Famed filmmaker Gordon Parks came out of retirement to direct Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, a made-for-television film based on its titular character’s real-life memoir, Twelve Years a Slave.
Parks already had an impressive career behind him—first African American to hold a staff photojournalist position at Life, first African American to direct and produce for a major Hollywood studio, director of such iconic films as The Learning Tree, Leadbelly, and Shaft—but Northup’s life was a subject too important to pass up. “So little is said about slavery,” Parks told the New York Times shortly after his film debuted on PBS in1984. “This was our holocaust, and it’s always hushed, hushed, hushed. Roots was the first major attempt to let the world become aware of what happened to these people, but I think slavery’s been very much underexposed.”
The film received $550,000 from NEH to tell its powerful story. Northup, born free in upstate New York, had been lured away from his family to Washington, D.C., by two men claiming that he could make good money playing violin in their circus (a dollar a day to travel with them and three for every performance). Instead, he found himself drugged and locked up in William H. Williams’ infamous Yellow House, a private slave pen just off the National Mall. “Strange as it may seem,” Northup wrote in his memoir, “within plain sight of this same house, looking down from its commanding height upon it, was the Capitol. The voices of patriotic representatives boasting of freedom and equality, and the rattling of the poor slave’s chains almost commingled.”
From D.C., Northup was shipped to New Orleans and then sold to plantation owners in Louisiana’s bayous. He suffered the inhumanities of bondage for 12 years, from 1841 to 1853, learning to hide his origins and intelligence (which only brought out the spite of those around him), rebel when he could, and carry out his masters’ sometimes horrific orders. “His attitude was that he wanted to live,” Parks explained to the Times. “More than anything else, he wanted to get back to his family, so there were times he had to give in.” Only with the help of a Canadian laborer with abolitionist sympathies did Northup finally manage to get a letter to friends in New York and, shortly thereafter, regain his freedom.
Although Parks was forced to omit some of the most brutal passages of Northup’s memoir from his Odyssey for a television audience, the film helped push one of the darkest periods from America’s past into public consciousness, paving the way for such later movies as Amistad, Django Unchained, and the most recent adaptation of Northup’s memoir, the Academy Award–winning 12 Years a Slave, which was lauded for it realistic portrayal of the horror of slavery.
But even without overt violence, Parks’s film has power. Acclaimed actor Avery Brooks, who played Northup, broke down, uncontrollably sobbing on the set during the jail scene. The film won the 1985 Erik Barnouw Award from the Organization of American Historians. As Parks told the Times, '”I wanted to make it bearable for people to look at. I wanted to minimize the violence in it, if I could, and still tell the truth.'”
Image Credit: Gary Kelley