SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY
The Freemantle Corporation/Past America, Inc.
Directed by Gordon Parks
Produced by Yanna Kroyt Brandt
Written by Lou Potter and Samm-Art Williams
Based on “Twelve Years A Slave” by Solomon Northup
Talk about stumbling over a treasure. Here’s a movie I had no idea even existed, much less expected to be able to watch. First let me explain how I found it: I usually watch Netflix on the Vizio Blu-Ray player in the basement and my wife has the Roku box upstairs if she wants to watch something on Netflix and not disturb me while I’m writing. Today I borrowed the Roku box as it has movie channels on there where I can usually find movies that I need for research for my Better In The Dark podcast.
So I’m going through the various movie channels and search through Popcornflix and I’m gobsmacked to come across SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY, a film aired on PBS’s American Playhouse anthology television series back in 1984. It was later released on video under the title “Half Slave, Half Free” but the source material is the same as the movie “12 Years A Slave” released earlier this year to great critical acclaim.
It’s Avery Brooks playing Solomon Northup in this version. We see how he’s offered a job playing violin in Washington, DC by two supposedly respectable white men who are prominent in the entertainment field. Solomon is drugged and wakes up in chains. He’s been sold into slavery, an inconceivable notion for him as he was born a free man and is a well-known, well liked prominent member of his community in Saratoga New York. He’s a homeowner, a husband and father of two. None of which makes a lick of difference now. His first taste of his new life is to be beaten to a crisp by his new master who wields a huge wooden paddle so viciously that he breaks it over Solomon’s back.
Renamed ‘Platt’ Solomon is hijacked to New Orleans and sold to Mr. Ford (Mason Adams) who isn’t all that bad a master, all things considered. He’s a lot better than the sadistic Epps (John Saxon) who sees right away that Solomon is a lot smarter than the other slaves and he doesn’t like it one little bit. Luckily Solomon has the wisdom of Noah (Joe Seneca) an older slave to educate him in how to live his new life.
There’s some significant differences between this version and “12 Years A Slave.” Of course, this being a made for television production the language and violence are dialed way, way way down. You won’t hear ‘nigger’ being tossed off every thirty seconds and in fact, I do believe it’s only used once. There’s a scene before he’s kidnapped where Solomon and his wife Anne (Petronia Paley) argue over money which gives some added motivation as to why Solomon takes the job. Except for that first beating we don’t see any real physical violence being inflicted on the slaves. And the really bizarre relationship between Epps and his wife that was displayed in “12 Years A Slave” is non-existent here. What really sets SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY apart from that later movie is that SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY occasionally goes back up north to see how Solomon’s wife Anne is dealing with the sudden disappearance of her husband. We see her get a letter that Solomon has managed to smuggle north and her efforts to get him freed, pleading with their white friends to get involved and use their influence.
The acting in this movie is more than capable of telling such a powerful story. Avery Brooks and Joe Seneca are nothing less than wonderful in their scenes together and John Saxon also steps up to the plate and displays far more range here than I’ve ever seen him in anything else he’s done. Avery Brooks is excellent at playing a man placed in the most degrading and dehumanizing of situations imaginable and still holding on with both hands to his dignity and self-worth.
And I’ve convinced that Steve McQueen, the director of “12 Years A Slave” must have seen this movie. There are whole sequences in his movie that he lifted from SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY shot-for-shot or I’m a string on Solomon’s fiddle. But that’s okay. If you’re gonna swipe, swipe from the best and Gordon Parks is most certainly one of the best.
So should you see SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY? If you’ve seen “12 Years A Slave” I definitely say Yes. It’s a fascinating story and it’s even more fascinating that this earlier version was made back in the 1980’s and apparently forgotten, even with all the publicity “12 Years A Slave” has gotten. I’m hoping that when “12 Years A Slave” is eventually released on Blu-Ray, SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY is included. If you’ve got a Roku box, it’s on Popcornflix. It’s also available on Amazon Instant Video. You can see it for free on Popcornflix.com and I’ve provided a handy link below. Enjoy.