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Twelve Years a Slave: Solomon Northup's Odyssey

Decades before Hollywood released the popular new movie, 12 Years a Slave, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) helped Life Magazine photographer Gordon Parks make a film about the same historic episode. Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, recounting the kidnapping and enslavement of Northup in Saratoga, New York, in 1841 was shown on PBS’ American Playhouse in 1985.

Parks came out of retirement to make the final film of his career, based on the book Northup wrote about his twelve year ordeal. The film was praised for its verisimilitude, but Parks played down the brutality of slavery. Parks, whose centenary is being celebrated this year, told The New York Times that he “wanted to make it bearable for people to look at.”

The film tells the story of the kidnapping of Northup, a free black man who worked as a carpenter and was a talented violinist, lured to Washington, D.C., with a promise of earning some extra money by performing.  When he arrived at the capital, he was handcuffed and taken to Louisiana.

In the Louisiana swamplands, he was sold from plantation to plantation. At one point he turned on a white man about to horsewhip him and was nearly hanged.  “I wanted to minimize the violence in it, if I could, and still tell the truth,” Parks said.

Eventually, Northup smuggled out a letter and white friends rescued him.  He returned to his family in Saratoga, never to be the same.

Parks received an NEH grant in 1981 to produce the film. Watch a 10 minute segment of the film here.

Read film critic Leonard Maltin’s comparison of the two films

For a contemporaneous review of the Parks film, read