Report has it that 12 Years a Slave is compelling - if grim - viewing; it couldn't really be otherwise given the subject matter. I'd be willing to bet that most historical researchers uncover plenty of stories that would - in a better world - undergo the cinematic treatment, but unfortunately most of this material remains largely unknown. I have at least one such story from my own work: in idle moments I entertain thoughts about a biopic of one particular nineteenth-century West Indian figure whose life I have researched and written about. The condensed facts about Henry Loving may be readily stated: born a slave in Antigua in the late eighteenth century; freed by master aged nine; traveller; businessman; newspaper editor and controversialist; political campaigner and abolitionist; and, finally, a notable figure in Antigua local government before a rather tragic death after a long and debilitating illness.
I scoured various archives looking for information about Loving and amassed enough evidence to knock together an entry for him that made it into the New Dictionary of National Biography, but I always felt that the essence of the man remained for the most part elusive, mainly because of the absence of surviving personal papers. I did find the occasional document that caused the personality - or at least my notion of it - to materialise before me, and when it did I found myself mentally constructing whole scenes from the man's life based on what amounted to little more than documentary scraps. One example of this will illustrate what I am talking about: in 1831 Loving was in London pressing the British government to force the white oligarchy which controlled Antigua to concede political and civil rights to what historians describe as the 'free coloured' class. A copy of a letter from the committee that sent Loving to London survives, and in it the writer tactfully notes:
'For us, we can readily conceive, and fully excuse those excited feelings, which naturally prevail with most men, and as we know, in an eminent degree with yourself, when giving vent to the expression of, and descanting upon those odious, undeserved and unjust restrictions which you, in common with the class to which you belong, still continue to be borne down with ...'
So a quick-tempered individual, combative and unlikely to take a backwards step in argument. And based on just these four lines I have manufactured and rehearsed an elaborate scene where Loving addresses a political meeting of his fellows in Antigua: it is a humid night; much wine is taken and toasts to the Crown are proposed (doesn't quite fit with modern leftish sensibilities but tough - that's what they would have done); Loving's turn to speak comes (he follows some fairly leaden performers); he stands and begins, slowly at first but the rhetoric gathers pace; he thumps the lectern for emphasis as the list of grievances rolls on; there are shouts of 'hear him, hear him'; the speech climaxes with veiled threats; the audience roars their approval, and Loving smiles tightly and enjoys his moment ... The reality was doubtless more prosaic, but in the absence of written proof how are we to know; and that is where sensible cinematic licence can step in to fill the gaps. Any takers?