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Original 1984 TV adaptation of ‘12 Years a Slave’ to screen at Zeitgeist

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Director Steve McQueen’s stunning and necessarily brutal new film, 12 Years a Slave, has received a tremendous amount of buzz since its release just over a month ago – and as award season heats up, expect it to continue and even intensify. (Read my full review of the film here).

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The incredible true story of Solomon Northup is riveting and tailor-made for a movie adaptation. So what took Hollywood so long? Well actually, the new film is not the first screen adaptation of Northup’s slave memoir. His amazing story was previously produced by PBS in 1984 and aired as part of the acclaimed anthology television series American Playhouse.

Directed by Gordon Parks (Shaft, The Learning Tree), the made-for-TV film is titled Solomon Northup’s Odyssey and stars Avery Brooks as the titular free-man-turned-slave.

Both films are based on Northup’s harrowing, true-life literary account of his capture, enslavement, and eventual rescue from bondage. Despite this, there are several notable differences in the story and the way it is told. Most notably, Odyssey – with that quaint, but ubiquitous made-for-TV look and feel – takes a much safer, muted, and melodramatic approach to the film’s sensitive subject matter.

While the older Odyssey does its best to present a more encompassing and traditionally structured movie about the overall slave experience using Solomon’s story as a guide, McQueen’s 12 Years is unquestionably seen through Northup’s eyes only. On several occasions, Odyssey leaves Solomon and travels back north to his family as they struggle to find him. McQueen’s film never lets the audience abandon Solomon – they are in for the long haul, right there with him for all 2+ hours. A tacked on romantic subplot, a more saccharine ending, and deliberate cutaways from the more severe scenes in the older film also lessen the story’s brutal impact.

In an interview with The New York Times after its original airdate, Parks said of the film, “'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.” If you have seen it, you know McQueen decides to go in the complete opposite direction with his new film, to say the least.

In some cases, whole scenes are drastically dissimilar – namely one in which Solomon is forced to whip a female slave. In McQueen’s version, the scene is prolonged and horrifying, played out for full effect as each slap of the whip is seen and felt by all. But in Parks’ earlier version, the scene takes on an entirely different context as Solomon and the slave girl go behind the woodshed and fake the whipping to appease the master’s wife who ordered it, but ultimately, did not want to watch the punishment carried through.

Parks, likely because of the production year and its intended public broadcast audience, felt pressure to tone it down. In the same interview, he states, “I was asked in certain areas to keep it toned down. I would say, 'But these things happened.’ I can't say I don't like the film; I think it's a powerful film, but it could have been stronger. There are some sort of compromises you always have to make.”

But much of this is to be expected given films’ disparate releases – one made for public television in the ‘80s – and the other, a major studio-backed theatrical film presented to a much more desensitized 2013 audience. And none of this is meant to say that Solomon Northup’s Odyssey is a bad film. In fact, it is quite solid, with its faults only materializing under comparison with the newer adaptation (which is admittedly unfair).

Odyssey is, of course, easier and much less demanding to watch, but the power of the story is still there. And if I recall correctly, my history class in high school watched Solomon Northup’s Odyssey in class one day – if that gives a better idea of the film's tone and style. Regardless, the impact was felt by all and the resultant discussion was extremely important to the overall presentation on slavery. Solomon Northup’s Odyssey is certainly worth the watch whether you have seen the new film or not.

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Solomon Northup’s Odyssey begins a special, one-week engagement at Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center on Friday, December 6 at 8:00 p.m. nightly (except Monday at 9:15 p.m.)

Though the film is over two decades old, through a special arrangement with the film’s producers, this will actually serves as the long awaited U.S. Theatrical Premiere of the film.

So come out to the Zeitgeist and take advantage of this unique film-going experience and all the Zeitgeist Arts Center has to offer. And by doing so, help support one the premier alternative arts center in the South. You can visit the Zeitgeist Multi-disciplinary Arts Center’s website here.

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