Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1840s

Jane-Eyre-Wallpaper-jane-eyre-2011-35757874-1024-768

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1840s: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1840s

1 - The Heiress

1. “The Heiress” (1949) – William Wyler directed this superb adaptation of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 play, which was an adaptation of Henry James’ 1880 novel, “Washington Square”. The movie starred Oscar winner Olivia De Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson and Miriam Hopkins.

2 - All This and Heaven Too

2. “All This and Heaven Too” (1940) – Anatole Litvak co-produced and directed this excellent adaptation of Rachel Fields’ 1938 novel. The movie starred Bette Davis and Charles Boyer.

3 - Half-Slave Half-Free Solomon Northup Odyssey

3. “Half-Slave, Half-Free: The Solomon Northup Odyssey” (1984) – Avery Brooks starred in this emotional television adaptation of Solomon Northups’ 1853 memoirs, “12 Years a Slave”. Directed by Gordon Parks, the movie co-starred Rhetta Greene, John Saxon, Lee Bryant, Art Evans and Mason Adams.

5 - The Mark of Zorro

4. “The Mark of Zorro” (1940) – Rouben Mamoulian directed this superb adaptation of Johnston McCulley’s 1919 story called “The Curse of Capistrano”. The movie starred Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell and Basil Rathbone.

4 - The Liberators

5. “The Liberators” (1987) – Robert Carradine and Larry B. Scott starred in this Disney adventure film about Underground Railroad conductor John Fairfield and his fugitive slave friend, Bill; who escort Kentucky slaves north of the Mason-Dixon Line to freedom. Kenneth Johnson starred.

6 - The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin

6. “The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin” (1967) – Roddy McDowall and Suzanne Pleshette starred in this Disney adaptation of Sid Fleischman’s 1963 children’s novel called “By the Great Horn Spoon!”. James Neilson directed.

7 - Camille

7. “Camille” (1936) – George Cukor directed this lavish adaptation of Alexandre Dumas fils’ 1848 novel and 1852 play called “La Dame aux Camélias”. The movie starred Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor.

8 - Cousin Bette

8. “Cousin Bette” (1998) – Jessica Lange starred in this loose adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s 1846 novel. Although unpopular with critics and moviegoers, it is a favorite of mine. Directed by Des McAnuff, the movie co-starred Hugh Laurie, Elisabeth Shue and Kelly MacDonald.

9 - Jane Eyre

9. “Jane Eyre” (2011) – Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender starred in the 2011 movie adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel. The movie was directed by Cary Fukunaga.

10 - 12 Years a Slave

10. “12 Years a Slave” (2013) – British director Steve McQueen helmed this Oscar winning second adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoirs about the latter’s experiences as a slave in the Deep South. The movie starred Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender.

Advertisements

“DJANGO UNCHAINED”: Controversy and Myth

du-ac-000093

 

“DJANGO UNCHAINED”: CONTROVERSY AND MYTH

Ever since the release of the 2012 Academy Award winning film, “12 YEARS A SLAVE”, Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 film,“DJANGO UNCHAINED” has been the target of a good deal of backlash and derision. Wait . . . I take that back. The film has received a good deal of derision even when it first reached the movie theaters during the early winter of 2012-2013.

Normally, I would have dismissed these negative comments. After all, “DJANGO UNCHAINED” became one of my favorite movies for the year 2012. It also proved to be a box office hit and won two Academy Awards – a Best Supporting Actor award for actor Christoph Waltz and a Best Original Screenplay award for Tarantino. So, why am I bothering to write this article about the film? If I must be honest, I recently read a few articles about the movie. Several accused Tarantino of writing a revenge fantasy on the topic of American slavery. I also came across one or two that compared it to the recent Best Picture Oscar winner, Steve McQueen’s “12 YEARS A SLAVE” . . . to the detriment of the former film. And I found myself becoming confused and rather annoyed. And when I get pissed off – even in regard to arts and entertainment – I have a tendency to react. This article is my reaction.

