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FLASHBACK: What About That OTHER '12 Years A Slave' Movie?

Shadow and Act By Sergio | Shadow and Act July 16, 2013 at 8:20AM

Now that we finally can see the trailer for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (BELOW on this page), what better time to tell you again, as I told you back in January, that 12 Years A Slave is not the first film version of the story.
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Solomon Northup's Odyssey,

Now that we finally can see the trailer for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (BELOW on this page), what better time to tell you again, as I told you back in January, that 12 Years A Slave is not the first film version of the story.

The film is based on the 1853 autobiographical novel by Solomon Northup, which McQueen said in an interview that he read, and was so taken by, that he immediately wanted to turn it into a movie. And I must admit that I can’t wait to see it. I can’t imagine how McQueen could mess this up (If it was Lee Daniels’ 12 Years a Slave, with Oprah and Beyoncé then I would think we would have cause to worry).

But McQueen’s film is not the first to tackle Northrup’s book.

I'm referring to the 1984 TV movie, Solomon Northup's Odyssey, starring Avery Brooks (Spencer for Hire, A Man Called Hawk, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) in the role of Northrup, which is the last film to be directed by the legendary film director/photographer/composer and all around renaissance man, Gordon Parks, who passed away in 2006.

It was made for PBS for their 1980's film series American Playhouse, which were feature length film versions of important literary works (Another terrific film in the series that has been forgotten, was their 1985 film version of James Baldwin's semi-autobiographical novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, with Paul Winfield, Giancarlo Esposito, Rudy Dee, Alfre Woodward and Ving Rhames in his first film role, which is now only available on Amazon’s Prime Instant Video).

However Odyssey is a good and involving film, though it is somewhat hampered by its obvious low budget limitations and rushed production schedule which gives it an unnatural stiffness. It definitely lacks the production values and sweeping grandeur that, judging from the trailer, will be in McQueen’s film, though his film was also on made a very modest budget. You could literally make TEN 12 Years A Slave movies for what it cost to make Pacific Rim.

Odyssey was shot in a very quick three weeks, on location in Savannah, Georgia, and even Parks himself said later that he was not entirely happy with the finished product due to the financial and production compromises. He was quoted as saying: "I can't say I don't like the film; I think it's a powerful film, but it could have been stronger. But you meet that sort of crisis on every film; there are some sort of compromises you always have to make."

However the film does definitely beg to be rediscovered, and fortunately it is still available to be seen. Though it was shortly available for a time on Netflix last year, it is currently on Amazon Instant Video and on DVD, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes more widely-available soon, to capitalize on McQueen’s film.

Odyssey is also somewhat rather special to me, because I saw the film many years ago at a public screening with Parks in person, and I had him autograph one of his books for me; and shortly afterward, I received a personal letter from him, expressing his appreciation. Both of which I still treasure highly today

This article is related to: Gordon Parks, Steve McQueen


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