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Feature

From American Playhouse to 12 Years a Slave

By Chad L. Williams | HUMANITIES, January/February 2014 | Volume 35, Number 1

In December 1984, the made-for-television film Solomon Northup’s Odyssey appeared on public television. Based on Northup’s 1853 narrative Twelve Years a Slave and funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, it was directed and scored by the legendary Gordon Parks and featured Avery Brooks in the lead role of Solomon Northup. Following its initial debut as part of PBS’s American Playhouse series, the film met with positive reviews.

Almost three decades later, Solomon Northup’s story has again been depicted on film. 12 Years a Slave—directed by Steve McQueen, written by John Ridley, and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup—has become one of the most widely discussed films of the year. Critics have hailed it as the most powerful cinematic depiction of slavery ever made, in large part because of its emotionally demanding and visually stunning retelling of Northup’s story of being kidnapped as a free man, sold into slavery, and enduring twelve years of servitude in Louisiana. 

In the midst of the near universal acclaim showered upon 12 Years a Slave, Gordon Parks’s original film has curiously received little attention. This is unfortunate. As the capstone film in Parks’s extraordinary career as a director, Solomon Northup’s Odyssey deserves recognition for offering a bold, nuanced, and historically grounded portrayal of slavery within the constraints of a television production. In this light, it is possible to have even greater appreciation for 12 Years a Slave, not only as a groundbreaking work of art, but as part of a continued retelling of Northup’s story—and the larger history of slavery—that began with Parks’s 1984 film.

The seed for a television version of Twelve Years a Slave was planted in 1976 through conversations between producer Shep Morgan and University of North Carolina-Wilmington historian Robert Brent Toplin. Toplin suggested that Morgan make use of a recently awarded NEH planning grant to produce a series of dramatic films on American slavery based on true historical figures and events.

The timing seemed right for Morgan and Toplin to forge ahead with their audacious plan. The success of the television miniseries Roots (1977) demonstrated a public interest in slavery. Equally important, by the late 1970s, assumptions about slavery had changed dramatically. A new generation of historians revealed the ways slaves forged communities, challenged their masters, and preserved their humanity. Many of these scholars participated on an advisory board that offered input into what Morgan and his team of producers envisioned as a three-film series on American slavery.

This endeavor carried enormous risk. Could relatively unknown stories of the slave experience be made both educational and entertaining? Would the American public accept a historically accurate rendering of slavery told from the perspective of the enslaved? Morgan, Toplin, and NEH, which provided additional funding, wagered that the answer would be yes. The first film, A House Divided: Denmark Vesey’s Rebellion, appeared in 1982 and proved successful enough to justify production of a second film, this one based on Northup’s narrative. A third film, Charlotte Forten’s Mission: Experiment in Freedom, based on the Port Royal Experiment in South Carolina during the Civil War, appeared in 1985. 

Steve McQueen and John Ridley have also benefited from good timing with their recent film. Representations of slavery on film have experienced a remarkable evolution since the days of Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, with their depictions of a benign institution filled with happy slaves who unconditionally loved their masters. By the 1990s, new scholarship and changing racial attitudes had debunked this view of slavery and allowed for films like Glory, Amistad, and Beloved to reach mainstream audiences. More recently, films such as Lincoln and Django Unchained have shown that movies about slavery can achieve box-office success and garner critical acclaim.

The rich potential of Northup’s narrative immediately intrigued Parks. Although Parks had retired from directing after the release of Leadbelly (1976), he saw the opportunity to direct a film about slavery based on Northup’s story as too important to turn down. The dramatic, almost fantastical nature of Northup’s story was seemingly made for the big screen, something not lost on both McQueen and Ridley when they first read the narrative. Like Parks, they saw both the artistic and moral imperatives of presenting 12 Years a Slave in a way that forced viewers to confront, on the one hand, the tragic nature of slavery and, on the other, the indomitable spirit of slaves to survive and struggle for their freedom.

