From Saratoga to slavery: Real-life nightmare lived by a 19th century New York state black man inspired new movie

Three up-and-coming black artists have combined to create a riveting film about slavery based on the 1853 autobiography of a free negro who lived in Saratoga Springs.

The result is 12 Years a Slave, now playing at Regal Cinemas at Destiny USA Stadium 17; 466-5678.

British director Steve Rodney McQueen, 44, produced the $20-million movie with a screenplay written by John Ridley, 48, a native of Milwaukee, Wisc. McQueen cast a talented English actor of Nigerian descent, Chiwetel Ejiofor, to star as Solomon Northup,

a real-life carpenter and fiddler who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.

Chiwetel Ejiofor from 12 years a Slave

 In the film, Northrup is transported to New Orleans, Northrup is forced to take on the identity of “Platt,” an escaped slave from Georgia. He’s purchased by a relatively benevolent plantation owner named Ford. After surviving an attempted lynching led by a racist carpenter, Northrup is sold to Edwin Epps (played by Michael Fassbender), a cruel Louisiana cotton-grower who believes his right to abuse his slaves is biblically sanctioned. For instance, he repeatedly rapes a young slave girl named Patsey (played by Lupita Nyong’o), and eventually forces a reluctant Northrup to whip the woman.

 In Louisiana, Northrup meets a Canadian laborer named Bass (played by Brad Pitt), who earns Epps’ displeasure by expressing opposition to slavery, but this convinces Northup to confide in Bass about his kidnapping. Northup asks for help in getting a letter to Saratoga Springs. Bass risks his life in taking such action in the South but agrees to do so.

 While working in the fields one day to break dirt for planting, Northup is called out by the local sheriff who arrives in a carriage with another man. The sheriff asks Northrup a series of questions to match him to the facts of his life in New York. Northup recognizes the sheriff’s companion as a shopkeeper (Rob Steinberg) who he knows from Saratoga and realizes the man has come to free him.

Though Epps resists and Patsey is distraught, Northup leaves immediately. After being enslaved for 12 years, Northup is restored to freedom and returned to his family, which now includes his son-in-law and grandson named Solomon. Endnotes recount the inability of Northup and his legal counsel to prosecute the men responsible for his being sold into slavery, as well as the mystery surrounding unknown details of his death and burial.

Richard Corliss of Time magazine heralds the film and its director by writing: “Indeed, McQueen’s film is closer in its storytelling particulars to such 1970s exploitation-exposés of slavery as Mandingo and Goodbye, Uncle Tom. Except that McQueen is not a schlockmeister sensationalist but a remorseless artist.” Corliss draws parallels with Nazi Germany. “McQueen shows that racism, aside from its barbarous inhumanity, is insanely inefficient,” he wrote.  “It can be argued that Nazi Germany lost the war both because it diverted so much manpower to the killing of Jews and because it did not exploit the brilliance of Jewish scientists in building smarter weapons. So the slave owners dilute the energy of their slaves by whipping them for sadistic sport and, as Epps does, waking them at night to dance for his wife’s cruel pleasure.”

The film earned McQueen a New York Film Critics’ Circle award as Best Director of 2013. The Film also won a Golden Globe Award  for Best Picture, January 12, 2014.

12 Years a Slave premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in August and has been widely lauded by critics. The film, released by Fox Searchlight Pictures, began its American run on Oct. 18 and is scheduled to be released in England on January 24, 2014.