Photo: Past America, Inc; Fox Searchlight Pictures
Watching Steve McQueen’s widely acclaimed 12 Years a Slave, you may find yourself wondering why it took so long for someone to film Solomon Northup’s remarkable life story. After all, the dramatic story is based on a memoir that was published way back in 1853. Then you find out that it has been filmed before, by one of America’s most legendary multi-hyphenate artists, the photographer-writer-director-musician Gordon Parks (Shaft, Leadbelly). Produced for public television, Solomon Northup’s Odyssey was broadcast on American Playhouse. (Out-of-print videos of it sell for a lot of money nowadays, but you can stream it on Amazon Instant, under a different title.) As a made-for-TV movie from the mid-eighties, it had a very modest budget and could never come close to the brutality of McQueen’s film. Yet Parks’s film is beautiful in its own right, lacking the ferocious immediacy of McQueen’s work, but containing a somber lyricism that’s hard to shake. The outrage is still there, just more muted and given more historical context.
Parks was born in 1912 and lived through extreme racism and poverty in Kansas and Minnesota before carving out a career for himself as a photographer, eventually becoming one of the country’s foremost artists. He was a true Renaissance man: Alongside his acclaimed photography for Life magazine, he also wrote the classic novel The Learning Tree and became the first African-American director of a major studio movie when Warner Bros. hired him to helm the book’s 1969 film version. Parks’s second film, Shaft (1971), became a blaxploitation classic. (His son, Gordon Parks Jr., directed Superfly.) This was a man who had a front-row seat to the civil-rights struggle and had helped expose the shocking images of that time to average Americans. He had traveled with Malcolm X, who at one point asked him if he’d be a press representative for the Nation of Islam. (Parks refused.)
Institutionalized segregation may have been a thing of the past, but de facto segregation — even overt racism — was still quite prevalent when Parks, at the age of 72, filmed Solomon Northup’s Odyssey. In his memoir, A Hungry Heart, he writes of the production: “I wanted a mixed crew, perhaps to show Southerners how Whites and Blacks could work peacefully together … When we arrived in Savannah, Georgia, the Whites there goggled at the strange mix of people. For a few days they watched with furious eyes. Eventually they saw what was happening. Ink, amber, and honey were flowing together peacefully. It had never occurred to some of the Whites that these different races could enjoy eating beside one another.” The civil-rights struggle was barely a few decades old in 1984, its legacy still fresh. The fractious debate over making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a holiday had just ended. Protests over U.S. disinvestment from South Africa still raged, with President Reagan vehemently opposed to the idea.
Maybe that’s why to Parks, the idea of a black man — even one born free — being complacent about his situation in the mid-nineteenth century was, in all likelihood, absurd. The Solomon of the early scenes of Solomon Northup’s Odyssey is far more aware of his surroundings than the man presented in the film 12 Years a Slave. The scenes between Solomon (played by Avery Brooks) and his wife (Petronia Paley) contain far more tenderness in Parks’s film, but we also see the two argue passionately over her going to work as a washerwoman, in part because he doesn’t trust the world outside. Solomon notes that they’ve moved to the city “because of opportunity and to live with our own kind.” When approached to go to D.C. by the carneys who will eventually kidnap and sell him, he hesitates: He fears going to a city where slavery is still legal. In Parks’s film, everyone understands that slavery is a very real danger lurking beyond the boundaries of the city and below the Mason-Dixon Line. After Solomon’s disappearance, we see his wife go to a relative and pour her heart out. While wondering what might have happened to him, she begins to suggest something, then pauses, in tears. We understand; Solomon’s supposedly unthinkable fate is very much on her mind.
In McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley’s conception, the issue of slavery doesn’t come up in these early scenes. Solomon lives in something of an earnest bubble. Only after his abduction does he flash back to an incident when he and his family came across a slave named Jasper, who seemed dumbstruck at the sight of a free African-American family pleasantly going about their business. Thus, McQueen and Ridley belatedly puncture Solomon’s sheltered, earnest worldview.