While emerging out of a shared desire to bring Solomon Northup’s story to light, the two films—one produced in 1984 for public television, and the other, produced in 2013 for global cinematic distribution—not surprisingly, differ in significant ways. Both Solomon Northup’s Odyssey and 12 Years a Slave are epic tales of resolve and resistance. Parks and McQueen, however, take different approaches in representing these themes, starting with their respective lead actors, Avery Brooks and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

The Solomon Northup imagined by Parks and played by Brooks is in many ways a product of the black consciousness movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Northup is supremely self-aware, and maintains an internal rage against his condition that burns throughout the twelve years of his enslavement. This can be seen as a deliberate attempt by Parks to reclaim Northup’s manhood. Indeed, Brooks brings a level of physicality to his performance that is striking, as we see him shirtless in many scenes, muscles glistening with sweat, in full command of both his body and his labor. Most notably, Brooks is not afraid to strike back against his masters, both with physical force as well as with words. With his African-American viewers in mind, Parks embellishes the narrative to construct Northup as a heroic, almost superhuman figure.

While equally heroic, Northup as played by Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave is much more vulnerable and emotionally fragile. Both McQueen and Ejiofor have compared Northup’s experience to Alice in Wonderland, with Northup going from living in a state of innocence to one of constant disorientation. There is never a moment of comfort, as the uncertainty of life as a slave consumes Northup in ways that it does not in Parks’s film. Northup’s manhood in 12 Years a Slave is much more tenuous as well. The opening scene of the film, which captures Northup’s disgust and misery when an unnamed female slave, on the crowded floor of the quarters, forces Northup to stimulate her sexually, immediately brings our protagonist’s masculinity into question and suggests the impossibility of emotional and romantic intimacy. Survival and resistance are expressed with a subtlety by Ejiofor that renders Northup just human, nothing more and nothing less, and thus more accessible to a diverse audience.

Both Parks and McQueen go beyond a narrow focus on Northup to offer insight into the broader community of slaves. At the time of Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, historical scholarship on this subject was just beginning to flourish. The slave community in which Parks places Northup is not one-dimensional, but instead characterized by its complexity. We witness the social hierarchies and status tensions between slaves, generational divisions, and the different strategies enslaved men and women, young and old, used to survive. We also see the opportunities slaves found, even in the midst of profound hardship, to laugh and to love.

Whereas Solomon Northup’s Odyssey reveals the strength of community, 12 Years a Slave emphasizes its fragility. In the world presented by McQueen, families are cruelly separated, the bonds of friendship and affection are easily broken, and the specter of death always haunts. From the outset of his ordeal, Northup is very much alone and never fully becomes part of the slave communities he encounters. This is by choice, and reflects Northup’s determination not to accept life as a slave. When he joins with his fellow slaves on the Epps plantation in singing “Roll Jordan Roll,” it is not an act of solidarity but one of submission.

Women are prominently featured in the slave communities of both films. 12 Years a Slave presents enslaved women with a depth and dignity that Solomon Northup’s Odyssey does not. Parks should not be entirely faulted for this, as studies of slavery at the time of his film had yet to fully acknowledge the experiences of enslaved women. Nevertheless, Parks fails to push beyond troubling stereotypes of black women and approach their lives in a way that is not determined by Northup’s presence.

Perhaps the most striking divergence between the two films in this regard is the role of Patsey. Lupita Nyonģo, who plays Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, arguably delivers the film’s most riveting performance by vividly portraying the soul murder countless black women experienced during slavery. She is the central character through whom the horrors of life on the Epps plantation are displayed. As Northup wrote in his narrative, “The enslaved victim of lust and hate, Patsey had no comfort of her life.” McQueen unsparingly depicts the sexual depravity of Epps, as well as the violent hatred of Patsey’s jealous mistress.  

Patsey does not appear in Solomon Northup’s Odyssey. Instead, she is replaced by a fictional character, Jenny, who formed a romantic relationship with Northup on the plantation of his first master, William Ford. Jenny is sold to Epps and it is she who becomes the object of her master’s affection and her mistress’s scorn. When Jenny and Northup are reunited on the Epps plantation, she painfully tells Northup that it is her choice to be in a relationship with Epps, not out of love but survival. Parks clearly decided that including Patsey in the film, and presenting the horrors inflicted upon her, would have been too graphic for a television audience and also ran the risk of decentering Solomon Northup as the most victimized individual in the movie.

