born a free man of color in Upstate New York, wrote his story in 1853, after having been kidnapped in 1841 by a pair of "blackbirders," scammers who stole free blacks from the North and sold them into slavery in the South. Bullied into subservience, Northup eventually found himself in Louisiana under the lash of a cruel master named Epps. Steve McQueen's film dramatizes all of the high points in Northup's story, in order. Reading the book right after seeing the movie, as I did, you feel the strength of the film's reverence for the book — as well as a nagging sense that such devotion has severely depleted the possibilities for artistry or play within the story.

This may be why, after watching 12 Years, my admiration for the film failed to spill beyond enthusiasm for its technical prowess into transcendence. Why didn't my deep respect for the project, the brilliant actors, and the undeniable thrills of the tale inspire me to shout excitedly that I loved the movie? I am going to lay the blame at the foot of Mandingo. Yes, you read right. Mandingo.

Generally considered a lurid potboiler that reared its misshapen head into the cinema of 1975, championed by few during its heyday and not many since, Mandingo attempted, albeit clumsily, to do some of the work for which 12 Years has received credit. It did so, however, in the course of selling sex — and for that sin, hardly anyone has forgiven it.

Producer Dino DeLaurentis and director Richard Fleisher (who had made Soylent Green the year before), seemed doomed to such misunderstanding when they made Mandingo. From the promotional posters and trailer, one could argue that they courted that misunderstanding. Perhaps, since the copious nudity (male and female) of the film has made it an object of shame for so long, and because its performances are uneven, Mandingo's strongest asset is Norman Wexler's complex, unsettling script (itself based on Kyle Onstott's 1957 bestseller, whose paternalistic attitude Wexler shrewdly avoids).

Though Mandingo probably couldn't have gotten made in a different context, it appeared at the tail end of an unprecedented explosion of softcore porn and blaxploitation that began with I Am Curious: Yellow (1967), morphed into Deep Throat (1972), reached some kind of mad apex with Foxy Brown (1974), and influenced more serious movies like Last Tango in Paris (1972). In those days, no one would've credited the filmmakers of Mandingo with trying to inspire a dialogue about the legacy of chattel slavery in America, unflinchingly depicting the brutality and hatefulness of that system, and telling its story from a perspective that foregrounded slaves as major characters, but not only did Mandingo achieve some of those aims, it also had a few tricks up its sleeve that 12 Years a Slave does not. One might well ask whether it isn't somehow fitting that the exploitation represented by chattel slavery should be represented by an exploitation film.

When people think of Mandingo at all, they think of sex. "Take me, Mandingo!" became a catchphrase in the late '70s, although it is never uttered in the film. Instead, this lustful utterance found its way into popular culture through the sketch comedy film Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) and later a Saturday Night Live sketch, and remains for many people their only exposure to Mandingo. But even the misquote seems a fair representation: Sex is at the core of the story. As film critic Robin Wood points out in his defense of Mandingo, which he called an "abused masterpiece," "the Falconhurst plantation grows only slaves (we see no crops of any kind), breeding them and selling them." In a canny parallel, however, white folks are not immune to forced breeding either (there's plenty of degradation to go around in the world of Mandingo). The patriarch of Falconhurst, Warren Maxwell (James Mason), insists that his son Hammond (Perry King) marry his cousin Blanche (Susan George) for the express purpose of producing an heir to Falconhurst. But Hammond emphatically refuses to give up sex with slave girls. "I wouldn't know what to do!" he complains. "Not with no white lady! And you can't have no more wenches if'n you're married." His pa assures him this is not so, that in fact, white wives not only want the master to make more slaves, they enjoy having time off from his advances.

Something about this intricate system of ludicrous justifications for sexual subjugation rings true, especially in light of still-contemporary right-wing attitudes toward women's bodies and their bodies, and the regularity of mayhem inflicted on black ones. Mandingo forces us to be complicit in the sheer repulsive insanity that ensues. Briefly: Hammond, who is lame in one leg, marries his cousin, takes up with a particular slave girl, Ellen (Brenda Sykes), and acquires a prizefighting Mandingo slave, Mede (Ken Norton), whose body he seems to see as an appendage to his own less fit one. To get back at Hammond for his philandering, his wife forces Mede to bed her.

