Long before there was a movie, the story of Solomon Northup was recognized as an important narrative. It was first presented to a local audience in 1999 through an extensive exhibit at Union College, curated by Rachel Seligman, current curator at Skidmore’s Tang Museum. People interested in American history, the antebellum period, slave narratives and African-American history were especially taken by the presentation of this local story spearheaded by Union Prof. Clifford Brown. Much of the source material was taken from the life’s work of Sue Eakin, the Louisiana woman responsible for resurrecting the narrative—not only preserving the work but also documenting the 12 years that Northup spent in her home state of Louisiana. Through Dr. Eakin’s work over the years, the state of Louisiana embraced this incredible odyssey as part of its own history, even constructing the “Northup Trail.”
Sue Eakin understood the importance of this true story and was passionate in her dedication and research. There are few if any other first-hand accounts of slavery, and none with the detail and precision of Solomon Northup’s book Twelve Years A Slave. The many published slave narratives were second-hand renderings, often affected by the level of comfort and trust between the former slaves and the researchers who wrote them down. Native Saratogian Renée Moore first encountered the story at the Union College exhibit and, like Sue Eakin, immediately understood its importance as it pertained to our local history. Whereas Louisiana had championed its heritage, very few in Saratoga Springs were aware of our long lost citizen or of the fellow Saratogians who ultimately contributed to his rescue. In 1999, Moore created “Solomon Northup Day, A Celebration of Freedom,” an event that invites the community to honor this story.
A decade later, enter Steve McQueen, the acclaimed British director of West Indian heritage. McQueen, winner of the prestigious Caméra d’Or award for first-time filmmakers, was in the process of working with Hollywood screenwriter John Ridley. In a post-screening interview at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, McQueen explained that he had wanted to make a film about slavery and was in the process of scripting it when his wife came upon the book Twelve Years a Slave. And the rest, literally, “is history.”
McQueen began his studies as an art student in London, but found the need to transition to film and came to the United States to study at New York University, where his exploration of the medium was extensive, often resulting in conceptual avant-garde work. His vision was always more than that of moviemaking. McQueen brings an artistic sensibility to the rendering of the Solomon Northup story. His oeuvre embraces extreme detail and a broad visual palette. These extremes are coupled with his choice of socially uncomfortable material (Hunger is about the hunger-strike death of Bobby Sands and Shame is about sex addiction). Slavery is also a very difficult topic, but McQueen has unflinchingly taken it under his wing to create a visually stunning, emotionally gripping film that informs viscerally. Such is his mastery.
Yet 12 Years a Slave is “a movie,” nonetheless, and in reflecting upon it as a Saratoga story, it is at times disappointing. To the production team’s credit, many local people were contacted, including myself, during the film’s production phase. An earnest effort was seemingly thwarted by the limited budget of $20 million. The entire film was shot in Louisiana and the necessary Saratoga scenes were done on a fabricated set. McQueen’s desire was to show the horror of slavery as well as the hero’s journey. At the Toronto interview, he took issue with slavery being “what the film is about” and, as in his broad artistic cinematographic landscapes, declares that the film is “a love story.”
It is the story of a man who longs deeply to return to his family and who holds on to that hope against all odds. It is a story of the triumph of the human spirit. However, Northup was able to have the life he so loved in Saratoga Springs, the place to which he had come for a better life, and to some good measure had attained. Because history is so much a part of our local culture, what may seem inconsequential to some hits a nerve to those familiar with the details of the book. The portrayal of our town, which had begun its ascent to grandeur, was slighted in the on-screen representation.
When the first rushes were released, I contacted the production team about just that, providing images of what the United States Hotel would have looked like at the time. The gracious response was that they hoped that we would all be happy once McQueen had spun “his magic.” However, aside from the park scene, the Saratoga settings—the Northup home, the crude streetscape, and identification of the place as “Saratoga” and not Saratoga Springs—were disappointing as a local viewer.
The movie does grasp and accurately portray the relationship with Cephas Parker. Solomon Northup regularly did business with Parker at his shop on Washington Street. It was also Parker to whom Solomon wrote the letter in hopes of reaching his beloved family. And it is because of Parker that Henry B. Northup (not Parker himself, as portrayed in the film) was able to bring legal action against the state of Louisiana to free him.
Nonetheless, the spotlight has been thrown on Saratoga Springs with the release of the film. Reporters from London, Japan, Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere have traveled here to get the back story on the place where Northup lived before his captivity. It is an exciting time for those of us who have been so close to the story for many years. Saratoga Springs was Northup’s chosen home, a place that had accepted him and his family. The city has cause for pride that one of its citizens was caring enough to take action on the letter that he received. In the 1800s, travelling to Glens Falls was no small thing. In the 21st century, the threshold for inconvenience can be rather low and Parker’s journey for an acquaintance might well go undone.
Director Steve McQueen has brilliantly created a film that has served to once again revive the story of Solomon Northup. Northup’s story is a Saratoga story and Northup is part of our city’s heritage. For over a decade, a marker has stood on Broadway, across from Congress Park, in honor of his journey. Because of this film, townsfolk and visitors alike seek it out as proof that, yes…the story began right here! Sue Eakin, Clifford Brown, and Renée Moore recognized the significance of a first-hand account of American history. The movie serves to bring the story to the many who may well not read the book.
Sometimes the best medicine is the hardest to swallow. 12 Years a Slave can serve to heal the blight of slavery by helping the world witness the inhumanity of mankind in one of its many faces. It is said that change cannot happen without first acknowledging the truth with an unflinching eye. Art serves society in its ability to reflect that which is often difficult to comprehend. Steve McQueen is truly an artist and he has, in fact, worked his magic. Solomon Northup is a Saratoga story that has been made an international story with the release of this remarkable film.