Scholars, others connected to Northup’s story share views on film
Three weeks after “12 Years a Slave” landed in Capital Region theaters, the movie about Solomon Northup is winning high praise from local scholars, historians and others deeply connected with his story.
Directed by British filmmaker Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave” is based on the book of the same title written in 1853 by Northup, a free African-American man from Washington County, and relates the true story of how the 32-year-old married father of three was lured from Saratoga Springs, kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana.
The local moviegoers agree with critics across the country that the film, which remains on the national box office’s top 10 list for a fifth week, is headed for an Oscar nomination.
Here are their reviews:
Renee Moore, founder of Solomon Northup Day in Saratoga Springs, has seen the movie three times.
“The movie is good and serves a great purpose — that of spreading the story of Mr. Northup, his autobiography and, for the younger or unaware audience, a glimpse of slavery in America and its brutality. For those who either did not see ‘Roots’ or don’t remember it, this is a remembrance,” says Moore.
(“Roots” was a landmark 1977 TV miniseries based on the book by Alex Haley.)
Instead of focusing on the movie’s violence, the Saratoga Springs resident suggests that moviegoers listen closely to the dialogue, which “carries the film and makes it of substance.”
“The violence is not the essence of the movie at all and was not at all shocking to me,” she says. “In fact, actual lynchings and actual violence on plantations were much more violent than the film portrays.”
Moore has a few criticisms.
“The rescue of Solomon by [Saratoga Springs shopkeeper] Cephas Parker was actually done by Henry B. Northup (an attorney general); Mr. Northup had three children and not two. Also, the visual image of the United States Hotel was not even close to the original grandeur of the actual hotel.”
She also regrets that Northup’s descendants are not receiving any financial gain from the film.
“Stolen Africans, enslaved humans, black people have endured and survived a great Holocaust on this continent and throughout the diaspora. It is ironic that they still in today’s world do not receive credit for it in any form.”
Moore, a Skidmore College graduate, was born in Harlem and raised in Saratoga Springs.
She organized the first “Solomon Northup Day: A Celebration of Freedom” in 1999.
After years at the Saratoga Springs Visitor Center, last summer the event was held at Skidmore. The 15th annual Solomon Northup Day is scheduled for July 19.
"It was a really, really good movie. They did a very good job in what they set out to do, mainly to portray the institution of slavery,” says Union College political science professor Clifford Brown. “The arbitrariness, the cruelty, the control, the fear, the desperation, the frustrations, all of that was brought out.”
Only a handful of scholars know Solomon Northup’s book as well as Brown. He’s a co-author of the new book “Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave,” written with Rachel Seligman and David Fiske.
When Brown saw the movie, he compared every detail and every character with how they were depicted in Northup’s book.
“I couldn’t escape the nitpicking as I just finished a book about it,” he says. “All things considered, the movie was truer to the book than I expected it to be. There were very few things in the movie that weren’t in the book.”
For example, the film accurately depicted the plight of African-American women, as Northup did in his book, Brown says.
“The treatment of women is very much in this movie, and that was very much part of slavery. Though put into Victorian prose, it’s very much in the book, too,” he says.
“Northup was a very shrewd observer. When it came to the treatment of women, he was very progressive. He had a great deal of respect for women. He was quite progressive on that for his time. Of course, this made it all the worse when they were mistreated.”
Brown has a long list of nitpicks, including the Cephas Parker/Henry Northup mixup. A few of his observations:
-- “[Louisiana slave master Edwin] Epps was not a wealthy man. He lived in a house that had two or three rooms, but it wasn’t a palatial mansion, the way it was portrayed in the movie.”
-- “[Louisiana planter and Baptist preacher William] Ford was portrayed as being more of a hypocrite than Northup portrayed him in the book. Northup’s admiration of Ford is very genuine.”
-- “They could have added another five minutes at the beginning to establish his life in freedom a little bit more strongly . . . and a little bit more with his family. They could have had him fiddling in one of the hotels in the North, which would have contrasted with what he did in the South.”
-- Northup describes very vividly the scenes in Louisiana when at Christmastime he plays for the slaves’ celebrations. I think that would have been a nice addition to the movie.”
-- “There were no sternwheel steamboats plying the Atlantic Ocean. He [Solomon Northup] was actually conveyed in a sailing ship, a brig.”
“But this is second-guessing of a real nice movie,” says Brown. “If you want to understand slavery on an emotional level, what it really was like, it’s a movie worth seeing.”
"It is such a powerful, powerful movie,” says Clifford Oliver, a Washington County photographer who portrays Solomon Northup as a re-enactor.
Oliver has seen the film twice.
“The first time, it blew me out of the water,” he says.
The second time, Oliver focused on the historical content.
“I totally loved it and hated it, if you know what I mean, because it is such a horrible, terrible story. Even though it did have some historical errors, it was true to the tale.”
Oliver, who has read Northup’s book many times, says the brutality of slavery depicted on the screen reflects what Northup wrote.
“The violence is in the book,” he says. “In the movie theater, it’s the big screen, it’s huge and it’s in your face. It’s gross and it’s disturbing. But slavery is all about violence. It’s a violent institution. And the movie did it right.”
