12 YEARS A SLAVE
Adapting and Developing the Screenplay
To create that sense of immediacy and relevance on the screen, McQueen teamed up with
novelist and screenwriter John Ridley for the adaptation. Ridley was instantly drawn to what he saw
not just as a daring account of inhuman circumstances but a story firmly in the tradition of a timeless
odyssey -- a long, life-altering voyage full of changes of fortune, yet focused on a man's perseverance
to return to his loved ones.
"I always saw the story as a man's odyssey home. Today, anyone could jump on a plane from
New York to Louisiana and back again. But when you think of that time period and someone trying to
get back home -- not just get back home but also get back his rights and get back his human dignity --
it's such an incredibly huge physical and emotional distance. This is the story of an immense journey,
and one in which Solomon Northup truly comes to understand what many of us take for granted: the
privilege of being a free American." says Ridley.
Despite being set in a past century, Ridley felt the story was acutely alive. "Great stories are
always immediate," he says. "Then and now Solomon is just an amazing human character."
Ridley and McQueen began by steeping themselves in research. They explored the
architecture of an American slavery system that was, in many ways, a harbinger of the global economy
and that over time developed its own massive and brutal infrastructure. They learned about the
economics of cotton -- which shifted after Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, allowing for mass
production and making slavery a lynchpin of Southern business. They looked at the remarkable degree
to which enslaved labor helped to build America's wealth. And they learned how slave plantations
became increasingly violent and repressive, how families were broken and destroyed, in order to
sustain the practice, the abject immorality of which divided the nation and became deeply rooted in its
"There were so many things we discovered about the system of slavery," Ridley explains.
"When we look at slavery now, centuries on, we assume it was just one thing; that blacks worked in
the field and that was essentially it. But when you have a system that suppresses the will, that is
designed to dehumanize, it has to become more and more elaborate. Stories were sold to white people
about why blacks should be slaves, why they were inferior and why no one should care about their
rights. And then it grew at an exponential rate year by year."
There could be no flinching from what Northup went through physically and spiritually, but
Ridley says the momentum of the story became how harshness keeps giving way to hope.
"The easiest thing with a story like this would be to back off and turn away from what
happened," he acknowledges. "But the more challenging thing is for us to look at where we came
from and know that we as a nation have come so far and have done so much. I think that gives us
hope for the future. To me, this movie is all about hope, about not giving in and always believing you
can overcome. That's the truth of this story for Solomon as an individual and for all of us as a nation."
Ridley hopes that the film keeps people from forgetting a past he feels must be integrated into
any vision of the American future. "In some ways it's a travesty that schoolchildren are not brought up
reading this book. Steve and I would like to think we are two well-read individuals, and we stumbled
on this book. I would hope that after this film comes out no one has to stumble on this story."
The story's fate was helped early on when Brad Pitt and his Plan B productions came aboard.
"My feeling is that without Brad Pitt, this film would not have been made," states McQueen. "He
made a real contribution as a producer because he is so full-on, direct and supportive to the filmmaker.
And as an actor, even in a smaller role, he is able to do more in a few minutes of screen time that most
people ever could. I'm very grateful to him, Dede Gardner and Plan B."
Producer Dede Gardner says the company was excited to head into fresh cinematic territory.
"There's never been an all-encompassing movie like this that spans enough time to really understand
slavery as a primary source of commerce for decades in the American South," she notes. "The book
lays out an extraordinary story, one that is deeply moving and also gives a real perspective on what
slavery was like on a daily basis and what it meant on so many different levels."
Adds River Road's Bill Pohlad: "The picture many of us have of slavery is somewhat one-
dimensional. But this story gives that history a personal texture that really allows you to explore it in a
different way. And then you add to that, Steve's voice, which is something special and amazing. He
makes the experience intimate, which is what makes it so powerful."
They were determined to see the movie made as McQueen envisioned it. "We came onto this
project because we so believed in it," Gardner says. "If you sign on to make a movie with Steve
McQueen you know he won't pull any punches, and I really admire that. The slavery system was
vicious and deeply violent. It's hard to even talk about it, but it was important to show it. We knew
Steve wanted to be profoundly honest. And I think it's very respectful to the audience to render these
From the start, the producers saw that McQueen's approach was going to be very specific.
"Steve immediately had a very clear vision of the film's emotional elements," explains producer
Jeremy Kleiner. "For example, he wanted to put the audience in a place where they understood that
the very act of writing a letter could be life or death. Today, we write emails, but in Solomon's world
just getting the materials together to write one letter had very high stakes. That was something
important for Steve to get across -- and his need to communicate became the opening scene of the
For Kleiner, part of the film's universality is the way it reveals so many different sides to
human behavior. "Every character that Solomon comes in contact with embodies something about the
spectrum of the human condition. There is benevolence. There is inner turmoil and ruthlessness. And
there is love," he concludes. "And within Solomon, there is always this refusal to give into adversity."
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