One of the major complaints against the movie was its depiction of violence. Okay . . . this is Quentin Tarantino, we are talking about. I have yet to come across a film of his that did not feature violence. Many of his previous films – including“RESERVOIR DOGS”, “KILL BILL” and “INGLORIOUS BASTERDS” – featured over-the-top violence. After twenty years of this, why did so many film critics raise a stink about the violence in “DJANGO UNCHAINED”? After all, the movie’s plot revolved around American slavery, upon which a great deal of violence was used to sustain it. And the system also produced a good deal of violence from many who tried to resist it. Surely these film critics were aware of this? Surely they were aware of the numerous slave rebellions – at least around 250 of them – that had occurred in North America between the Colonial Era and the eve of the Civil War. And I am not simply referring to the more well-known slave rebellions such as the 1811 German Coast Uprising, along with those planned by Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vessey and Nat Turner?

A good number of people also accused the movie of being historically inaccurate. Film producer-director Spike Lee put in his two cents and declared that “American slavery was not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It was a Holocaust. My ancestors are slaves stolen from Africa. I will honor them.” Perhaps Lee’s ancestors never saw the American West. But a good number of slaves and former slaves did . . . even before the outbreak of the Civil War. The movie’s opening scene featured Django as part of a slave coffle being marched across Texas to one of the slave marts of that particular state. And guess what? Such incidents happened – especially during the Civil War, when many slave owners sent their slaves west to Texas to avoid being conscripted by the Confederate government to labor on behalf of its military. Slaves who attempted to runaway were punished in many various forms – including whippings like the one endured by Django’s wife, Broomhilda Von Shaft and nearly endured by one of Spencer “Big Daddy” Bennett’s slaves. The experiences of American slaves are so varied that I find myself wondering why Lee and many like him believed that nearly all slaves had only one particular experience – that of a laborer on a large-scale cotton plantation. Was the idea of a former slave becoming a bounty hunter that hard to believe? Would these same critics have felt the same if they knew about Nancy Gooch, a Missouri slave who had accompanied her master to California during Gold Rush . . . and later became a free woman when that state joined the Union? What would they say if they knew that she and her husband eventually became well off and owners of Johann Sutter’s mill (site of James Marshall’s discovery of gold)? Would they have felt the same if they had remembered the experiences of James Beckwourth, a Virginia-born slave who became a mountain man, explorer and fur trader; following his emancipation around 1824? Considering the varying experiences of Nancy Gooch, James Beckwourth and other slaves throughout U.S. history, why would anyone believe there was only one kind of experience? Former slaves – even before the Civil War – have become social activists, businessmen/businesswomen, authors and even slave owners. So, why would the idea of a pre-Civil War emancipated slave becoming a bounty hunter be dismissed as a fantasy?

Nearly a year ago, I had commented that with the release of “12 YEARS A SLAVE”, many have compared it to“DJANGO UNCHAINED” . . . and to the detriment of the latter. Look, everyone has their own views on what constitutes a good movie. If one prefers the 2013 film to the 2012 one, fine. The problem is that I have great difficulty in accepting the view that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” is superior to “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. Film critics and many others argue that the 2013 film is superior because it is a drama based upon historical fact. The film is a historical film biography about a free black man from antebellum New York, who was kidnapped into slavery and experienced nearly twelve years as a slave in Louisiana. As for “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, it is not biopic about a historical figure. The characters in the film, including Django Freeman, Dr. King Schultz, and Calvin Candie are all figments of Quentin Tarantino’s imagination. And as far as many are concerned, there is only one way to make a film about slavery. – a story based upon historical fact.

I might as well be frank. I noticed that the plot for “DJANGO UNCHAINED” had a few discrepancies. The movie’s narrative claimed that it began in 1858 – Two Years Before the Civil War. Actually, the year 1858 is three years before the war’s outbreak, not two. Also, Tarantino made another blooper with the movie’s time setting. Django and Schultz accompanied Candie to Candyland in early May 1858 . . . at least according to a scene that featured Candie’s head slave Stephen writing out a check for supplies. It is quite obvious that Tarantino got his time frame a little off. Was “DJANGO UNCHAINED” set between the fall of 1858 and the spring of 1859? Or was it set between the fall of 1857 and the spring of 1858? Who knows? Many critics and historians made a big deal about the presence of “Mandingo fighting” in“DJANGO UNCHAINED”. So did I. Like many others, I had claimed that there was no historical evidence of this sport ever existing. Well . . . perhaps we may have all been slightly mistaken. When author Kyle Onstott wrote his 1957 novel,“Mandingo”, he must have heard about the sport called Battle Royal that originated in Ancient Rome and reappeared in 19th century United States, and put his own spin on the sports. Although the sport of Battle Royal had consisted of three or more participants, it featured gladiatorial-style fighting that would be considered very brutal. The sport had originated in Ancient Rome and resurfaced centuries later in the first half of 19th century United States. The interesting thing is that many critics and filmgoers made a big brouhaha over the historical inaccuracies found in “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. I found this attitude very hypocritical, considering that inaccuracies of this kind have been found in every historical drama I have seen, including more highly acclaimed films such as “GONE WITH THE WIND”, “LAWRENCE OF ARABIA”,“GLORY”, “THE KING’S SPEECH” and the recent Best Picture Oscar winner, “12 YEARS A SLAVE”.