Absurdly, this moment of black emasculation has been interpreted by our culture as its opposite — it's more like Take me, Blanche! But when Blanche and Mede produce an heir, the resulting child cannot be treated as a slave under this infernal system, but an abomination, and he's done away with, the first victim in a bloody denouement worthy of Titus Andronicus. Let's just say that bythe end, someone gets boiled alive and stabbed to death with a pitchfork.

By contrast, 12 Years a Slave tells a simpler story, one that is emphatically not about sex at all, and has only marginally to do with the kinds of attitudes and stereotypes that have calcified around black and white sexuality in relation to antebellum slavery. (It also has less to say about black resistance and compliance. While the Northup of 12 Years beats up an insouciant white boy on impulse and receives a gruesome punishment, Mandingo contains a subplot about a group of slaves who teach each other to read and remain defiant. Mede betrays the ringleader, who before being executed spits, "After you hang me, kiss my ass!")

The lack of sex in 12 Years may have something to do with McQueen's faithfulness to Northup's story; since slave narratives were calibrated to further the abolitionist cause, they're definitely not meant to titillate anyone, nor did they represent the sexual abuses of plantation life suffered by slaves in graphic detail. A given slave narrative might discuss the rape of female slaves, usually in the course of a man's story, probably at some distance. Of course, male rape went entirely unreported.

For McQueen, and perhaps Northup, questions of sex also have easier answers: the same Mandingo-esque bitter triangle develops among slave master Epps, his wife, and his obsession/victim, Patsey, but Epps' wife directs all of her rage at the girl, seemingly lacking any erotic urges of her own. In Mandingo, Blanche launches similar attacks against Ellen, at one point tossing her down the stairs in hope that she will miscarry, but by raping Mede, confronts both black and white male power, exhibiting an agency and independence that seem to have bypassed Mistress Epps.

12 Years never asks the confounding question of whether love is possible on anyone's part under such an oppressive system, but in Mandingo, Hammond's association with Ellen suggests something hard to parse and again, uncomfortably human — that Hammond has power, so he believes himself to have genuine feelings for Ellen, whereas Ellen sees Hammond as a possible way toward freedom. It's also troubling that there are so many attractive actors in Mandingo — Perry King (of later fame as the blond hunk on ABC's Riptide) as Hammond, limps hastily around in tights; no shirt can restrain the chiseled musculature of Ken Norton, a pro boxer who beat Muhammad Ali in 1973; and natural-haired sylph Brenda Sykes is the picture of black power–era pulchritude.

12 Years, by contrast, asks us never to see its principals in this light. Though Lupita Nyong'o, as Epps's object of abuse, packs more sex appeal than Sykes offscreen, her character's too screwed up and tragic for an erotic gaze — ditto Michael Fassbender as Epps, whose cartoonishly evil nature occludes his hotness.

12 Years never questions the issue of Solomon Northup's purity (which may have been sidestepped in his narrative); there's never a moment of illicit desire on the kidnapped slave's part for anything other than freedom. We're expected to believe that he remained absolutely faithful to his wife during a period of twelve years during which he didn't know he would ever get free or see her again; he's neutered by this assumption for the duration of the film. Even when Northup returns to Saratoga, his family expresses their joy, but passion seems absent, or at least unexpressed, even after so much time supposedly celibate.

12 Years presents its hero as an entirely honorable victim in an expertly crafted and elegant film, while Mandingo throws us into the ugly mess that slavery and sex create when they collide, among a complicated, unruly, and rude group of tragic characters controlled by the brutality of the social milieu in which they live, their base cravings, and their denial. Its sexual frankness plays on our own attractions to various actors/characters in order to show us how our baser drives can control us in similar ways. It's hard to deny that the fictional, less carefully handled, more confounding depiction of this time period seems more alive — even if it isn't as good.

Novelist James Hannaham is the author of God Says No (McSweeney's) and Delicious Foods, which will appear from Little, Brown in 2015.

Reviewer: James Hannaham

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143125419
  • Publisher: Viking Penguin
  • Publication date: 9/4/2013
  • Edition description: Movie Tie-In Edition
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 53,134
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Solomon Northup (1808–c. 1863) was a free man kidnapped and forced into slavery in 1851. The details of his life after the publication of his acclaimed memoir are unknown.
 
