Highly Anticipated Movie is Based on UNO Historian's Book
A highly anticipated film regarding life in slavery in Civil War-era Louisiana has roots here at the University of New Orleans.
Twelve Years A Slave, the movie version of a memoir by former slave and musician Solomon Northup will premiere locally at the opening of the 24th Annual New Orleans Film Festival. Filmed in New Orleans and rural Louisiana, the motion picture due to be released by Fox Searchlight Pictures in movie theaters nationwide on Oct. 18 is already garnering press. Critics are saying that the film is a showstopper bound for heavy-hitting awards, including potential Oscars.
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor in the role of Northup, the film co-stars Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt.
The historical drama recently made its world premiere at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival and won the People's Choice Award there. The film is based on the 1968 edition of the 160-year-old memoir, which was edited and annotated by late UNO Professor of History Joseph K. Logsdon and fellow historian, Sue Eakin, for LSU Press. For the last 45 years, the book has been required reading in UNO classrooms.
The Power of History
"Joe would be delighted that the Northup story will now be told to such a large audience who will then, hopefully, read the historical memoir," said the late professor's widow, Mary.
In addition to being a tenured history professor and department chair at UNO, Logsdon was the first vice president of the local branch of the NAACP and the UNO college chapter adviser to the NAACP. At the time of his death in 1999, Logsdon had just been named the University's first Ethel & Herman Midlo Endowed Chair of New Orleans Studies. An endowed scholarship in his name is offered annually to top history students.
Together Logsdon and Eakin, who was then a history professor at Louisiana State University at Alexandria, "contributed the first scholarly edition of the 19th century book, which brought it to the attention of many," said UNO Associate Professor of History Michael Mizell-Nelson.
Northrup's early edition—entitled Twelve Years A Slave: A Citizen of New-York Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 from a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River in La.—led to the early sale of more than 30,000 copies during the period surrounding the Civil War. Several future republications, including the work annotated by Logsdon and Eakin, merely expanded circulation.
"It's important because it shows you the power of history. Even though the book was published in 1853—and unfortunately it came out a year after Uncle Tom's Cabin, because if it had come out the year before Uncle Tom's Cabin it would have been even more powerful—if you read it, it's really electrifying," said civil rights activist, former NAACP official and UNO Professor Emeritus of History Raphael Cassimere Jr.
"A lot of times movies will stray from the truth for excitement. This book has so much intrigue and excitement, if you could stick to the script, it would be a blockbuster, I think."
Twelve Years a Slave, in both the book and movie versions, tells the tale of a free man working as a musician in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who was kidnapped by strangers, who promised him work at a circus then sold him into slavery on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
New owners brought Northup to a cotton plantation in rural Louisiana, where he lived in slavery for a dozen years before being rescued by a Canadian carpenter, who recognized Northup's descriptions of Saratoga Springs and helped to set him free.
While early critics questioned the validity and accuracy of Northup's original memoir, Logsdon and his colleague helped to set the record straight, visiting Louisiana courthouses, plantations and other sites mentioned in the book, said Cassimere.
Cassimere, who over the years was Logsdon's student at UNO and Lehigh University and then his colleague in the UNO history department, said that sometime around 1963, Logsdon was teaching a Louisiana history class still taught today at UNO. A student from an old Louisiana family brought in a copy of the original 1853 book with notes written in the margins by deceased relatives. In the notes, the writers agreed that many of Northup's comments were true.
"Joe got interested and wrote to LSU Press about writing an edited upgrade, only to find out that Sue Eakin had tried to do the same," said Cassimere, who said the LSU Press editor suggested that the historians work on the book together, which they did. The pair became fast friends and remained friends until the end of their lives, said Cassimere, adding that Eakin—who had stumbled on the 1853 edition at a Louisiana plantation—spoke at Logsdon's funeral in 1999. She died 10 years later.
Film writer John Ridley told The New York Times for an article published this week that he relied heavily on Logsdon and Eakin's compilation in writing the film's screenplay.
Logsdon's name appears with Eakin's on the 1968 publication of Twelve Years a Slave. His research files on Northup may also be found in the Special Collections Department of the University of New Orleans Earl K. Long Library, said Mary Logsdon, who said the two historians did extensive research to verify the story's validity.
According to Cassimere, a secretary in the UNO history department typed the manuscript for publication. He recalls the first time he read the book.
"I was a student at the time. And boy, I read the book in a night," said Cassimere, who estimates, half-serious, half-jesting, that he is personally responsible for the sale of at least 10,000 copies of the Eakin-Logsdon edition.
The book was required reading for years in an American history class he taught at UNO and to this day the book is one of the first things his former students mention when they recall his class, Cassimere said.
Among other former students, Harry Connick Sr., who served as Orleans Parish District Attorney from 1973 to 2003, took Cassimere's class for leisure learning in recent years, and remarked that the book "opened his eyes to a lot of things."
Despite the excellence of Logsdon and Eakin's sleuthing, Cassimere said that investigative opportunities remain.
The winter before Logsdon's death, a man in upstate New York called him to say that his family believed that Northup has been killed by one of his kidnappers, who feared that the former slave would testify against them in court. Logsdon died before he was able to pursue the story completely, Cassimere said.
Mystery has always surrounded Northup's death, said Cassimere. Northup had always said that he would like to be buried near his father, but the whereabouts of his body or circumstances of his death have never been revealed. Northup is not buried with either of his parents or with his siblings. Local lore at the annual Solomon Northup Festival in Saratoga Springs also has it that Northup's great-grandson visited the area, searching for a burial site and information on the whereabouts of his ancestor, the historian said. The Northup relative expressed then that he and his family have no knowledge of the circumstances surrounding Solomon's Northup's death or burial site.