But if there is one thing that truly annoys me, it is the critics’ labeling of “DJANGO UNCHAINED” as a revenge tale. The film did feature characters either attempting or achieving revenge. The character “Big Daddy” Bennett tried to get revenge against Django Freeman and Dr. King Schultz for killing the Brittle Brothers, his overseers and wanted fugitives of the law. Dr. Schultz achieved revenge against one of the movie’s main antagonists, Calvin Candie, for the death of a Candyland slave and being cheated out of $12,000. Even Django managed to achieve revenge against the Brittle Brothers, the overseers who once worked for his original owner and some of the inhabitants at Candyland. And I believe it is possible to say that he got revenge against Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly, Stephen, Billy Crash and other Candie henchmen, when he returned to Candyland to save Broomhilda. But his main intent was to save Broomhilda and retrieve her freedom papers. I suspect that the revenge attempted or achieved in this film were merely consequences of the main plot. After all, both “Big Daddy” Bennett and Dr. Schultz paid consequences for their vengeful acts. And despite his original intent, Django managed to achieve some kind of revenge. But in the end, I do not believe “DJANGO UNCHAINED” is basically a revenge tale.

If Django had truly been interested in revenge, he would have gone after the very man who had punished and later separated both him and his wife Broomhilda – namely their original owner, Carruthers. And yet, Django never bothered to go after Carruthers for revenge. He never even considered it. Why? Because his main goal was to find and rescue Broomhilda, before fleeing the South. Mind you, he would have never been able to achieve this without Dr. King, who offered $75 and freedom to Django if the latter would help him track down the Brittle Brothers. Django would have never become a bounty hunter if King had not suggested he become a partner in the latter’s bounty hunting operations during the winter in exchange for helping him track down Broomhilda in the South. It was not difficult for me to see that Django’s main interest during the film’s entire narrative was being reunited with Broomhilda and fleeing the slaveholding South for good.

And I cannot help but wonder why many critics and filmgoers were determined to label “DJANGO UNCHAINED” a revenge tale? Why was it so important for them to regard it as such? Their accusations reminded me of the fears that many 19th century Americans – North and South – had about freed slaves. Many of these Americans feared emancipation because they believed those former slaves would turn on their former masters and engage in indiscriminate killings of whites. Was this same fear behind the intent of many critics to label “DJANGO UNCHAINED”? Because the movie featured a black man and ex-slave killing a good number of people – especially whites – to achieve his goal of permanent freedom for both himself and his wife? Is this why the media dumped this crap on the public about it being a revenge movie?

I will not deny that Django Freeman had a vindictive streak within him. The casual manner in which he stepped upon the fatally wounded slave trader Dicky Speck after the latter had insulted him, led me to suspect this. However, Django’s killing of the Brittle Brothers was more about helping Dr. King collect a bounty (and acquire his own freedom) than any revenge . . . even if the former must have felt satisfaction in killing two of the brothers. Django and Dr. King’s violent encounter with “Big Daddy” Bennett and a group of night riders was more about saving their hides. I also suspect that Django had achieved some satisfaction in his killing of some of Candyland’s inhabitants. But I still believe the entire episode was more about saving Broomhilda . . . and ensuring that no one at Candyland would alert the authorities to her disappearance. A part of me cannot help but wonder if moviegoers and critics find it easier to swallow a movie about slavery or any kind of oppression if major non-white characters were to simply endure or resort to non-violent responses. Would they have preferred if Django Freeman had resorted to non-violent means to rescue Broomhilda? He tried . . . upon King Schultz’s advice. But the latter ruined Django’s chances with a violent display of temper that led to his own death and the re-enslavement of both Django and Broomhilda. Django, in the end, had to clean Dr. Schultz’s mess . . . with violence.