Oliver became a Northup re-enactor about 20 years ago after he was recruited by the Greenwich Free Library for a history program about the most famous black man in Washington County.
“The ladies of the Greenwich Library made me my first costume,” he says.
Oliver has told Northup’s story in schools, at historical societies and for “Saratoga Reads.” On Nov. 3, he played Northup at the Chronicle Book Fair in Glens Falls after David Fiske’s talk about “The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave.”
“There are no pictures of him. You’ve got to remember that photography didn’t come to America until 1824. When Solomon was kidnapped, it was a mere 20 years later,” Oliver says.
“One of the reasons I like doing Solomon is that I probably do look like him, only because he is of mixed blood,” Oliver says. “My heritage is black, red and white, and, I like to think, in that order.”
In Fiske’s 2012 book “Solomon Northup: His Life Before and After Slavery,” Solomon’s mother is described as a quadroon, three-quarters white. Solomon’s father was born in America in 1776 and was probably of mixed race, too, Oliver says, because he came from Rhode Island, on the coast, where there were opportunities for different groups to have contact.
“I don’t think I could speak for three days following the movie,” says Mary Ann Fitzgerald, Saratoga Springs city historian. “It was hard to read, so I knew it would be hard to see.”
The movie had an impact because it’s a true story and she feels close to it as a Saratogian.
“Because it’s so vivid, and the brutality is there, you can’t escape it. The only thing it can do is raise your awareness to it. We can never know how people felt when they were being treated this way,” Fitzgerald says.
“It’s very important for everyone to see, and for us here in Saratoga Springs.”
From her office in the Saratoga Springs Heritage Area Visitor Center, Fitzgerald can see the Northup historic marker at Broadway and Congress, where he was lured away and abducted.
“Yes, it’s about slavery, but he’s one of ours, right here in town. It helps us relate even more to the story of slavery and be more connected to it than ever before,” Fitzgerald says.
While she gives the movie high marks, she detected a few errors.
Instead of “Saratoga Springs,” the name of the town that flashes on the screen is “Saratoga.”
“We were once a part of the town of Saratoga but then we became our own town of Saratoga Springs in 1819. So when all of this was happening, we were Saratoga Springs,” she says.
For Johnnie Roberts, a fifth-generation African-American Saratogian and a Solomon Northup Day organizer, the movie raises awareness of an inspiring chapter in the history of the Saratoga Springs.
“The story is a very positive reflection on the history of the townspeople,” Roberts says.
“Black people were stolen and sold into slavery all the time. The only thing that makes the story different is the fact that he was rescued. Had it not been for a white Saratogian, he would never made it back. The city should hold that very dear as part of its history.”
The fact that Solomon Northup was a free black man was not unusual either, she says.
“There were black people in Saratoga and in upstate New York who were regular middle-class people. My family would have been one of them,” Roberts says. “It’s very important to understand that the town has very diverse roots, and most of the African-American culture in Saratoga has disappeared. The revival of this story brings the non-European into the historical mix.”
Roberts’ ancestors include a Dutch trader, and a distant cousin was civil engineer Garnet Douglass Baltimore, the first African-American graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and designer of Prospect Park in Troy.
The film deserves the Oscar for Best Picture, she says, even though, as a historic narrative, the book is better than the movie.
“Steve McQueen is brilliant. I’ve seen ‘Hunger,’ which was his first major achievement, and it’s about Bobby Sands and the hunger strikes in Ireland. And again, it’s one of these visually stunning movies about an incredibly brutal topic. McQueen is like an artist, like an impressionistic artist in the palette of the screen, but he takes on these kind of dark topics.”
Roberts has strong feelings about people who are avoiding the film because of the brutality.
“The inability to look at the violence portrayed in this film is the inability to deal with the issue of race. As long as people that people feel it’s something that’s shocking and foreign and unusual or unbearable or that people can’t take that in, that’s saying to me that the issue of race won’t ever be put to bed,” she says.
“When you shine a light on something, you dispel it.”
‘It really is a masterpiece. It deserves an Academy Award as Best Picture of the year,” says Leonard A. Slade Jr., a poet and University at Albany professor.
Slade, who teaches in the Africana Studies department, gives the film high marks in every category.
“The acting was superb,” he says. “The actor who played Solomon Northup [Chiwetel Ejiofor] deserves an Academy Award. And Brad Pitt was just outstanding.”
Slade, who has written 22 books, including 16 volumes of poetry, admired the screenplay for its “poetic quality” and “lyrical dialogue.”
The movie was just the right length, too, he says.
“We hunger for more. That’s a great thing.”
The cinematography and soundtrack skillfully created the atmosphere for Solomon’s story, Slade says. The movie’s score is by Hans Zimmer.
“The music was perfect. It comes in at the right time, it sets the mood for the film and it moves beautifully. We’re sitting on the edge wondering what’s going to happen next,” he says.
“It’s a powerful story that realistically dramatizes the horrors of slavery. Yes, it is poignant and macabre and disturbing, but it’s realistic. That’s the way it was with slavery, and there is no reason why we should try to sanitize that period in our history.”