12 Years a Slave | 2013
Steve McQueen’s largely faithful adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir takes its strength from Chiwetel Ejiofor’s committed performance and a relentless attention to physical detail that plunges the audience into the sordid reality of slavery (only a misjudged cameo by the producer hits the wrong note).
The production makes terrific use of real locations around Louisiana, allowing the camera to turn a full 360 degrees when needed. Even the opening scenes, set in ‘Saratoga, New York’ and ‘Washington DC’ are filmed in the South.
The street in ‘Saratoga’ of the 1840s, where Northup (Ejiofor) and his family go shopping, is Iberville Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
The ‘Gadsby Hotel’, supposedly in ‘Washington DC’, to which Northup is taken by the two deceptively friendly Brown and Hamilton, is the famed Columns Hotel, 3811 St Charles Avenue, in New Orleans’ Garden District. He’s wined and dined in the hotel’s elegant dining room before he wakes to find himself in manacles, and stripped of his identity. The Columns famously appeared as an early 20th Century bordello in Louis Malle’s 1978 Pretty Baby.
Over in the French Quarter, the ‘slave pen’ of trader Freeman' (Paul Giamatti), where Northup and Eliza (Adepero Oduye) are sold to the well-meaning but morally compromised Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is Madame John’s Legacy, 632 Dumaine Street.
One of the finest 18th century building complexes in Louisiana, the house survived the great fire of 1795, which destroyed much of the city, and it’s now an official National Historic Landmark, and admission is free.
Ford’s sugarcane plantation is the Magnolia Plantation on La Hwy 311 three miles south of Schriever, near Thibodaux. About 40 miles west of New Orleans, the 1858 house, surrounded by oak and magnolia trees dripping with the inevitable Spanish moss, is a private home, not open to visitors.
After falling foul of spiteful foreman Tibeats (Paul Dano), Northup is passed on to the sadistic and drunken Epps (Michael Fassbender). The Epps cotton plantation is Felicity Plantation, now part of the St. Joseph Plantation, 3535 Highway 18, in Vacherie, on the Mississippi about 20 miles north of Schriever. It’s actually another sugar cane business and, although still family-owned, you can tour the ancestral home, grounds and dependencies, including original slave cabins (though unfortunately not the Felicity Plantation itself at this time). As most tours are guided by family members, there should be plenty of history.
St. Joseph was previously the main location for Iain Softley’s 2005 The Skeleton Key, with Kate Hudson and Peter Sarsgaard.
Epps' ‘gin house’, where the cotton bales are counted, was recreated in the Mule Shed at Destrehan Plantation, 13034 River Road, Destrehan, much closer to New Orleans. Dating from 1787, it’s claimed to be the oldest documented plantation in the lower Mississippi. The grand house at Destrehan supplied interiors for Interview With The Vampire, also featuring Brad Pitt.
Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), the best cotton picker and the object alternately of Epps’ lust and fury, is surprisingly allowed the Sabbath day off. She visits ‘Shaw Farm’ to take tea with Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), a former slave who has survived by becoming the owner’s mistress. The rather fancier estate house is Bocage Plantation, 39050 Highway 942 in Darrow, even further west toward Baton Rouge, on the north bank of the Mississippi.
The real Epps house (more modest than the home used in the film) can still be seen. It was moved from Bunkie, Louisiana, in 1999 and can be found in the grounds of Louisiana State University at Alexandria, 8100 US 71 in Alexandria.
To learn about more of the real places, Acadiana Historical has a fascinating Solomon Northup Trail.