Over the years, I have noticed how the American public, media and historians are willing to glorify activists like Martin Luther King for resorting to non-violent methods of resistance against oppression. Yet, at the same, these same people, media and historians glorify this country’s violent resistance to British authority in the late 18th century. And in parts of this country – especially in various Southern states – the former Confederate States of America is still glorified for its violent attempt to break away from the United States in the early 1860s. In other words, when a violent or military resistance is led by elite white males, our country glorifies this action. When non-violent resistance is led by anyone who is from the middle or lower classes, non-white or a woman, our country glorifies this action. When violent resistance is led by anyone who is from the middle or lower classes, non-white or a woman, our society condemns this action. And for certain critics and filmgoers, Django Freeman made the mistake of resorting to violence to win the freedom of his wife and himself.

Let me repeat myself. I do not believe that “DJANGO UNCHAINED” is a revenge tale. Django’s goal in this movie was not revenge. If it was, he would have sought revenge against the character portrayed by Bruce Dern. Ironically, another movie was released near the end of 2012 – “ZERO DARK THIRTY”. What was this movie about? Namely the hunt for Bin Laden in retaliation for the attacks on September 11, 2001. “ZERO DARK THIRTY” was clearly about the U.S. government seeking revenge against Bin Laden for the attack. Even the leading character portrayed by Jessica Chastain became vengeful when another colleague and friend was killed during a meeting set up with a former terrorist. There were some critics and moviegoers who dared to accuse or criticize the movie for being a revenge tale. The mainstream media more or less avoided labeling it a “revenge flick”. Then again, I should not surprised, especially when revenge or retaliation in this film was sanctioned by society and the government. For the past victims of slavery, revenge on their behalf is not tolerated . . . even after emancipation had been achieved over a century-and-a-half ago. And especially not in a work of fiction.

As for the backlash against “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, I realize that whatever negative opinions about this movie will never change. I can do nothing about it. One could also say that this article might be a waste of time. But you know what? I do not think so. For it allowed me to express my own frustrations over the negative responses to this film. And those frustrations were born from some of the criticisms and “revenge” label that was dumped on the film. It felt good to get this article out of my system . . . even if I do not end up changing any minds.

“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

twelve-years-a-slave08

 

“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

I first learned about Solomon Northup many years ago, when I came across a television adaptation of his story in my local video story. One glance at the video case for the 1984 movie, “HALF SLAVE, HALF FREE:  SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY”, made me assume that this movie was basically a fictional tale. But when I read the movie’s description on the back of the case, I discovered that I had stumbled across an adaption about a historical figure. 

Intrigued by the idea of a free black man in antebellum America being kidnapped into slavery, I rented “HALF-SLAVE, HALF-FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY”, which starred Avery Brooks, and enjoyed it very much. In fact, I fell in love with Gordon Park’s adaption so much that I tried to buy a video copy of the movie. But I could not find it. Many years passed before I was able to purchase a DVD copy. And despite the passage of time, I still remained impressed by the movie. However, I had no idea that someone in the film industry would be interested in Northup’s tale again. So, I was very surprised to learn of a new adaptation with Brad Pitt as one of the film’s producer and Briton Steve McQueen as another producer and the film’s director.

Based upon Northup’s 1853 memoirs of the same title, “12 YEARS A SLAVE” told the story of a New York-born African-American named Solomon Northup, who found himself kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Northup was a 33 year-old carpenter and violinist living in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and children. After Mrs. Northup leaves Saratoga Springs with their children for a job that would last for several weeks, Northup is approached by two men, who offered him a brief, high-paying job as a musician with their traveling circus. Without bothering to inform Northup traveled with the strangers as far as south as Washington, D.C. Not long after his arrival in the capital, Northup found himself drugged and later, bound in the cell of a slave pen. When Northup tried to claim he was a free man, he was beaten and warned never again to mention his free status again.

Eventually, Northup and a group of other slaves were conveyed to the slave marts of New Orleans, Louisiana and given the identity of a Georgia-born slave named “Platt”. There, a slave dealer named Theophilus Freeman sells him to a plantation owner/minister named William Ford. The latter’s kindness seemed to be offset by his unwillingness to acknowledge the sorrow another slave named Eliza over her separation from her children. When Northup has a violent clash with one of Ford’s white employees, a carpenter named John Tibeats, the planter is forced to sell the Northerner to another planter named Edwin Epps. Unfortunately for Northup, Epps proves to be a brutal and hard man. Even worse, Epps becomes sexually interested in a female slave named Patsey. She eventually becomes a victim of Epps’ sexual abuse and Mrs. Epps’ jealousy. And Epps becomes aware of Patsey’s friendship with Northup.

