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12 Years A Slave—The Second Time Around

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by Leonard Maltin
October 17, 2013 12:00 AM
22 Comments
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12 Years A Slave is a remake. What’s more, the original television film was directed by the celebrated Gordon Parks. Why no one seems to remember this is a mystery to me, yet all too typical of what I’ll call media amnesia. It first aired on PBS in 1984 as Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, reached a wider audience the following year when it was repeated as an installment of American Playhouse, and made its video debut under the title Half Slave, Half Free. It’s readily available from Monterey Media or for instant viewing at Amazon.com. I write this not to cast aspersions on Steve McQueen’s excellent new film, but to do justice to a production that doesn’t deserve to be forgotten or ignored.

The imposing Avery Brooks stars in the 1984 television film as the free man who is sold into slavery, with John Saxon, Mason Adams, Rhetta Greene, Joe Seneca, and Michael Tolan in key supporting roles. (Saxon plays the venomous slave owner Epps portrayed in the new movie by Michael Fassbender.) The screenplay was written by Lou Potter and the noted playwright-actor Samm-Art Williams, inspired by Northrup’s groundbreaking 1853 book Twelve Years a Slave.

Following a stellar career as a photojournalist for Life magazine, Parks made his mark as a feature-film director with The Learning Tree and especially Shaft (and its sequel, Shaft’s Big Score). His frustrations with Leadbelly in 1976 made him wary of working on another Hollywood movie, but the independently-produced Solomon Northup’s Odyssey intrigued him, along with the challenges of shooting in the Deep South. The multitalented Parks also composed the score. He later expressed regrets that the film didn’t go far enough (an accusation no one can make about McQueen’s new adaptation of the Northup story), yet it was precisely that restraint that earned Odyssey some of its strongest reviews in 1985.

This was the second in a proposed series of films about slavery following A House Divided: Denmark Vesey’s Rebellion, in 1982, which starred Yaphet Kotto, Bernie Casey, Ned Beatty, and Brock Peters, under Stan Lathan’s direction. These provocative films were produced by Shep Morgan and partially funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. They were created with input from an advisory board of scholars to ensure their accuracy. Indeed, Solomon Northup’s Odyssey earned the Erik Barnouw Award from the Organization of American Historians.

There is a certain irony in the fact that we have ready access to thousands of movies and television shows, yet so many titles languish in obscurity. I hope the notoriety surrounding 12 Years a Slave will call attention to at least one vintage TV movie that’s worth a second look.

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22 Comments

  • ferlica | March 15, 2014 12:16 AMReply

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  • Mark | March 7, 2014 3:48 PMReply

    Your first sentence is false. It isn't a remake, it's based on the source material of a factual event. How many films have been made about any historical event of significance? Are these remakes of each other? No.

  • Miles Maker | March 7, 2014 11:02 AMReply

    12 YEARS A SLAVE is no more a remake than PASSION OF THE CHRIST or NOAH or stories by Shakespeare. You credit the source material--each new production is an interpretation of it. If Solomon Northup was a fictional character 12 YEARS A SLAVE would be a remake.

    I also find it interesting that as we age and become aware of previous works we question whether stories should be told again, but like SON OF GOD this past weekend or once again Shakespeare, we must understand great stories are told again and again by different storytellers over time so they're not forgotten. Few remember Gordon Parks' work so today's young people have been gifted with an award-winning contemporary rendition by Steve McQueen--now available in public schools, so we must support these new stories being retold the same way the holocaust is told from various perspectives.

  • Mary | March 3, 2014 3:08 PMReply

    As a teacher, I have taught my VA middle school students about Solomon Northup.....and the lessons about slavery always include the original movie - 12 Years A Slave." I saw an interview with Anne Curry and the "new" director and cast of the movie. They acted as if this tragic story was new to the world. I guess Ellen was correct when she hosted the 2014 Oscars and made the comment about how little time Hollywood has spent attending college.

  • Kimbra | March 8, 2014 5:53 AM

    Well technically this particular story would be new to the world as Gordon Park's version was made for television, and as far as we know never played internationally. We must remember that the world does consist of more than the US and if you went to Italy, France Germany, Spain, Columbia, Brazil......how many people there ten years ago do you think would have heard of this particular story?

  • payhomage | March 7, 2014 7:09 PM

    I agree, the point is not that the story should be retold ...it's that a brilliant, iconic artist and filmmaker paved the way for this story to be retold. Always pay homage to those that came before you.

  • Lee Richardson | February 24, 2014 6:13 AMReply

    When the McQueen's film debuted last year I knew there was something familiar about the title. I kept going over it in my head " 12 years a Slave....12 years a Slave". Until finally it dawned on me that I had in fact seen the original story filmed by Parks and starring my friend and colleague, Avery Brooks. I can only hope the new film will spark interest in looking back at the original and the fine work done by all involved.

