By Colin Woodward
New Orleans is a terrific city, dripping with history. And one of the great things about history, whether in New Orleans or elsewhere, is that it’s always changing. It’s being made every day. Not only are new events–wars, elections, and the redrawing of borders–changing history, historians and scholars are constantly revising how we view the past.
As I have blogged about previously, entertainers have a great impact on how we view southern history. And while walking around the French Quarter last month–holding a beer and copy of Lanterns on the Levee–I saw some men carefully painting letters onto a window. Hammers were pounding away. Saws were cutting wood. Since Hurricane Katrina, it’s easy to mistake any new construction as part of the New Orleans rebuilding process. However, I overheard one of the workmen say that they were building a set for Twelve Years a Slave, which Brad Pitt apparently is producing. Brad Pitt has spent a lot of time in NOLA since Katrina helping people put up “flood proof” houses. It would make sense that he’d financially back a film being shot in the Crescent City.
Twelve Years a Slave (or as Paul Ryan or Anne Coulter might have titled it, Twelve Years in a Conservative, Capitalist Paradise) hopefully will be be true to the book. It was written by Solomon Northup, a free black New Yorker who was captured by slavers in 1841 in Washington, D. C. While looking for work as a fiddler, he was put in chains and shipped to Louisiana, where he sweated for years on a sugar plantation. Northup was eventually sold from a more conscientious, paternalistic master to a much cruel one. His abuse became so bad that he tried to escape and was nearly killed for his disobedience to his master. His account of slavery, written with the help of a white abolitionist and published in 1853, has become a classic.
Purely as a literary work, Twelve Years a Slave is a great book. I had the opportunity to read it more than once in Louisiana, when I was studying there. It’s is a well-written and highly detailed narrative of Northup’s experiences. Anyone interested in slavery should read it.
Northup’s tale has already been filmed before in the 1980s as a documentary. Pitt’s new movie, I’m guessing, will be of the two-to-three-hour variety, something more like Steven Spielberg’s Amistad than Ken Burns’ Civil War.One of these workmen shouted at me, yelling “No pictures! No pictures!” Startled, I looked quizzically at him before he smiled and said, “Just kiddin’.
You never know what you’re going to come across in New Orleans. It could be a parade, a scantily clad drag queen, or a film set. I’m looking forward to seeing Northup’s story eventually put on screen.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.