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The True Story Behind ’12 Years a Slave’

Movie Talk

After a special screening at the Telluride Film Festival last week, "12 Years A Slave" – the third feature from acclaimed British filmmaker Steve McQueen – has been receiving powerful buzz from critics, and some have already predicted that it's the film to beat come awards season 2014.

McQueen's direction, and performances from a stellar cast that includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, and Paul Giamatti, have impressed reviewers and preview audiences alike. But a large part of what makes "12 Years A Slave" so powerful for many is the fact it's based on a true story: In 1841, Solomon Northrup, a free African American from upstate New York, was kidnapped during a visit to Washington D.C. and was sold into slavery, spending 12 years as the property of other men before he was rescued.

Watch Exclusive '12 Years a Slave' Video — Portrait of Solomon Northup:

[Related: '12 Years a Slave' Stuns Telluride: Do We Have an Oscar Front-Runner?]

Born in 1808, Solomon Northrup was born a free man — his father, Mintus Northup, was a slave was who granted his freedom as a condition of his master's last will and testament. Solomon Northup married Anne Hampton in 1829, and the couple had three children. Northup was well educated and a talented musician who played the violin — he made his living as a fiddler, supplementing his uncertain income working various jobs along Champlain Canal in Saratoga Springs, New York.

In 1841, Northup was approached by Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton, two men who offered him work with a circus in Washington D.C. Brown and Hamilton told Northup he would only be needed for a few performances, but would be given a daily stipend of one dollar, plus three dollars per show. The fee was good by the standards of the day, and Northup quickly packed his bags, obtained freeman's papers (so he could prove he was not a slave, an important matter for a black man in 1841), and traveled south with Brown and Hamilton.

[Related: '12 Years a Slave' Trailer: Brad Pitt Lets the Story Take Center Stage]

Northup made the mistake of not telling his wife Anne that he would be gone, a matter he quickly came to regret when he arrived in Washington D.C. Brown and Hamilton turned out to be kidnappers who beat Northup, destroyed his identification, and sold him to a slave trader, claiming he was a runaway slave from Georgia. Northup was soon shipped off to New Orleans, where trader Thomas Freeman sold him to William Ford, a planter based in Louisiana. Northup persuaded a sailor to pass a message to Anne about what had become of him, but he was unable to provide his location, which made it impossible for his wife and family to come to his aid.

Ford discovered Northup, who had been renamed Platt after he was captured, was bright and resourceful, and he was treated relatively well. That changed when Ford fell into debt and Northup was sold to John M. Tibeats, a carpenter who took over part of Ford's operation. Ford was known for his sadistic treatment of his slaves, and at one point Northup attempted to kill Tibeats with an axe, though Northup was considered too valuable an asset to destroy.

Eventually, Tibeats sold Northup to one Edwin Epps, and while working his land, Northup struck up a friendship with Samuel Bass, a carpenter from Canada. Bass agreed to help Northup get in touch with his family, an act that could easily have caused him to be hung from a tree in the Deep South if Bass had been found out. Anne persuaded Henry B. Northup, a lawyer related to the man who gave Solomon's father his freedom, to help her, and the attorney gained a valuable ally in Washington Hunt, the governor of New York. When Hunt brought pressure to bear in Louisiana, authorities forced Epps to give Northup his freedom in early 1853.

In 1854, Solomon Northup published a book about his experiences, "Twelve Years A Slave," which became popular as the abolition movement grew in the United States. Northup next went on a lecture tour to discuss the book and the realities of slave life. He also attempted to use legal means to bring the slave traders who abducted him to justice, but ran afoul of laws in Washington D.C. that prevented black men from testifying in court against whites.

Already an outspoken figure in the crusade to ban slavery, Northup went a step further in the 1860s and secretly worked as part of the Underground Railroad, helping runaway slaves escape to freedom in the North.

Northup died in 1875, under mysterious circumstances.

In 1984, filmmaker and photographer Gordon Parks made a television movie about Northup's story, "Solomon Northup's Odyssey." But "12 Years A Slave" should introduce a new generation to Northup's shocking and inspiring tale, and between the film's enthusiastic reception at Telluride and Kanye West reference to his story in his MTV Video Music Awards performance of "Blood On The Leaves," McQueen's movie could be the year's most talked about history lesson.

Watch the theatrical trailer for "12 Years A Slave":