“HALF SLAVE, HALF FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY” (1984) Review
Years ago, I had come across a television movie, at my local video store, about a 19th African-American who found himself kidnapped into slavery. Being a history nut about 19th century America, I decided to check it out. The movie turned out to be 1984′s “HALF SLAVE, HALF FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY”.
Directed by photographer Gordon Parks, “SOLOMON NORTHRUP’S ODYSSEY” told the story of an African-American carpenter and musician from Saratoga Springs, New York named Solomon Northrup. Because of his reputation as a skilled violinist, he attracts the attention of two men calling themselves Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton. They claimed that they wanted to hire Solomon to play his fiddle in a circus in Washington, D.C., for the rate of one dollar per day and three dollars per musical performance. This was considered a good wage in 1841 Believing the trip to be short, Solomon decides not to notify his wife, Anne. Unfortunately, not long after his arrival in the nation’s capital, Solomon is drugged and sold to a slave dealer named Jim Birch. At Birch’s slave market, Solomon is beaten by Birch in an attempt to coerce the former into accepting his new name of Platt. He also meets a Virginia-born slave named Jenny, with whom he strikes up an immediate friendship. And during the sea journey to Louisiana, he meets another female slave named Eliza and her children during a stopover in Norfolk. Upon their arrival in New Orleans, all three are sold to a planter named Thomas Ford. After two years at Ford’s plantation, Solomon has a violent encounter with one of the planter’s white employees and is sold to a second owner, a self-made planter named Edward Epps. Solomon spends another nine-and-a-half years at Epps’ plantation until his meeting with a Canadian-born carpenter named Bass allows him to send a letter to Anne of his whereabouts. With the help of a childhood friend and son of his father’s former owner, Henry Northup, Solomon is free and returns to his family in Saratoga Springs.
I really did not know how I would react to “SOLOMON NORTHRUP’S ODYSSEY” when I first saw it so many years ago. After all, the movie had not been directed by someone from the established Hollywood community or from any of the film industries overseas. Gordon Parks was a well-established photographer who had worked for “LIFE” magazine and a documentary director, before turning his attention to directing films. And before “SOLOMON NORTHRUP’S ODYSSEY”, he had only directed eight films, his most successful being the 1971 movie “SHAFT”. I must admit that Parks did a first-rate job in his direction of the movie, but I would not go as far to say that it was perfect.
First of all, I wish that Parks had managed to curtail some of leading man Avery Brooks’ penchant for theatrical acting. I realize that “SOLOMON NORTHRUP’S ODYSSEY” was the actor’s first job in screen acting, but traces of hammy acting – a leftover from years of success on the stage – remained in his performance. Come to think of it, I could say the same about a handful of cast members in minor roles, including Janet League as Eliza, the slave mother who ended up losing her children during the journey to Louisiana and eventually, her mind. I had no problems with the movie’s slow pacing, which I felt perfectly reflected its setting of antebellum Louisiana circa 1841-53. But there were times when the pacing threatened to slow down to a halt, especially in scenes that featured montages of Solomon’s duties on the Epps plantation.
Fortunately, the good outweighed the bad. Between Parks’ direction and Hiro Narita’s photography, “SOLOMON NORTHRUP’S ODYSSEY” reeked with the semi-tropical setting of central Louisiana. The Southern Georgia locations that stood in for the area surrounding the Ford and Epps plantations radiated with a natural beauty and a lush green that nearly took my breath away. Yet, the photography also conveyed how the setting served as a physical prison for the outsider from New York. I noticed that Parks was billed as the composer for the movie’s score. Quite frankly, I did not find it memorable. However, I did enjoy Parks’ use of 19th century music throughout the movie and especially in the opening scene that featured a social dance in Saratoga Springs. Most importantly, Parks did an excellent job in guiding television viewers into the world of antebellum United States and Solomon Northup’s journey from freedom in New York, to the slave marts of Washington D.C. and New Orleans, and eventually the slave plantations of Louisiana.
I was also impressed by the screenplay written by Lou Potter and Samm-Art Williams. I have never read Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography. But it would not be difficult for me to assume that the movie was an exact adaptation of his memoirs. After all, we are dealing with a movie based upon historical facts, not a documentary. However, Potter and Williams did an excellent job in capturing the shock, despair and eventual resignation of Solomon’s experiences and situation. They also captured the conflicting and chaotic nature that had an impact upon all of those who participated in American slavery – willingly or not.
One aspect of Potter and Williams’ script that I found especially fascinating was how they pointed out how slavery enabled those trapped in the system to use others as scapegoats for their frustrations and anger. A good example of this is the strange relationship between Solomon’s second master and the latter’s wife, Mr. and Mrs. Epps, the Virginia-born slave Jenny and Solomon. Mr. Epps was a self-made man from the working class, who married a woman from the old planter aristocracy. However, this marriage failed to lessen his insecurities about his origins and his fears that his wife might view him as inferior being. Because of his inferiority complex, he preferred the company of Jenny, the Virginia-born slave with whom Solomon had a brief romance during their time on the Ford plantation. His preference for Jenny (who yearned for Solomon) made him jealous of the New Yorker. However, Mrs. Epps genuinely loved her husband and harbored jealousy toward Jenny. And Solomon harbored jealousy and frustration toward Jenny’s relationship with their master. The interesting thing about this love triangle/quadrangle was that Mr. Epps vented his jealousy upon Solomon; and both Mrs. Epps and Solomon used Jenny as a scapegoat for their anger toward Mr. Epps. And poor Jenny ended up as a sexual victim of Mr. Epps, and a scapegoat of both Solomon and Mrs. Epps’ anger and frustration.
Despite Avery Brooks’ occasional forays into theatrical acting, I must admit that I found his movie/television debut to be very impressive. He did a great job in conveying his character’s emotional journey in what must have been a traumatic period and end in the end, earned well-deserved praise from the critics. I was also impressed by Rhetta Greene’s complex portrayal of Jenny, the slave caught between her love for Solomon and her master’s desire. Both John Saxon and Lee Bryant were excellent as Mr. and Mrs. Epps, who added a great deal of ambiguity into roles that could have easily been a portrait of one-dimensional villainy – especially Saxon’s role. Joe Seneca gave an interesting role as Noah, the elderly slave who tried to guide Solomon into establishing relationship with their fellow slaves and remind the latter of the difficulties in escaping from central Louisiana. Art Evans provided amusing comic relief as Harry, a slave and Solomon’s fawning close friend. Petronia Paley gave a solid performance as Solomon’s wife, Anne, who was beset with worry and frustration over her missing husband. And Mason Adams’ portrayal of Mr. Ford, Solomon’s first master, was an interesting contrast between a genuinely decent man, and a no-nonsense slave master was not above issuing veiled threats whenever he felt they were needed.
Yes, “HALF SLAVE, HALF FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY” had a few flaws that include the occasional slow pacing and hammy acting from a few members of the cast (including the leading man). But the movie is a well made and fascinating look into the experiences of a free man who found himself trapped into the institution of 19th century slavery. Director Gordon Parks and star Avery Brooks proved to be the driving force in a first-rate movie that was at times entertaining, horrifying, educational and especially poignant. “SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY” might prove to be hard to find. I would recommend Netflix or Amazon. But in the end, the movie is worth the search. I assure you.