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October 18th, 2013
05:53 PM ET

'12 Years a Slave' and the trauma of enslavement

The race for Oscar gold is on, and one of the leading contenders opens this weekend – '12 Years a Slave' tells the incredible true story of Solomon Northup.

It was a trap, a buisness deal gone bad that cost Solomon Northup 12 years of his life.

Northup a freed black man living in New York was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery from Washington D.C., to a plantation in Louisiana. For 12 years he was separated from his wife and children. Shortly after he regained his freedom, Northup penned a best selling memoir while the nation was on the brink of Civil War. His chilling account of slavery would help change a nation.

"For me it was sort of a restoration process, to approach it with an invisable hand and to insert myself at the lowest level neccesarry," said screenwriter John Ridley, who has transformed Northup's 1850's memoir for the silver screen.

"There is an immediacy to Solomon's story that is unmatched. You have to remember at that time for people of color if they could read or write they would be killed. So the amount of these personal narratives that could come out of the South were actually very very small," said Ridley.

"Northup's, which sold 30,000 copies at the time it came out, really gives a day to day account of what slavery was like," said Gregory Carr, the chair of the Afro-American studies program at Howard University.

How successful was the book at bringing the popular focus to slavery?

"I think you can safely say it contributed to the end of slavery. Because it did galvanize a lot of popular attention," said Carr. "I think that Solomon Northup's narrative certainly humanized enslavement and brought the dangers of enslavement to a wider public and certainly could give popular support and political support to the politics of the time."

The film is garnering critical praise for its unflinching portrayal of one of the most horrific chapters in our nation's history.

For Carr, Hollywood has not been terribly successful in telling the story of slavery.

"There has been nothing in my estimation that has come close to the trauma of enslavement since Roots in 1977," said Carr. "When you see people you recognize in another context have their humanity attacked, it has a powerful effect on popular audiences."

"I think this film may have a shot at really opening another national dialogue about what that institution was and what it's implications are even to this day," said Carr.

A lot has changed in the decades since that time Solomon Northup was sold into slavery in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol.

"For me to be in a space, where I am just generations removed from the actual facts of this story where I can write about this, where I can be one of the producers on this film, that I could sit on television and espouse my particular view point on this particular story, that I can sit my two sons down and have them watch their history, that's what's changed. That's what's changed," said Ridley.

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