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What About That Other '12 Years A Slave' Movie?

by Sergio
October 13, 2013 11:00 PM
  • |
Solomon Northrup Odyessy

As I wrote in January, with the release this Friday of the long awaited 12 Years A Slave, I thought it would be worth it to remind ourselves of the first filmed version of the book that Steve McQueen’s upcoming drama is based on.

That’s right, 12 Years A Slave is actually the second film version of Solomon Northrup’s 1853 autobiographical book; the first being 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.

It was the last film to be directed by the legendary renaissance man (film director/photographer/composer, and more) Gordon Parks, who passed away in 2006.

It was made for PBS for their 1980's film series American Playhouse, which showcased feature length film versions of important literary works (Another forgotten terrific film in the series 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).

As I said before about Odyssey, it's a good film, though it is somewhat hampered by its obvious budget limitations and rushed production schedule, shot in three weeks in and around Savannah Georgia.

Parks himself was not completely satisfied with the finished project and claimed he was pressured to tone down aspects of the film. He later said about it that, “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.”

The film was released on DVD and is available on Amazon, though it currently lists it as being “temporarily out of stock” and begs rediscovery. Though I’m surprised that some company hasn’t re-issued it in a restored version on DVD to capitalize off of 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 to me. Both of which I still treasure highly today.

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  • D Harris | March 3, 2014 10:52 PMReply

    The Gordon Park's film is available for viewing free through Hoopla. If you have a library card you in all likelihood can access Hoopla films free. It is a different take - and in some ways more realistic about the difficult living conditions for free African Americans. Worth checking out.

  • Felix | October 15, 2013 12:23 AMReply

    Park's version of 12 years..... is available from Netflix.

  • CC | October 15, 2013 1:41 AM

    Under what title? It's not listed by any name in this post.

  • CareyCarey | October 14, 2013 11:08 AMReply

    Interesting. Well, I had not heard of this film until I was standing in line to watch Steve's McQueen's "12 years". A woman standing next to me said she was inspired to see McQueen's because she had seen the other film.

    Anyway, in reference to McQueen's version, I believe Tambay's opinion of the film was on par and maybe even a bit too kind. The film, in all honesty, was nothing to write home about. And please, to those who are championing Mr. McQueen as the next great black filmmaker... don't make your move too soon. Hunger was an excellent film, Shame was (in the opinion of many) nothing but soft porn, and this film wasn't anything special.

    To that point, now I understand what Tambay was saying that this film may be receiving grand accumulates solely because there's not really any films one can compare it to.

    Also, I agree with Tambay that this didn't have a feel of a 12 year journey - not in the least. In fact, if one didn't know the story occurred over a 12 year period, they would not have gathered that information from this movie. This had the feel of a one year journey. But really, that was the least of my concerns with this film.

  • CareyCarey | October 15, 2013 12:09 AM

    Hello KTY,

    I said, "Shame was (in the opinion of many) nothing but soft porn". I didn't see the movie nor do I plan to... it does not fit my groove zone. For me, there's nothing to be gained by watching a film centered on a white man with an "alleged" sex addiction.

    In reference to 12 years, I did post a more detailed comment in another post. In case you missed it, I'll re-post here. But mind you, most folks have not seen the film so I can't divulge too much. Anyway, here it goes one-mo-again... and let me know what you think.

    having seen the film I am positioning myself with those who are saying the movie is nothing special. It's a straight-forward slow moving drama with an uneventful ending. Had it not been for a few shock & awe moments rarely if ever seen in "slave" movies, this film would soon be forgotten.

    Listen, in my opinion, a film is not a great film if it's only defining moments are the hanging of slaves, watching them wiggle and gag as they fight for their last breath of air. Any C-league director can shoot that scene. And please, the brutal and graphic whipping of a woman, hearing the snap of the whip and seeing her skin fly through the air, is not enough to receive my vote for film of the year. Again, any high school student can shoot violence. And, seeing naked slaves (frontal nudity included) is somewhat new to cinema, but it's not grand theater, imo.

    So, take away the hangings, whippings, nudity and raping of the slaves. what's left in this meandering drama? What... grand acting? I don't think so.

    First, Odepero Oduye is not quite ready for prime time and her acting said so. Also, Brad Pitts performance was... well, Brad Pitt-ish, he was not believable in the least. But granted, Michael Fassbender was an outstanding mean scummy racist pig, but I thought the story was suppose to center on the life of free black man who had to endure 12 years as a slave? That reminds me, as Tambay said, in this movie, Northup's journey seemed to last about 1 year, not 12.

    I am serious. Not only did Ejiofor not age one bit (his hair even stayed as groomed as it was when he was a cultured black man). More importantly, we never see him go though the pain and emotions one would have to experience given his predicament. I didn't see him go through fear, severe doubt, hatred, loneliness, depression, despair and loss of hope. I didn't see any scenes which would lead me to believe time had past. I didn't see nor feel any of those defining moments, nor the aforementioned emotions, yet we are to believe and accept the fact that this man endured a life of bondage... day after day, month after month, year after year, for TWELVE YEARS, without it affecting him physically nor mentally? Please, spare me. This film had the feel of "One Year A Slave" not the life and times of a free man kidnapped into slavery for 12 years.

    But on a positive note, Steve McQueen did select nice camera angles and perfect sound effects to create a sense of suspense and intrigue, but that's not enough to call this film a great achievement.

  • kty | October 14, 2013 11:47 PM

    If Shame was softporn, it was the most boooring soft porn ever. Talk about excruciating and sex-negative.

    I haven't seen 12 Years yet, but I'm still looking forward to it.

    I'd love to hear your criticisms in more detail. Thanks.

  • bb | October 14, 2013 1:36 PM


    Can you expand upon your thoughts about how it was nothing to write home about? I'm interested because I thought the film was great on every aspect, and I've been hearing some people say that it was just okay or not being enthusiastic about it at all. What concerns did you have?

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