One of the great tales of courage and survival is a book that you have probably never heard of before. It is the story of Solomon Northup, a free black who lived in New York state in the 1840s. He was lured to Washington, D.C., under the promise of work as a fiddler. In D.C., he was drugged and then sold as a slave. Eventually, because of the intervention of several whites both in Louisiana and in his home state of New York, his freedom was restored. It is the source of the new film by this same title.
This is not the first time that Northup’s inspiring tale of faith and endurance has been made into a movie. Gordon Parks made a 1984 version for television starring Avery Brooks (who some of you may remember as “Hawk” in the 1980s television series Spenser: For Hire) as Northup. While faithful to the book, it was produced with about the same budget as some people spend on dental floss, and shot in three weeks. The acting quality varied substantially, from quite excellent to positively dreadful. Still, I often use the first few minutes of it in my U.S. history class to emphasize the fundamentally middle class values that many free blacks in America aspired to in that era.
12 Years a Slave (2013) is what I had long hoped that Gordon Parks’ version had been. Well-funded, it has a few big names (Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt) and exemplary acting performances throughout. If Lupita Nyong’o (born in Mexico, raised in Kenya, educated in the U.S.), wins an Oscar for her performance as Patsey, I will not be even slightly surprised. There is not a weak performance anywhere in this – but with material like this, what actor would fail?