Years a Slave is a British produced and directed historical drama
film. It is an adaptation of the 1853 memoir 'Twelve Years a Slave' by
Solomon Northup, a New York State-born free African American man, who
was kidnapped in Washington, D.C., in 1841 and sold into slavery. Northup
worked on plantations in the state of Louisiana for twelve years before
his release. The first scholarly edition of Northup's memoir, co-edited
in 1968 by Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon, carefully retraced and validated
the account and concluded it to be accurate.
is the third feature film directed by British director Steve McQueen.
The screenplay was written by John Ridley. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon
Northup. Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti,
Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt and Alfre Woodard are all featured
in supporting roles. Principal photography took place in New Orleans,
Louisiana. The locations used were four historic antebellum plantations:
Felicity, Magnolia, Bocage, and Destrehan. Of the four, Magnolia is nearest
to the actual plantation where Northup was held.
Years a Slave received widespread critical acclaim, by critics and
audiences, for its acting (particularly for Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael
Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o), Steve McQueen's direction, screenplay,
production values, and its faithfulness to Solomon Northup's account.
It was named the best film of the year by several media outlets. It also
proved to be a box office success, earning over $178 million on a production
budget of $18 million. The film won three Academy Awards: Best Picture
(becoming the first film made by a black director or producer to receive
the Academy's highest honour), Best Supporting Actress for Nyong'o and
Best Adapted Screenplay for Ridley. It was awarded the Golden Globe Award
for Best Motion Picture – Drama, and the British Academy of Film
and Television Arts recognised the film with the Best Film and the Best
Actor award for Ejiofor.
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup
Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps
Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey
Sarah Paulson as Mary Epps
Benedict Cumberbatch as William Ford
Brad Pitt as Samuel Bass
Paul Dano as John Tibeats
Adepero Oduye as Eliza
Paul Giamatti as Theophilus Freeman
Garret Dillahunt as Armsby
Scoot McNairy as Merrill Brown
Taran Killam as Abram Hamilton
Chris Chalk as Clemens Ray
Michael K. Williams as Robert
Liza J. Bennett as Mistress Ford
Kelsey Scott as Anne Northup
Alfre Woodard as Mistress Harriet Shaw
Quvenzhané Wallis as Margaret Northup Devyn A. Tyler as Adult
Margaret NorthupCameron Zeigler as Alonzo Northup
Rob Steinberg as Parker
Jay Huguley as Sheriff Villiere
Christopher Berry as James Birch
Bryan Batt as Judge Turner
Bill Camp as Ebenezer Radburn
Dwight Henry as Uncle Abram
Deneen Tyler as Phebe
Ruth Negga as Celeste
After meeting screenwriter John Ridley at a Creative Artists Agency
screening of Hunger in 2008, director Steve McQueen got in touch
with Ridley expressing interest in making a film about 'the slave
era in America' with 'a character that was not obvious in terms
of their trade in slavery.' Developing the idea back and forth,
the two did not strike a chord until McQueen's wife found Solomon
Northup's 1853 memoir 'Twelve Years a Slave'. McQueen later told
I read this book, and I was totally stunned. At the same time I
was pretty upset with myself that I didn't know this book. I live
in Amsterdam where Anne Frank is a national hero, and for me this
book read like Anne Frank's diary but written 97 years before –
a firsthand account of slavery. I basically made it my passion to
make this book into a film."
film was the subject of a lengthy development process, during which
Brad Pitt's production company Plan B Entertainment backed the project,
and this eventually helped obtain financing from various film studios.
The film was officially announced in August 2011 with McQueen to
direct and Chiwetel Ejiofor to star as Solomon Northup, a free negro
who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South. McQueen
compared Ejiofor's conduct 'of class and dignity' to that of Sidney
Poitier and Harry Belafonte. In October 2011, Michael Fassbender
(who starred in McQueen's previous films Hunger and Shame) joined
the cast. The remainder of the roles were cast in early 2012.
capture the language and dialects of the era and regions in which
the film takes place, dialect coach Michael Buster was brought in
to assist the cast in altering their speech. The language has a
literary quality related to the style of writing of the day and
the strong influence of the King James Bible. Buster explained:
We don't know what slaves sounded like in the 1840s, so I just used
rural samples from Mississippi and Louisiana [for actors Ejiofor
and Fassbender]. Then for Benedict [Cumberbatch], I found some real
upper-class New Orleanians from the '30s. And then I also worked
with Lupita Nyong'o, who's Kenyan but she did her training at Yale.