“12 YEARS A SLAVE” gained a great deal of critical acclaim since its release. It won three Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture; and two British Academy Awards (BAFTAs).  Many critics and film goers consider it the truest portrait of American slavery ever shown in a Hollywood film. I have to admit that both director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley have created a powerful film. Both did an excellent job of translating the basic gist of Solomon Northup’s experiences to the screen. And both did an excellent job re-creating a major aspect of American slavery. I was especially impressed by certain scenes that featured the emotional and physical trauma that Northup experienced during his twelve years as a Southern slave.

For me, one of the most powerful scenes featured Northup’s initial experiences at the Washington D.C. slave pen, where one of the owners resorted to physical abuse to coerce him into acknowledging his new identity as “Platt”. Other powerful scenes include the slave mart sequence in New Orleans, where fellow slave Eliza had to endure the loss of her children through sale. I found the revelation of Eliza’s mixed blood daughter being sold to a New Orleans bordello rather troubling and heartbreaking. Northup’s encounter with Tibeats struck me fascinating . . . in a dark way. But the film’s most powerful scene – at least for me – proved to be the harsh whipping that Patsey endured for leaving the plantation to borrow soap from a neighboring plantation. Some people complained that particular scene bordered on “torture porn”. I disagree. I found it brutal and frank.

I have to give kudos to the movie’s visual re-creation of the country’s Antebellum Period. As in any well made movie, this was achieved by a group of talented people. Adam Stockhausen’s production designs impressed me a great deal, especially in scenes featuring Saratoga Springs of the 1840s, the Washington D.C. sequences, the New Orleans slave marts and of course, the three plantations where Northup worked during his twelve years in Louisiana. In fact, the entire movie was filmed in Louisiana, including the Saratoga Springs and Washington D.C. sequences. And Sean Bobbitt’s photography perfectly captured the lush beauty and color of the state. Trust the movie’s producers and McQueen to hire long time costume designer, Patricia Norris, to design the film’s costumes. She did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions worn during the period between 1841 and 1852-53.

Most importantly, the movie benefited from a talented cast that included Garrett Dillahunt as a white field hand who betrays Northup’s attempt to contact friends in New York; Paul Giamatti as the New Orleans slave dealer Theophilus Freeman; Michael K. Williams as fellow slave Robert, who tried to protect Eliza from a lustful sailor during the voyage to Louisiana; Alfre Woodward as Mistress Shaw, the black common-law wife of a local planter; and Bryan Batt as Judge Turner, a sugar planter to whom Northup was loaned out. More impressive performances came from Paul Dano as the young carpenter John Tibeats, who resented Northup’s talent as a carpenter; Sarah Poulson, who portrayed Edwin Epp’s cold wife and jealous wife; and Adepero Oduye, who was effectively emotional as the slave mother Eliza, who lost her children at Freeman’s slave mart. Benedict Cumberbatch gave a complex portrayal of Northup’s first owner, the somewhat kindly William Ford. However, I must point out that the written portrayal of the character may have been erroneous, considering Northup’s opinion of the man. Northup never judged Ford as a hypocrite, but only a a good man who was negatively influenced by the slave society. But the two best performances, in my opinion, came from Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and especially Best Actor Oscar nominee and BAFTA winner Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Nyong’o gave a beautiful performance as the abused slave woman Patsey, whose endurance of Epps’ lust and Mrs. Epps’ wrath takes her to a breaking point of suicidal desire.  Chiwetel Ejiofor, whom I have been aware for the past decade, gave the definitive performance of his career – so far – as the New Yorker Solomon Northup, who finds himself trapped in the nightmarish situation of American slavery. Ejiofor did an excellent job of conveying Northup’s emotional roller coaster experiences of disbelief, fear, desperation and gradual despair.

But is “12 YEARS A SLAVE” perfect? No. Trust me, it has its flaws. Many have commented on the film’s historical accuracy in regard to American slavery and Northup’s twelve years in Louisiana. First of all, both McQueen and Ridley took historical liberty with some of Northup’s slavery experience for the sake of drama. If I must be honest, that does not bother me. The 1984 movie with Avery Brooks did the same. I dare anyone to find a historical movie that is completely accurate about its topic. But what did bother me was some of the inaccuracies featured in the movie’s portrayal of antebellum America.

