Reviewer Rob Edelman takes a look at the history of slavery in cinema upon the release of 12 Years A Slave...
For sure, 12 Years A Slave is one of the best films not just of the season but of the year. However, there is one point about the subject matter explored in the film that deserves to be challenged. At the start of the Toronto Film Festival press conference for 12 Years A Slave, the film’s director, Steve McQueen, casually observed that the subject of slavery “hasn’t been given a platform in cinema.” Well, this simply is not so.
Across the decades, various films and TV movies have offered pointed commentary on the evils of slavery. I am not referring to films like Gone With The Wind, which merely depict slavery. I’m talking about films that clearly illustrate the horror that slavery was-- and these films and TV programs are anything but obscure. Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, which was released in 1997, is one that comes to mind. Another is Roots, the celebrated 1977 TV miniseries. As recently as last year, there was Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
But given the specifics of the story told in 12 Years A Slave, there is one film that deserves special mention. This film is titled Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey. It dates from 1984, and was produced for PBS’ American Playhouse. Its central character is Solomon Northrup: the very same Solomon Northrup who is the central character in 12 Years A Slave. I reviewed Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey when it premiered, and my take on it was that it’s a “compelling drama” that was “made with care and conviction.”
In 12 Years A Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofor has deservedly earned kudos for playing Solomon Northrup. However, in Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey, the actor cast as Northrup is not as famous as a Denzel Washington, a Jamie Foxx-- or a Chiwetel Ejiofor. He is Avery Brooks, who is described on the Internet Movie Database as an “actor, activist, musician, director, and educator” who over the past three decades has amassed around 20 film and television credits. Perhaps his best-known is the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine TV series.
Even though Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey may be labeled a long-forgotten made-for-TV movie, its director is one of the most distinguished of all African-American artists. He is Gordon Parks, the fabled Life magazine photographer who began directing films in the late 1960s. Parks is noted as the first African-American to write, produce, and direct a film for a major Hollywood studio. That film was the semi-autobiographical The Learning Tree, released by Warner Bros. In 1969. The Learning Tree was among the initial 25 films named by the United States National Film Preservation Board to the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress. But perhaps Parks’ best-known film is the original Shaft, released in 1971, which is one of the landmark films in the then-emerging Blaxploitation film genre.
One might wonder what Gordon Parks would have to say about 12 Years A Slave. But we never will know, because he passed away in 2006 at the ripe old age of 93.
Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey, which also is known as Half-Slave, Half-Free, is available on DVD. It would be interesting to see it-- or re-see it, as the case may be-- and compare it to 12 Years A Slave.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide...
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