MOTW: Five Amazing Facts About "12 Years a Slave"

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In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.
Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures
February 25th, 2014

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The 2013 dramatic biography "12 Years a Slave" is one of the most important, historically accurate movies about slavery ever to come out of Hollywood. The story follows Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a free black man from the North who is captured and subsequently sold into slavery. As Solomon struggles to survive and maintain his dignity, he eventually meets an abolitionist named Bass, played by Brad Pitt. This encounter alters his destiny, leading to the climax of an epic adventure. "12 Years a Slave" features top-notch acting, a well-paced plot and breathtaking imagery, creating a cinematic experience that takes audiences on an unforgettable adventure. These five interesting facts about the movie prove just how remarkable it is.

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Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

"12 Years a Slave" Is Based on a True Story 

The movie is based on the book "Twelve Years a Slave," which is an autobiography by Solomon Northup that details his real-life experiences. Although the movie follows its source material closely, the filmmakers took some creative license. For instance, the scene early in the movie that involves Solomon pleasuring a woman he discovered in bed with him was entirely fictitious. In the film, a sailor kills a slave named Robert on the ship. In real life, Robert died from smallpox. Despite small differences such as these, the film offers an accurate portrayal of the life of Solomon Northup. Just like in the film, the real Solomon was enslaved from 1841 to 1853, was tricked into going to Washington D.C. by two men and played the violin.

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Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

 

The Emotional Depth Caused One Actor's Breakdown

Director Steve McQueen and the rest of the crew worked hard to ensure the heartfelt performance of the cast. For instance, the makeup artist of Michael Fassbender's alcoholic character brushed real alcohol on his mustache to ensure genuine reactions from other actors. However, the emotional gravity of the film also led to some unexpected results. Michael K. Williams, who played Robert in the film, had a breakdown after filming an emotional scene. The stress of filming the painful recreation caused him to collapse and break down in tears after a take as a stunt coordinator attempted to console him. The scene was eventually deleted, but the impression it left on Williams is sure to last. Another incident occurred when Michael Fassbender temporarily passed out after filming the rape scene. 

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Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Director Steve McQueen Received Unexpected Inspiration for the Film

Steve McQueen, who had previously directed the movies "Shame," "Fome" and "Static," had long wanted to direct a film about a free black man who was forced into slavery. When his wife came upon the story of Solomon Northup, McQueen was astonished. He decided to adapt Northup's biography into a movie rather than coming up with another plot. 

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Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

"12 Years a Slave" Is the Third Collaboration of Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender in Film

The two actors also appeared together in "Inglorious Basterds" and "The Counselor." Fassbender and Pitt are good friends in real life and are close professional colleagues. Fassbender has mentioned that "12 Years a Slave" may not have come into being if it were not for Brad Pitt and his company, and he is thankful for his involvement.

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Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Movie Was Filmed at Historically Relevant Locations

Most of the filming took place in the greater New Orleans area, and various scenes were filmed in northern Louisiana below Red River country, which is where the real Solomon Northup was enslaved. Four historic antebellum plantations in the area were used as filming locations. Among these, the Magnolia plantation is the most historically relevant as it is located just miles from where Solomon was held captive. Chiwetel Ejiofor, who portrays Solomon Northup in the film, explained that knowing what had happened there was powerful and emotional. He likened the experience to dancing with ghosts.

Another example of a historically relevant filming location is the tree where Solomon rescues several individuals from being lynched in the movie. This same tree was actually used for lynching in times of slavery, and the area is surrounded by the graves of black slaves. This added a new level of gravity during filming, inspiring emotional performances.

"12 Years a Slave" tells the important story of slavery and one man's fight for freedom, featuring the perfect mixture of raw emotion, strength and drama. The film has received numerous accolades, including the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture -- Drama, nine Oscar nominations and placement at the top of Top 10 movie lists for 2013 by numerous critics. It also won the BAFTA Award for Best Film.