These artistic, historical, and moral choices are evidenced most clearly in the climactic scene of Patsey’s whipping in 12 Years a Slave. In a fit of jealous rage, Epps orders Northup to whip Patsey. While this moment marks the nadir of Northup’s dehumanization, the pain he endures feels almost superficial to that experienced by Patsey. This scene is much different in Solomon Northup’s Odyssey. Epps’s wife orders Northup to whip Jenny. Obliging, Northup takes her into a woodshed, but only pretends to whip her while Jenny plays along with fake screams. A scene of horrific violence is thus cleverly reimagined by Parks as a way to demonstrate how slaves regularly outwitted their masters. This also allows Parks to remain consistent in presenting his Solomon Northup as a singularly heroic figure, who, against all odds, preserved his manhood and dignity.

The beating of Patsey reflects the very different ways that Parks and McQueen treat the violence in Northup’s narrative. McQueen and Ridley give particular attention to these scenes, with exquisite camera work, in order to remind the viewer that the very sustainability of slavery as an institution rested on the threat and everyday reality of violence. Slavery is presented without question as a horrific system that corrupts all that it touches, but McQueen goes further in highlighting the individual culpability and, in the case of Epps and his mistress, the sadism of slave owners. The master-slave relationship is fundamentally one of not just power but of brutality, both physical and psychological.

Many viewers have remarked that the violence in 12 Years a Slave is at times too difficult to watch. That is exactly the point. The violence must be unbearable to look at for the very reason that the real violence of slavery was so unbearable for those who experienced it on a daily basis.

Parks had to take a much different approach with his film. In a 1985 interview about Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, he tellingly stated, with a hint of remorse, “I wanted to make it bearable for people to look at.” Parks’s desire to push the boundaries of representations of slavery confronted the realities of producing an accessible film for a television audience. Parks lamented that he was encouraged to keep certain areas “toned down” in order to “get it done and get it out.” This meant sanitizing the narrative and removing much of the graphic violence, such as the scene of Northup’s hanging on the Ford plantation.  

McQueen benefits from not being bound by these restrictions and thus has more creative license to hew closer to the narrative itself. McQueen remains faithful to the narrative in a way that Parks did not and, perhaps, could not. For this reason, 12 Years a Slave, even though Solomon Northup’s Odyssey received the Erik Barnouw Award from the Organization of American Historians in recognition of outstanding television programming related to American history, has been hailed as the most historically accurate depiction of slavery ever brought to the screen.

But what constitutes historical accuracy? It would be easy to dismiss Solomon Northup’s Odyssey as a watered-down portrayal compared with the brutal honesty of 12 Years a Slave. This would be a disservice to the power and significance of Parks’s film within the context in which it was produced. It would also fail to acknowledge the subjectivity of the very narrative both films are based on. Twelve Years a Slave, written at the height of the abolitionist movement, is not simply an authoritative historical document but a work of literature and propaganda. There are aspects of Northup’s ordeal that he undoubtedly intentionally left out of the narrative, which open it up to imaginative interpretation. The story that Parks told, while differing in many ways from the actual narrative, nevertheless reveals possibilities that McQueen’s version does not. Taken together we get a fuller appreciation for Northup’s experience and the broader experience of slaves.

Many viewers and commentators have remarked that with 12 Years a Slave we finally know what it meant to be a slave. The reality is that we will never fully know what it meant to be a slave. The slavery that Parks depicts in Solomon Northup’s Odyssey is no less “real” than the slavery depicted in 12 Years a Slave. And this is their greatest contribution. These two films force us to imagine times, places, people, and experiences that we have yet to fully confront. Perhaps it is only through painful imagining that we can move toward full acceptance of how slavery continues to haunt the American psyche and remains embedded in the soul of this country.

Chad L. Williams is associate professor of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University. In 2006, he received an NEH-supported fellowship at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to work on Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era, which was published in 2011.

Past America Inc. received a $550,000 NEH grant in 1981 to produce the ninety-minute television program Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, which aired on PBS in 1984. EDSITEment—a partnership of NEH, Verizon Foundation, and the National Trust for the Humanities to bring high-quality humanities content on the Internet to K-12 teachers—will be publishing two new lesson plans on Twelve Years a Slave in February. Also, a blog post offering advice on how to find newspaper materials on Chronicling America relating to Northup’s memoir and legal case is available at edsitement.neh.gov.