Ira Berlin is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. His many books include The Making of African America and Many Thousands Gone, winner of the Bancroft Prize and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
 
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the W. E. B Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 417 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 417 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 23, 2010

    Highy Recommended- Buy It!

    This book was about the life and Journey of Solomon Northup, who unfortunately was stolen from freedom and made a slave. Born in New York State in 1808 as a free man, he was well educated, learned how to swim (which is very rare to find in an African American at the time) and an exceptional worker. But in 1841 he was kidnapped in Washington D.C. where he was forced to work as a slave for the next twelve years on a Louisiana cotton plantation.

    This book is definitely going on my list of favorite books. It has such a detailed and vivid description of his experience that I almost felt like I was there with him. He incorporates sadness, depression,and death with happiness, excitement, and love. This is sometimes very hard to achieve when writing about slavery but somehow he brought it all together in the best of ways. One of my major "likes" about this book was that he showed a side of slavery that doesn't get recognized all too often; compassion. Solomon made friends with other slaves that stood by him and showed him sympathy whenever he needed it. But the major shocker is that one of his many masters, a man named Ford, treated Solomon with respect and even said that he was better than a white man (Tibeat), right to his face. Thats when I started to adore this book and wanted to keep on reading. My only real "dislike" was that after a while, not much was happening besides him being a slave and going through what they normal experienced, but that did not stop the fact that is was a great book.

    This book gives detailed descriptions of the fear, brutality, and hardships that slaves went through which makes it a must read book because people should know the history of our country and recognize the ones who were there.

    147 out of 158 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2009

    Refreshing approach

    This book simply tells the story from the perspective of Solomon Northup. He successfully left out any preconceptions, assumptions and told the story from what he actually witnessed, heard, felt and thought. I could not put the book down reading about his feelings and thoughts on this horrific time in his life. A compelling story.

    63 out of 70 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 21, 2000

    The Painful Truth

    I grew up in the 60's and 70's near the area in which Northup was enslaved. I am amazed that such brutality once was accepted, even condoned, so near the peaceful places where I experienced childhood and young adulthood. We have much to learn from his story. I wish that this book had been required reading in our mandatory Junior High Lousiana History class, which typically presented only superficial discussions of slavery in our state.

    55 out of 65 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 29, 2003

    EXTREMELY COMPELLING AND HEART GRABING

    THOUGH I DIDN'T READ THE BOOK......I SAW THE MOVIE ON T.V. FOUR TIMES AND EACH TIME I SAW IT, I'M REMINDED OF THE PAIN AND SUFFERING MY PEOPLE ENDURED JUST SO I CAN FREELY DO THIS ........WRITE A COMMENTARY WITHOUT FEAR. I THANK 'G-D' FOR YOU SALOMAN NORTHUP. YOU HELPED TO KICK DOORS OPEN WITH BARE FEET SO THAT I MAY WALK THROUGH WITH SHOES ON.

    47 out of 119 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 19, 2011

    A fascinating personal history

    I really knew nothing about live as a slave, or even life during that time period. I found the book fascinating and informative. The author is very detailed in his descriptions, so you can easily picture what he is describing. He was a great observer, and even adds some wry humor here and there. Hearing his thoughts as he goes through the different situations really helps you understand what it must have been like. Knowing that it is a true story makes it all the more compelling. It gave insight into lots of questions I had about life as a slave- how aware of their situation were they, why didn't they just escape, what kinds of freedoms did they really have, were all owners cruel, how could otherwise good people own slaves, what happened when slaves were smarter than their masters, how did they cope with families being separated? I really enjoyed the book and would highly recommend it. One thing I would like to know - did any of the author's former owners eve read the book, and what did they think?

    40 out of 44 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 7, 2013

    Remarkable, moving, painful

    The story was presented in a moving way.
    I had no idea that free men were kidnapped and taken as slaves
    Everyone should read this book

    28 out of 33 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2008

    A reviewer

    The story of Solomon Northup's life, as a free man, a slave and then his struggle for justice against his kidnapper's, is a horrifying and detailed narrative. Unfortunately, his story is similar to other African Americans during this period of history. His strong will to fight, literally against a particular master, at any cost demonstrates his desire to take a stand against wrong doers. An attempt to make more money for his family cost him twelve years of freedom, pain and enslavement. I could not stop reading this book after I started. His words are realistically descriptive and brings the reader into the pages of the book.

