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.