One scene featured Northup eating in a Washington D.C. hotel dining room with his two kidnapper. A black man eating in the dining room of a fashionable Washington D.C. hotel in 1841? Were McQueen and Ridley kidding? The first integrated Washington D.C. hotel opened in 1871, thirty years later. Even more ludicrous was a scene featuring a drugged and ill Northup inside one of the hotel’s room near white patrons. Because he was black, Northup was forced to sleep in a room in the back of the hotel. The death of the slave Robert at the hands of a sailor bent on raping Eliza struck me as ludicrous. One, it never happened. And two, there is no way some mere sailor – regardless of his color – could casually kill a slave owned by another. Especially a slave headed for the slave marts. He would find himself in serious financial trouble. Even Tibeats had been warned by Ford’s overseer about the financial danger he would face upon killing Northup. I can only assume that Epps was a very hands on planter, because I was surprised by the numerous scenes featuring him supervising the field slaves. And I have never heard of this before. And I am still shaking my head at the scene featuring Northup’s visit to the Shaw plantation, where he found a loaned out Patsey having refreshments with the plantation mistress, Harriet Shaw. Black or white, I simply find it difficult to surmise a plantation mistress having refreshments with a slave – owned or loaned out. Speaking of Patsey’s social visit to the Shaw plantation, could someone explain why she and Mistress Shaw are eating a dessert that had been created in France, during the late 19th century? Check out the image below:

128a_df-03580small_wide-879620131931ee255e493bfe53f31a385ed0b2b5-s6-c30

The image features the two women eating macarons. Now I realize that macarons had existed even before the 1840s. But the macarons featured in the image above (with a sweet paste creating a sandwich with two cookies) first made their debut, thanks to a pair of Parisian bakers in the late 19th century, decades after the movie’s setting. This was a very sloppy move either on the part of Stockhausen or the movie’s set decorator, Alice Baker.

And if I must be frank, I had a problem with some of the movie’s dialogue. I realize that McQueen and Ridley were attempting to recapture the dialogue of 19th century America. But there were times I felt they had failed spectacularly. Some of it brought back painful memories of the stilted dialogue from the 2003 Civil War movie, “GODS AND GENERALS”. The words coming out of the actors’ mouths struck me as part dialogue, part speeches. The only thing missing was a speech from a Shakespearean play.

Not only did I have a problem with the dialogue, but also some of the performances. Even those performances I had earlier praised nearly got off tracked by the movie’s more questionable dialogue. But I was not impressed by two particular performances. One came from Brad Pitt, who portrayed a Canadian carpenter hired by Epps to build a gazebo. To be fair, my main problems with Pitt’s performance was the dialogue that sounded like a speech . . . and his accent. Do Canadians actually sound like that? In fact, I find it difficult to pinpoint what kind of accent he actually used. The performance that I really found troubling was Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the brutal Edwin Epps. Mind you, he had his moments of subtle acting that really impressed me – especially in scenes featuring Epps’ clashes with his wife or the more subtle attempts of intimidation of Northup. Those moments reminded me why I had been a fan of the actor for years.  Perhaps those moments led him to earning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  But Fassbender’s Epps mainly came off as a one-dimensional villain with very little subtlety or complexity. Consider the image below in which Fassbender is trying to convey Epps’ casual brutality:

665806_300

For me, it seemed as if the actor is trying just a little too hard. And I suspect that McQueen’s direction is to blame for this. I blame both McQueen and Ridley for their failure to reveal Epps’ insecurities, which were not only apparent in Northup’s memoirs, but also in the 1984 movie. Speaking of McQueen, there were times when I found his direction heavy-handed. This was especially apparent in most of Fassbender’s scenes and in sequences in which some of the other characters’ dialogue spiraled into speeches. And then there was Hans Zimmer’s score. I have been a fan of Zimmer for nearly two decades. But I have to say that I did not particularly care for his work in “12 YEARS A SLAVE”. His use of horns in the score struck me as somewhat over-the-top.

Do I feel that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” deserves its acclaim? Well . . . yes. Despite its flaws, it is a very good movie that did not whitewash Solomon Northup’s brutal experiences as a slave. And it also featured some exceptional performances, especially from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o. But I also feel that some of the acclaim that the movie has garnered, may have been undeserved, along with its Oscar and BAFTA Best Picture awards.  As good as it was, I found it hard to accept that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” was the best movie about American slavery ever made.

