Saratoga News

Hollywood Comes to Town to Celebrate Solomon Northup

Hollywood Comes to Town to Celebrate Solomon Northup
Vera Williams, a fifth-generation descendant of Solomon Northup speaks at Skidmore College Saturday
Thomas Dimopoulos

July 21 2013

One hundred and sixty years after Solomon Northup published his memoir, the darkest crevice of American history is being illuminated by the bright lights of Hollywood. On Saturday afternoon, Skidmore College was Ground Zero.

“We had this responsibility to bring these people back to life for the wider world to see,” said Lupita Nyong’o, who plays the role of a slave girl on a plantation and the fastest cotton-picker in the bayou in the film “12 Years A Slave.” The movie is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was lured from Saratoga Springs and sold into slavery in the south. 

“I think I speak for the entire cast when I say we felt that we were part of something huge, something meaningful, something powerful, and something so necessary,”  Nyong’o said during Saratoga’s 15th annual staging of Solomon Northup Day. The event was founded by Renee Moore.

Actress Lupita Nyong'o, who appears in the movie 12 Years A Slave, at Skidmore on Saturday during Solomon Northup Day

“It is from his story I get my strength for whatever it is I’m going through,” said Vera Williams, a fifth generation descendant of Solomon Northup, who was among dozens of descendants of Northup, and his wife Ann Hampton Northup, who attended Saturday’s event. Williams made the journey to Saratoga Springs from Maryland. On her way she stopped at the airport to pick up Northup descendant Eileen Jackson, who made the cross-country trip from California.

Members of the film’s crew made the cross-country trip as well, bringing with them a 2-1/2 minute-long trailer and an 8-minute “featurette” that included clips from the full-length movie and interviews with some members of the film community involved in the making of the movie.

Showing featurette of the film

“The only thing that is available for public consumption is the trailer,” said Valerie Van Galder, of New Regency Productions, one of the producers of the film. “The clips we brought today are especially for you – so they’re just for your eyes only.” With that introduction, an audience of 150 was treated to snippets of the film, and commentary from the film’s director, Steve McQueen.

“The book is a testament to Solomon Northup and also a testament to the history about what was going on with slavery at that time,” said McQueen, whose own ancestors were slaves from the Caribbean.  “Within film it was never given the platform it deserves as an important historical event – especially in the United States – (and) I wanted to make a movie about it.”

The four-hour program included family recollections presented by Northup’s descendants, period music, guest speakers and historians. Area musicians Dan Hubbs, Frank Orsini, and Henrique Prince performed “Lonely River,” a song referenced in the book by Northup, who played the violin. Culinary historian Tonya Hopkins delivered a presentation on the life of Ann Hampton Northup, who was a cook, and historical timelines were provided regarding The Underground Railroad, black migration, and 19th century slavery in America.

“When I got the opportunity to play this part, it never occurred to me that I might be with the descendants of this great man,”  Nyong’o said. Northup’s story can provide important lessons, she added.  “We can remember that time and learn from it - that we can know how cruel man can be - and we can also recognize that the instinct for freedom is universal.”  The film is slated for release in October.

 Paul Stewart and Mary Liz Stewart deliver Saturday's keynote address about the Underground Railroad



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