Saturday, October 19, 2013

Solomon Northup Reboot

I hope to see the new film 12 Years a Slave within the week. I was excited when I first heard about this project, which is based on Solomon Northup’s memoir. Northup was a free black man living in New York state who was deceived by an offer to perform in Washington DC. Instead he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana.

I am however curious about why no one points out that this is the second telling of Northup’s story. In 1984 Solomon Northup’s Odyssey was presented on PBS. The film starred Avery Brooks and was directed by Gordon Parks. It was later released on video with the title Half Slave, Half Free.

Director Steve McQueen said this in an NPR interview.

“It was the only firsthand account of a free black man who went into slavery and came out the other end — who actually regained his freedom. But then Uncle Tom's Cabin came out the year after and obliterated it, and it was buried. And I was really upset with myself that I did not know about this book. No one knew about this book. And it just became my passion, sort of — make this book into a film.”

I find it hard to believe that neither McQueen nor anyone else in the film industry was aware that Northup’s story had already been told on film. By all accounts this is an excellent movie and I look forward to seeing it, but I’m curious about why there seems to be a need to claim that this story was unknown after it had already been told on film.

As for McQueen’s assertion that there is no other account of a story of this kind, well I’m not sure that is true either.