List of Favorite Movies and Television Miniseries About SLAVERY

0cover

With the recent release of Steven Spielberg’s new movie, “LINCOLN” and Quentin Tarrantino’s latest film, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, I found myself thinking about movies I have seen about slavery – especially slavery practiced in the United States. Below is a list of my favorite movies on the subject in chronological order:

 

LIST OF FAVORITE MOVIES AND TELEVISION MINISERIES ABOUT SLAVERY

13-Skin Game

“Skin Game” (1971) – James Garner and Lou Gossett Jr. co-starred in this unusual comedy about two antebellum drifter who pull the “skin game” – a con that involves one of them selling the other as a slave for money before the pair can escape and pull the same con in another town. Paul Bogart directed.

 

 

9-Mandingo

“Mandingo” (1975) – Reviled by many critics as melodramatic sleaze, this 1975 adaptation of Kyle Onstott’s 1957 novel revealed one of the most uncompromising peeks into slave breeding in the American South, two decades before the Civil War. Directed by Richard Fleischer, the movie starred James Mason, Perry King, Brenda Sykes, Susan George and Ken Norton.

 

 

2-Roots

“Roots” (1977) – David Wolper produced this television miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley’s 1976 about his mother’s family history as American slaves during a century long period between the mid-18th century and the end of the Civil War. LeVar Burton, Leslie Uggams, Ben Vereen, Georg Sanford Brown and Lou Gossett Jr. starred.

 

 

3-Half Slave Half Free Solomon Northup Odyssey

“Half-Slave, Half-Free: Solomon Northup’s Odyssey” (1984) – Avery Brooks starred in this television adaptation of free born Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography about his twelve years as a slave in antebellum Louisiana. Gordon Parks directed.

 

 

4-North and South

“North and South” (1985) – David Wolper produced this television adaptation of John Jakes’ 1982 novel about the experiences of two American families and the growing discord over slavery during the twenty years before the American Civil War. Patrick Swayze and James Read starred.

 

 

6-Race to Freedom - The Underground Railroad

“Race to Freedom: The Story of the Underground Railroad” (1994) – This made-for-television movie told the story about four North Carolina slaves’ escape to Canada, following the passage of the Compromise of 1850.  Janet Bailey and Courtney B. Vance starred.

 

 

10-The Journey of August King

“The Journey of August King” (1996) – Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about an early 19th century North Carolina farmer who finds himself helping a female slave escape from her master and slave catchers. John Duigan directed.

 

 

8-A Respectable Trade

“A Respectable Trade” (1998) – Emma Fielding, Ariyon Bakare and Warren Clarke starred in this television adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s 1992 novel about the forbidden love affair between an African born slave and the wife of his English master in 18th century Bristol. Suri Krishnamma directed.

 

 

11-Mansfield Park 1999

“Mansfield Park” (1999) – Slavery is heavily emphasized in Patricia Rozema’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel about a young English woman’s stay with her rich relatives during the first decade of the 19th century. Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller starred.

 

 

7-Human Trafficking

“Human Trafficking” (2005) – Mira Sorvino starred in this miniseries about the experiences of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent investigating the modern day sex slave trafficking business. Donald Sutherland and Robert Caryle co-starred.

 

 

5-Amazing Grace

“Amazing Grace” (2007) – Michael Apted directed this account of William Wilberforce’s campaign against the slave trade throughout the British Empire in Parliament. Ioan Gruffudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Romola Garai Rufus Sewell and Albert Finney starred.

 

 

12-Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (2012) – History and the supernatural merged in this interesting adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2010 novel about the 16th president’s activities as a vampire hunter. Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie and Mary Elizabeth Winstead starred.

 

 

1-Lincoln

“Lincoln” (2012) – Daniel Day-Lewis portrayed the 16th president in Steven Spielberg’s fascinating account of Lincoln’s efforts to end U.S. slavery, by having Congress pass the 13th Amendment of the Constitution. Sally Field, David Strathairn and Tommy Lee Jones co-starred.

 

 

kinopoisk.ru-Django-Unchained-2008617

“Django Unchained” (2012) – Quentin Tarantino directed this take on Spaghetti Westerns about a slave-turned-bounty hunter and his mentor, who sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo Di Caprio, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson starred.

“HALF SLAVE, HALF FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY” (1984) Review

1103525_300

 

“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.