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Historic film

Solomon Northup’s story gets Oscars spotlight

Thursday, January 16, 2014
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Historic film


Chiwetel Ojiofor stars as Solomon Northup in "12 Years a Slave."
Chiwetel Ojiofor stars as Solomon Northup in "12 Years a Slave."

— Hollywood and the rest of the world may have discovered Solomon Northup in 2013, but to the Capital Region he has been a prominent part of local history since 1999.

It was 15 years ago that Rachel Seligman, then-curator of the Mandeville Gallery at Union College in Schenectady, brought Northup’s story back to life with an exhibit inside the Nott Memorial.

Thursday morning, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences affirmed that Seligman’s idea was a pretty good one, selecting “12 Years a Slave” as one of nine movies up for a Best Picture Oscar. The film earned nine nominations in all, including Best Director for Steve McQueen and Best Actor for Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup, a free black man from Saratoga Springs who was abducted into slavery for more than a decade in the pre-Civil War South.

“I am thrilled to see this happening, and all along, everything I’ve done was aimed at getting this wonderful story out to a wider audience,” said Seligman, who after 11 years at Union College is now assistant director for curatorial affairs at Skidmore College’s Tang Museum. “I always felt it was an important story to tell, and to see the film get this kind of recognition is incredibly exciting. It will only serve to increase the number of people who will become familiar with this story.”

A story worth sharing

Seligman, who grew up in Saratoga Springs, had not heard of Northup’s story until a colleague suggested she read Northup’s autobiography, “Twelve Years a Slave,” which was published in 1853.

“In 1997, a friend recommended it to me who knew I was interested in regional and local history, and I immediately knew it was a story I wanted to share with people,” said Seligman. “I couldn’t believe I had never heard of it earlier.”

According to Union College professor Clifford Brown, Seligman’s initial exhibit led to Solomon Northup Day, a yearly event held in Saratoga Springs since 1999.

“I think we here at Union College can take a little credit for the revival of this story,” said Brown, who collaborated with Seligman and David Fiske on the 2013 book “Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave.” “Rachel introduced me to the story, and her exhibit is what really led to Solomon Northup Day in Saratoga. She deserves the credit for all this renewed interest in Solomon.”

The film, according to University at Albany professor and film critic Rob Edelman, does a wonderful job of telling Northup’s heart-wrenching story.

“This was an extraordinary year for films, and I have no complaints about the nine that were nominated for Oscars,” said Edelman, also a contributing editor of “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide” and film commentator on WAMC (Northeast) Public Radio. “I would love to see ‘12 Years a Slave’ win, it’d be very deserving, but I also wouldn’t complain if ‘Gravity’ or ‘Her’ won. They are all extraordinary films.”

‘It blew me away’

Winner of the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture, Drama on Sunday, “12 Years a Slave” opened in theaters around the country in October, and also earned Oscar nominations for Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender for Best Supporting Actress and Actor.

Edelman originally saw it in September at the Toronto Film Festival.

“It blew me away, which I wasn’t expecting, given the buzz about the film, about Steve McQueen and the subject matter,” said Edelman. “I had also been a fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor for years, having seen him in some films and twice on the London stage. I was looking forward to seeing him in this movie. The guy is an incredible actor.”

Edelman was also impressed by the performance of Nyong’o, who plays a young slave woman named Patsey.

“I’m watching the film in Toronto and I’m thinking, ‘Who is this woman?’ ” said Edelman. “I was riveted. I thought to myself, ‘She’s a lock for an Oscar.’ ”

Nominated for Best Actor along with Ejiofor were Christian Bale, “American Hustle”; Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”; Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street”; and Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club.” In the Best Supporting Actress category, Nyong’o is up against Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”; Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”; Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County”; and June Squibb, “Nebraska.

Fassbender’s competition is Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”; Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle”; Jonah Hill, “The Wolf of Wall Street”; and Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club.”

“12 Years a Slave” was written by John Ridley, who got an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. The film’s other nominations went to Joe Walker for Film Editing, Patricia Norris for Costume Design, and Adam Stockhausen and Alice Baker for Production Design.

Difficult subject done well

Fiske, a local historian who wrote “Solomon Northup: His Life Before and After Slavery,” in 2012 before his collaboration with Seligman and Brown the following year, is pleased to see the film doing so well.

“I thought they did a pretty good job, and it is a difficult subject to show on screen,” said Fiske, who will be talking about Northup, slavery and other free blacks who were abducted into slavery at a presentation at the Schenectady County Public Library on Feb. 1, at 10:30 a.m. “I’m very happy the film is getting so much attention, and it certainly can’t hurt the sales of our book, where people can read the actual facts and get all the details.”

The nine nominations for “Twelve Years a Slave” was surpassed only by “American Hustle” and “Gravity.” The 86th annual Oscars award show will be broadcast live on ABC on March 2.

 
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