  • Rosie | February 10, 2014 7:42 PMReply

    I've seen the 1984 movie numerous times. In fact, I own a copy of it. I liked it very much. Probably a little more than this latest version directed by Steve McQueen.

  • Robert | February 9, 2014 5:55 PMReply

    When i started to watching the movie 12 Years A Slave,thought i have seemed this before. So i looked it up ,and sure enough i had .Once i see a movie i almost never forget it it.Slavery is a part of our history that we should never forget.I am a black man,and i believe that all Americans should know this history to understand the plight of black people in America.

  • Robert A Johnson | November 11, 2013 7:43 PMReply

    Hey everyone I've heard Mr Steve Mc queen speak several time on his not so new movie 12 years a slave the Solomon Northup's story. I just want to know one thing why is has thier been no mentioning of the PBS made for TV movie my him or the cast. Gordon Parks one the greats of films' who put alot of work into this film along with Avery Brooks, we should not forget this. This was ground breaking in the the 80s. I have read the book and I've seen the movie. I feel some should call Mr Mc Queen on this. for the record am a Black American. I will see the movie but I hate the slight on Mc Queen part we are not Stupid on this side of the water.

  • Bluebottle | March 2, 2014 11:41 AM

    Well, it isn't a re-make. Just two people made something from the book. And, McQueen being British, he wouldn't necessarily be familiar with the American TV movie. And, even if he were, it wouldn't really have mattered; seeing as he was referencing the book in the first place.

  • Steve Sailer | November 10, 2013 10:03 PMReply

    Somewhat similarly, Django Unchained owes a lot to the 1971 movie "The Skin Game," James Garner and Lou Gossett Jr. in the pre-Civil War southwest as wandering conmen who practice a dangerous hustle of selling Gossett as a slave only to have him escape and rejoin Garner and on to the next victims.

    Ironically, the slavedealer who was put on trial for buying Solomon Northup formally accused Northup of conspiring with the two circus conmen to defraud him of $625 by pulling the old skin game on him. That seems implausible, but it would make for a more interesting opening to Twelve Years a Slave than the improbable story we're presented.

  • Steve Sailer | November 12, 2013 5:37 AM

    By the way, I've just learned that Tarantino more or less acknowledged his debt to "Skin Game" by programming a double feature of "Django Unchained" and "Skin Game" at the New Beverly Cinema last February:

    And there was more evidence than I was previously aware of that Northup was engaged in a skin game con in 1841, although it's hardly definitive.

  • Ella Bailey | October 19, 2013 6:39 PMReply

    I'm watching a show called Made in Hollywood and the actors are saying why this movie was never made before. As they talked about the movie the more it sound familiar and my memory came back to me and I said this movie has been made before I remember it playing on Starz back in the day during black history month. I just could not think of the name of the movie until I put it in the google search engine and this came up and let me tell I could not remember the name but I damn sure remember the faces. But that how blacks do in Hollywood shucking, jiving and lying right beside this white people. I mean whats next... They going to remake Alex Hailey Roots and say it never was made. White people always making money off of black people history. And I just want to know why.

  • G Ewing | October 19, 2013 11:39 AMReply

    Thank you, Leonard. When I heard about the movie, I thought "isn't it the same movie with Avery Brooks and Gordon Park? None of the reviews that I had read mentioned that the movie is a remake or that, making room for creativity, that someone had made an earlier movie based on the book.

  • G Ewing | October 19, 2013 11:35 AMReply

    Thank you , Leonard. When I

  • J Marie | October 19, 2013 11:07 AMReply

    I thought the same thing myself, Leonard when I heard that this new version was being produced, my question is what does this imply? That Gordon Park's version was not good enough, or does Steve McQueen think he can produce a better version, it the same story retold but only with new actors? A waste, I will not see this version.

  • lilly | March 8, 2014 6:13 AM

    It's a story told from someone else's perspective as McQueen being a brit may have never seen Parks version and would have sourced the original material of Northup. Now the guy who wrote the screenplay, Ridley, is another story since he's American so he may have seen it.

    And if tv series can be made into movies "Get Smart", "Charlies Angels,etc. why can't a tv special?

  • Norm | October 17, 2013 10:38 PMReply

    Slavery can be many things LM, slaves to poverty, medications, out of control government...I would like to see more documentaries about everyday people who get crushed by an unfair Democratic/Republic who put their welfare above the everyday Joe, then maybe films wouldn't cost $15.00 a ticket...

  • Robert A. Johnson | November 11, 2013 7:51 PM

    Sorry Norm for the typo that should read you and yoy

  • Robert A. Johnson | November 11, 2013 7:48 PM

    Norm yoy sir are a fool to compare what my family when through durning American Slavey to the BS you wrote.

  • James Knuttel | October 17, 2013 12:31 PMReply

    Thanks for the review, Leonard. I've added the original 1984 version to my Netflix rental list.

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