So she really shifted her speech so she could do American speech."
both won Oscars at the 86th Academy Awards, it was reported that
McQueen and Ridley had been in an ongoing feud over screenplay credit.
McQueen reportedly had asked Ridley for shared credit, which he
declined. McQueen appealed to Fox Searchlight, which sided with
Ridley. Neither thanked the other during their respective acceptance
speeches at the event. Since the event, Ridley has noted his regret
for not mentioning McQueen and denied the feud. He spoke favourably
of working with McQueen, and explained that his sole screenplay
credit was due to the rules of the Writers Guild of America. McQueen
has not commented on the alleged feud.
a production budget of $20 million, principal photography began
in New Orleans, Louisiana, on 27 June 2012. After seven weeks, filming
concluded on 13 August 2012. As a way to keep down production costs,
the bulk of the filming took place around the greater New Orleans
area – mostly south of the Red River country in the North
of the state, where the historic Northup was enslaved. Among locations
used were four historic antebellum plantations: Felicity, Magnolia,
Bocage, and Destrehan. Magnolia, a plantation in Natchitoches, Louisiana,
is just a few miles from one of the historic sites where Northup
was held. "To know that we were right there in the place where
these things occurred was so powerful and emotional," said
actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. "That feeling of dancing with ghosts
– it's palpable." Filming also took place at the Columns
Hotel and Madame John's Legacy in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
Sean Bobbitt, the film's primary camera operator, shot 12 Years
a Slave on 35 mm film with a 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio
using both an Arricam LT and ST. "Particularly for a period
piece, film gives the audience a definite sense of period and quality,"
said Bobbitt. "And because of the story's epic nature, widescreen
clearly made the most sense. Widescreen means a big film, an epic
tale – in this case an epic tale of human endurance."
filmmakers avoided the desaturated visual style that is typical
of a more gritty documentary aesthetic. Deliberately drawing visual
comparisons in the filming to the works of Spanish painter Francisco
Goya, McQueen explained:
When you think about Goya, who painted the most horrendous pictures
of violence and torture and so forth, and they're amazing, exquisite
paintings, one of the reasons they're such wonderful paintings is
because what he's saying is, 'Look – look at this.' So if
you paint it badly or put it in the sort of wrong perspective, you
draw more attention to what's wrong with the image rather than looking
at the image."
from Twelve Years a Slave (1855)
The musical score to 12 Years a Slave was composed by Hans
Zimmer, with original on-screen violin music written and arranged
by Nicholas Britell and performed by Tim Fain. The film also features
a few pieces of western classical and American folk music such as
Franz Schubert's "Trio in B-flat, D471" and John and Alan
Lomax's arrangement of "Run, Nigger, Run".
soundtrack album, 'Music from and Inspired by 12 Years a Slave',
was released digitally and received a physical format release on
11 November 2013 by Columbia Records.
addition to Zimmer's score, the album features music inspired by
the film by artists such as John Legend, Laura Mvula, Alicia Keys,
Chris Cornell, and Alabama Shakes. Legend's cover of "Roll,
Jordan, Roll" debuted online three weeks prior to the soundtrack's
To accurately depict the time period of the film, the filmmakers
conducted extensive research that included studying artwork from
eight weeks to create the wardrobe, costume designer Patricia Norris
collaborated with Western Costume to compile costumes that would
illustrate the passage of time while also being historically accurate.
Using an earth tone color palette, Norris created nearly 1,000 costumes
for the film. "She [Norris] took earth samples from all three
of the plantations to match the clothes," McQueen said, "and
she had the conservation with Sean [Bobbitt] to deal with the character
temperature on each plantation; there was a lot of that minute detail."
filmmakers also used some pieces of clothing discovered on set that
were worn by slaves.