    25 out of 29 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 18, 2011

    Fiction disguised

    This is the worst fiction disguised as history I have ever seen. Many of the atrocities as described did happen and leave their scars on the souls of decent men. BUT, in spite of an apparent skill at writing, there is just too much exaggeration to be credible. Some "whippings", described as "500 lashes" or even more, are too much a stretch of imagination. (Even for today's politicians) The poor man's back would, long ago, be stripped to the bone, and the hours of whipping would have to been done by a machine!

    22 out of 152 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 2, 2014

    I've known of this story for many years. Not only bc it's depict

    I've known of this story for many years. Not only bc it's depicting our history, but it's depicting my family's history. I'm Solomon Northup's 4x's great granddaughter, and I can't tell how completely proud and honored I am that my grandfather's story is getting so much recognition. The movie brought light to the book, which I'm so thrilled to see. The book is now being distributed to many schools. My family's history is making history. And I am so absolutely honored to be of the blood of this strong and intelligent man. The book is well written and the story is well detailed. If you've seen the movie, please read the book!

    21 out of 21 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 20, 2011

    A Must Read! I couldn't put it down!

    This is an amaedzing true story of Solomon Northup who was born in the free state of New York. People befriended him and he is taken to Washington, DC under false prentences. He is kidnapped and sent to Louisiana to the cotton plantations. How Solomon kept the faith and endured one can only believe he was made up of a fabric of his fore fathers. He knew how to make the most of interacting with the other slaves and the plantation owners. Solomon Northup wasn't freed until after 12 years. This book should be manaditory reading for every school.

    20 out of 25 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 17, 2008

    A Must Read Book

    I have read about 6 books dealing with slavery such as Booker T. Washington, H. Tubman, and F. Douglas,and I must say that I have enjoyed this title the best. Solomen gives an inside experience of slavery that I never knew existed.

    14 out of 17 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2013

    I'm not much of a reader. I haven't read a book since elementary

    I'm not much of a reader. I haven't read a book since elementary school; I'm 25 now. Believe me when I tell you I couldn't put this book down. I created a Barnes and Noble account solely to post this review. I highly recommend this book!!! It is a must read!!!

    13 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2013

    OMG

    THE SAMPLE IS ONLY THE TABLE OF CONTENTS

    12 out of 34 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 3, 2011

    Recommend

    Powerful auto-biography! Was very well-written.

    10 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2013

    Highly Recommended - Must Read for all Americans

    This artfully written masterpiece is raw in its honesty and disturbingly revealing about America's tragic history.

    8 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2012

    Terrible

    You get so lost in the begginging . It uses weird words tht you cant find the definintion to.

    8 out of 78 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 2001

    A painful, enraging read in American and Louisiana history...

    This is the story of Solomon Northup, in his own words, a citizen of New York kidnapped in 1841 and taken to Louisiana as a slave, where he was found twelve years later on a cotton plantation near the Red River. It is a story that will break your heart as Solomon was torn away from his family for over a decade. According to a quote from 1853, when Solomon first published his memoirs, 'Think of it: For thirty years a man, with all a man's hopes, fears and aspirations--with a wife and children to call him by the endearing names of husband and father--with a home, humble it may be, but still a home...then for twelve years a thing, a chattel personal, classed with mules and horses. ...Oh! it is horrible. It chills the blood to think that such are.' And indeed, this story will both chill--and boil--your blood.

    8 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 19, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    This book is an amazing account of Solomon Northup¿s 12 years as

    This book is an amazing account of Solomon Northup’s 12 years as a slave. Solomon was born a free man but was kidnapped and tricked into slavery and spent the next 12 years as a slave on a Louisiana plantation. Solomon was well educated and it shows in his writing. I give this book my highest praise.

    7 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 3, 2014

    Reviews

    Why do people need to use this site as social media and nothing to do with book reviews.... does not help in reviewing the book.

    6 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 4, 2000

    Twelve years a slave

    I thought the story was compelling and it was not hard for me to believe considering my parents are both from Louisanna. Have heard so many of these stories.

    5 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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