There’s no doubt that Oscar nominations (and possibly some wins) lie ahead for director Steven McQueen’s acclaimed drama, 12 Years a Slave. The film is based on the memoir written by Solomon Northup, which reveals what happened after Solomon (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) – a free black man living in New York in pre-Civil War America – was kidnapped and sold into slavery, before he was able to regain his freedom more than a decade later.
If you’ve read my review, then you’re aware that I’m more lukewarm on the 12 Years a Slave film than many other critics and moviegoers – many of whom have proclaimed that McQueen’s adaptation is a masterpiece (or, if not quite that perfect, the next best thing). My overriding complaint about the film is that it’s an unflinching look at the atrocities committed by American slave owners – but not so much a movie that sheds additional light on how this (as the euphemism goes) “peculiar institution” worked – and, therefore, feels a bit like “‘torture porn’ made for arthouse moviegoers.”
Question is, does Northup’s original memoir offer that kind of insight on American slavery? Or does it foremost strive to document the traumatizing events that Solomon bore witness to, even as he struggled to keep himself alive (like the 2013 film adaptation)? Are the intents of movie and memoir one and the same – or vastly different?
It almost goes without saying that you have to allow room for some creative leeway and exaggeration/changes for dramatic effect – something I addressed last year with an examination of the truth vs. fiction in Argo – but my argument here is that those difference between 12 Years a Slave the book and the movie add up in a way that shouldn’t be overlooked.