Brad Pitt will get the credit for bringing the story of Solomon Northup into the mainstream, but a Louisiana woman is responsible for keeping his memory alive until now.
Dr. Sue Eakin was just 12 years old when Solomon Northup’s memoir, “12 Years a Slave,” was handed to her to read. The year was 1931, and Eakin had gone with her father to the plantation of Dr. Haas near present-day Bunkie, Louisiana. Knowing she would be bored while the men talked, Dr. Haas took her to his library and pulled his own’s father’s original copy of “12 Years a Slave” off the shelf.
First written in 1853, the story is the autobiography of Northup, a free black man living in upstate New York. He is deceived by a group of circus promoters who invite him to play a musical gig in Washington, D.C., and wakes up the next morning to find he’s been drugged, kidnapped and bound for the slave block. He’s shipped to New Orleans, assigned his slave name and then sent to Bayou Boeuf plantation country in central Louisiana. For 12 years, Northup struggled to stay alive and maintain his dignity. In his twelfth year, he met Samuel Bass (played by Brad Pitt), a Canadian abolitionist who helped to rescue him.
Eakin was fascinated by Northup’s story and also surprised to realize that she knew the people in his book. After that day, she looked for her own copy but didn’t find it until she arrived at Louisiana State University for college and visited Claitor’s Bookstore. She went on to write her master’s thesis about Northup, and his story became wound up in her own as she made re-publishing it her life’s work.
Eakin co-edited the first authenticated edition of “12 Years a Slave” with Dr. Joseph Logsdon in 1968. Her son, Frank, who is responsible for a new audiobook version of the story, was 7 years old at the time. “I felt that Solomon Northup was my sibling,” he says. “Solomon was always in our household, so to speak. I remember going to courthouses with her [my mother], tagging along where she would get documentation, interviewing people, descendants of the characters mentioned in the original narrative and all that. Solomon was a big part of our family.”
In her lifetime, Eakin would also work to restore the Edwin Epps house, which belonged to the man who bought Solomon Northup and owned him 10 of those 12 years (played by Michael Fassbender in the movie). Today, the house resides at LSU-Alexandria. She also wrote a musical version of “12 Years a Slave,” which is still performed in the Bunkie area, and 40 years after co-editing her first edition of Northup’s story, she published her definitive edition in 2007 at the age of 88.
“She passed away two years later,” says Frank. “It includes the benefit of an additional 40 years of sources that she didn’t have back then, and it’s a very different book because there’s so much more information.”
Throughout her life, Eakin supported the Civil Rights Movement and worked for equal rights for black people in the town of Bunkie. In this video, she tells how inviting a black choir to sing at Haas Auditorium in her town caused a firestorm in the 1940s.
Meanwhile, Frank went on to have a career in the energy industry but says he definitely got his mom’s gene for reading and writing. He’d always wanted to get into the movie business and got a taste while at LSU in mid-1980s. A friend asked him if he’d help his son raise money to get a screenplay off the ground. “I told him I knew nothing about the film industry, and that would be a really difficult sale at that time,” Frank says, “but I met with this young man. He was extremely talented, passionate, and he brought me a screenplay, which was called ‘Putting on Airs.'”
Frank wasn’t successful in raising any funds for this young filmmaker, but it turns out he didn’t need his help. The friend’s son was Steven Soderbergh, and “Sex, Lies and Videotape” made him a household name in 1989. Frank went on to have his career, but in 2003 formed Eakin Films and Publishing, which allowed him to produce a children’s feature film and a book. About four years ago, he heard from a cousin that a company was looking at producing a movie version of “12 Years a Slave.” “Of course, we got these calls every three years or so, and we didn’t know whether to take it seriously, but then new information developed and it looked real,” he says.
That company turned out to be Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, and Frank (pictured at left) offered them access to all of his mom’s archives and papers. He also helped connect Fox Searchlight with several foundations like Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives and The Eracism Foundation working to combat present-day slavery. “I’m very grateful to both Plan B and Fox for being so welcoming and trusting me,” he says.
Eakin published a consumer version of his mother’s enhanced definitive edition of “12 Years a Slave,” then Fox allowed Eakin’s company and its distributor to acquire the audiobook movie tie-in edition rights, which incorporates Eakin’s acclaimed audiobook performed by Louis Gossett Jr.
An Amazon/Audible Best of 2013 Editor’s Pick, he’s quick to point out that this isn’t your typical audiobook. “Louis Gossett is like magic on audio,” he says. “He wanted to make people feel like he’s sitting across the table telling them a story, and it’s very personal. So, it’s a performance, it’s not just a reading.”
Frank also has high praise for the movie and encourages those interested in Northup’s story to experience it all three ways. “To see that movie … it came out so, so well. It’s profound. I couldn’t help but just cry my eyes out for about the last 10 minutes.”
He believes his mom would have approved of Pitt’s and Director Steve McQueen’s handling of her precious story. “Mom wanted to get the story out to a larger audience, but she was limited in what she could do,” he adds.
Even with the movie in theaters, Northup’s legacy isn’t over. The Smithsonian is planning on including him in its new museum of African American History and Culture, which should be open by early 2015. And both Frank Eakin and Louis Gossett Jr. will be at the Louisiana Book Festival on November 2 to talk about the project.
“12 Years a Slave” opened in limited release October 18 and opens everywhere November 1. In addition to Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender, the cast includes Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson and Alfre Woodard. The movie was filmed in New Orleans Plantation Country. Click here to find out more.
The e-book and audiobook version of “12 Years a Slave” read by Louis Gossett Jr. are available now. A portion of proceeds from audiobook download sales go to select slavery abolitionist foundations. Visit twelveyearsaslave.org to find out more about both versions, along with Eakin’s life and work.