Film Review 12 Years a Slave

Michael Fassbender, left, Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejofor star in Fox Searchlight's "12 Years A Slave."

Associated Press

For the second year in a row, the frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar has roots in Auburn.

Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" tells the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black Saratoga Springs violinist who was lured to Washington, D.C. and, there, kidnapped by slave traders posing as circus promoters. Northup is then sold into slavery on a Red River, La. cotton plantation owned by the cruel Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

After more than a decade of subhuman treatment — "a new movie landmark of cruelty and transcendence," Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman wrote — Northup gets word of his captivity to the white family that freed his father. Invoking New York state law, they journey to Louisiana to liberate Northup.

Back in New York, Northrup recounted his story of treachery and survival in an 1853 book — a book that, for reasons not entirely clear, was published in Auburn.

Derby and Miller, established as Cayuga County's first publisher in 1844 by James Derby, went on to sell more than 30,000 copies of "12 Years a Slave." Before publishing it, Derby and Miller's works included Presbyterian conference hymns for the Auburn Theological Seminary, history titles like "The Life of the Empress Josephine," and Benjamin F. Hall's "The Trial of William Freeman."

The latter book — an account of the trial in which Auburn's William H. Seward used the then-novel insanity defense on behalf of a black murder suspect who'd been severely abused in prison — may have presaged Derby and Miller's publication of "12 Years a Slave."

"Perhaps it's because they were in the business of publishing abolitionist and theological works," said Eileen McHugh, executive director of the Cayuga Museum.

McHugh said "perhaps" because the manner in which "12 Years a Slave" came to Derby and Miller is unknown.

Perhaps the tie is geographic: Derby was born in Little Falls and Northup lived in Saratoga Springs, about 60 miles away. But it's possible Northup had nothing to do with the publication: He told his story to white lawyer David Wilson, who's credited as the book's editor and may very well have been the person who presented it to Derby and Miller.

Or perhaps the tie is Seward himself. It was he, as governor of New York in 1840, who oversaw the passage of the law invoked to free Northup and other black citizens of the state sold into slavery.

"Solomon Northup was not a unique case," McHugh said.

Seward was also well-acquainted with Derby, and as secretary of state, would appoint his Auburn friend as librarian of the Department of State in 1861. So perhaps it was he, a renowned abolitionist, who presented Northup's story to its future publisher.

However "12 Years of Slave" came to be published in Auburn, McHugh was excited to discover yet another connection to the city that's as Hollywood as it is historical.

"Who knows what all the underpinnings are," she said. "It's very interesting."

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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