This choice on McQueen and Ridley’s part likely didn’t happen by accident. In his foreword to the new edition of Northup’s book, McQueen says he wanted a character “any viewer could identify with.”And so, this Solomon seems downright contemporary. He sees himself as a musician first and foremost (the real Solomon was also a carpenter), and his home life feels comfortable, almost bourgeois. In some ways, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave adheres to the contours of a time-travel tale — like a twisted version of The Time Machine.
Consider how the two films present Solomon’s spiritual journey. In Parks’s film, when a fellow slave dies early on during the boat journey to New Orleans, Solomon is the one who says the prayer as the man is buried at sea. In McQueen’s film, religion isn’t a part of Solomon’s life — at least, not initially. If anything, the film portrays religion as a form of social control, as demonstrated by different slave-masters regularly holding services and reading Scripture to their slaves. Indeed, one of 12 Years a Slave’s most powerful scenes involves Solomon, after years of victimization, finally breaking down and joining in the singing of a spiritual along with the other slaves. His face shows agony, fear, and release; he’s lifted by the song, but he’s also breaking down, giving in; the singing is as much humiliating as it is ennobling. McQueen wisely plays this beautiful scene out almost entirely in agonizing close-up.
The two films also differ dramatically in their depictions of the psychotic slave-owner Epps. In Parks’s film, he’s played by John Saxon, as a man who has only recently come into money and who feels shame at the fact that his wife comes from a more genteel family than he does. (In reality, Epps had indeed worked as an overseer and driver before rising up.) “I might have worked my way up from the cabins, but to you I’ll always be in the cabins,” he says to her during one of their many arguments. Contrast that with what Michael Fassbender’s Epps in 12 Years a Slave says to his wife when she threatens to leave him and go back home: “Back to that hog’s trough where I found you?” It seems that McQueen doesn’t want to let the Southern gentry off the hook so easily. Seeing Epps as a man who has risen up from a lowly birth would suggest that his brutality comes from his background; that he’s just white trash who doesn’t know any better, a slightly better off version of the twisted head carpenter Tibeats, played by Paul Dano. By making Epps an established part of the Southern ruling classes, McQueen and Ridley allow his surreal derangement to become a part of the everyday texture of this world, not just an aberration.
But the new film also takes Solomon to a darker place than Parks’s film is willing to. In 12 Years a Slave’s climactic scene, Solomon is forced, at gunpoint, to brutally whip his fellow slave, the long-suffering Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). It’s in many ways a culmination of his gradual dehumanization over the course of the film. In Odyssey, however, when he’s forced to whip the same character (named Jenny here, and played by Rhetta Greene), the two of them go into a cabin where Solomon just pretends to whip her, while she pretend-screams. Parks doesn’t force Solomon into that final act of degradation: The dehumanization here is much more subtle, in the ways that Solomon is forced to completely give up his own identity and in how he allows himself to do awful things to survive. In fact, in this earlier film, Epps gives Solomon more authority, leading him to be resented by many of the other slaves. Parks’s film also gives his protagonist a kind of redemption when he’s finally freed. As he leaves, Solomon actually gives a brief speech: “I wish that I could take everybody. Just make some magic that would take us all.” An older slave says not to forget them, and to tell their story. To be sure, it’s a more earnest way to end this ordeal, and it allows some hope, some finality, to creep into the tale. But Parks does stay on the faces of the slaves being left behind as Solomon departs, making it clear that while this man’s tragedy may be over, the others’ tragedy — the historic crime of slavery — continues.
By contrast, 12 Years a Slave sticks to McQueen’s immersive, experiential style. Solomon and Patsey do share a quick, anguished hug right before he’s whisked away to freedom, but the camera stays on Solomon. This is his story, and when the film cuts — very suddenly — to him at the door to his family’s house back in New York, we understand that he hasn’t really come to the end of it. Solomon’s final, haunting “forgive me” to his family might be more than an unneeded apology for his capture and absence. This man seeks forgiveness for the violence he himself has had to inflict, and for the fact that his story will probably never have any closure.