Solomon Northup's Odyssey: "Twelve Years a Slave" (1984) TV
Director: Gordon Parks.
Starring: Avery Brooks (Solomon Northup), Rhetta Greene (Jenny), Mason Adams (Ford), Lee Bryant (Mrs. Epps), Art Evans, Petronia Paley (Anne), John Saxon (Epps), Joe Seneca (Noah), Michael Tolan (Henry Northup).
a free black man living in Saratoga Springs, New York is kidnapped and taken to Louisiana to work as a slave
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
Saratoga Springs, New York. 1841. Solomon Northup plays the fiddle at a dance party for whites. When he finishes he gets a big applause. Two white men, Merrill and Bram, approach Solomon. They say they are businessmen looking for a new act. With his fiddle he can make good money. Solomon says he has a wife and children to take care of. Heís not interested.
Solomon goes home and sees his wife. He gets no kiss and has his tea cup shoved at him, so he asks whatís the matter. Anne says that Mr. Sherrillís cook quit and she would like to cook there. She says it will be only for a few weeks. But Solomon says absolutely not. She has three children at home to feed.
At night Anne tries again. She says that she loves Solomon and then goes on from there. After she finishes with her sweet talk, he reconsiders.
Solomon says goodbye to his wife and children for a few weeks. When they leave, Merrill and Bram show up at Solomonís house. They ask Solomon to come with them. Heíll be back before his wife can even miss him. And, they say, Solomon will have lots of money in his pocket. Solomon agrees.
The men take him to meet their partner Jim Birch. They give Solomon something to drink. He passes out. When he awakens he is in Washington, D.C. at a port. Jim Birch tells him that he is going to be sold into slavery. Solomon objects that he is a free man. Birch doesnít care. He says with his fiddling abilities, he is worth a fortune. They will soon be headed for Louisiana.
Birch thinks that Solomonís spirit is too haughty. He tells Solomon that he is now the property of Jim Birch, so now Solomon will say "master" to him. When Solomon wonít, Birch hits him with a big paddle. In fact, he breaks the spanking paddle over Solomonís back. With Solomon are a lot of other black people headed to Louisiana and slavery. They are all put on a ship.
Anne comes to visit Solomonís white friend from childhood, Henry, who is a lawyer. She tells Henry that she feels something has happened to Solomon. His fiddleís gone, but not his carpenterís tools and he would never leaves his tools behind. Maybe he got robbed, she says. Henry tells her that he thinks Solomonís all right.
In the hold of the ship the unfortunates talk with each other. There is Eliza, a mulatto woman with her two children and a single woman named Jenny. One of the future slaves is very sick. He dies and is buried at sea.
New Orleans. 1842. The slaves are lined up. Solomon says that Elizaís boy is sick and should stay with his mother. The slavers take the boy and girl from Eliza. The slaves are brought to a slave market where they are sold. Solomon gets a new name: Platt. A man named Freeman buys the fiddle player and the two women, Eliza and Jenny. He delivers them to a man named William Ford, who is their new master. Itís over a dayís ride up to Bayou Bluff up by the Red River. Ford tells Platt that he will be working in his saw mill.
Compared to most of the slave masters, Ford is a relatively good man considering heís a slave owner. He introduces Platt to some other male slaves, such as Jacob and Harry. Jacob doesnít like Platt because of his apparent education. The men laugh at some of Plattís more sophisticated behaviors. Later Platt meets an older, now retired slave, Noah. Almost the first thing he says to Platt is that he can already tell that Platt is pineing to run. Noah adds that there is no where to go from where they are. No one has ever made it out of here.
At the saw mill Platt runs into some trouble. A white man named Tibbits drives up with his wagon and tells Platt to fill the wagon with lumber. Platt says he needs a written order from Master Ford. This makes Tibbits angry. He asks Platt if he is refusing to load the wagon? The situation could have become dangerous for Platt, but Ford rides up on his horse. He says: "All right, Platt." Tibbits works for Fordís plantation. Platt starts loading the wagon.
Platt makes himself a wooden table and bed stand. He also gets a letter off to his wife.
In Saratoga Springs, Henry tells Anne that at least Solomonís in good health.
Platt goes to lay down on his bed and sees itís been destroyed. He demands from the others the name of the one who broke the bed. Itís Jacob. Platt walks outside and confronts Jacob. This starts a fight that Platt could easily win, but Noah stops the fight. He says heís disappointed in Platt. Noah doesnít want slaves fighting with other slaves. He tells Platt that Jacob needs talking to. Teach him what you know! Jenny, however, is happy that Platt beat Jacob in the fight. She thinks that Jacob is too mean and everyone is afraid of him.
Henry has to tell Anne that the governor of New York turned down their request for help. He says that he has two men down there looking for Solomon, but so far no luck.
The news is that Master Ford is in financial trouble. He may have to sell comes of the slaves. Someone tells Platt that Jenny is pineing for him. Platt speaks with Jenny telling her that he has a wife and three children. He hugs Jenny.
Ford needs to get lumber to his customers in a faster way, but canít think of anything satisfactory. Platt speaks up and says he can make a raft, load it with lumber and head it down river to the customers. Ford is doubtful it can be done, but Platt is so confident of success that the slave master lets him build his raft.
Jenny tells Plattt that she is lonesome. He lays down beside Jenny on the grass and kisses her.
Platt tries out the new raft. It works! Soon he heads down stream with two fellow slaves. When the trip is successful, they yell: "It worked!" Ford is very happy. He tells Platt that he saved him a lot of money. He also says: "I thank you." Tibbits, however, is not happy about Plattís success.
Ford tells Platt the bad new. He has to hire Platt out to Tibbets. Platt moans, but Ford says heís about to go under financially. Platt starts working with Tibbits. He tells Platt: "You workiní for me now, boy!" He even says that one day he might even own Platt.
Speaking of Jenny, someone tells Platt: "Thereís your missus." Bad news. Ford is selling her. Platt tells her he likes her and Jenny says she likes him. As she leaves, she tells him: "Come see me when you can."
In Saratoga Springs, Anne has her own suitor, but her children donít want this Luke guy around the place. They tell their mother this. Anne says she needs someone to talk to, but the kids wonít budge. Anne goes out to tell Luke, but Luke has already left. He must have overheard their conversation.
Tibbets tells Platt that he doesnít like him and heís gonna whip him. Platt takes the whip away from Tibbets and gives him one lash. Tibbets screams like a child in pain. Platt runs off as fast as he can. Soon the riders are after him. He jumps in the swamp water and swims to an isolated island. The chasers lose his trail.
Platt starts walking. Noah shows up to take him back to the plantation. Once back, Ford has to tell Platt that he has to sell him to Master Epps. He says that he will be safe with Epps.
Platt goes to the Epps plantation. There he sees Eliza and Jenny. Platt tries to talk with Jenny, but Epps is right there to stop the conversation. Epps likes Jenny and sees her as his personally. He doesnít want to see Jenny with Platt. So he tells Jenny that she will be working in the house from now on. At a slave dance with Platt playing fiddle, Epps dances with Jenny and then takes her into a cabin he had built especially for her.
At a party for the whites, Mrs. Epps corrects her husband several times. He gets angry and tells her that he knows she wants him to be more genteel. He also says that to her he will always be in that cabin where he once used to live. Epps says he worked his way up the ladder and thatís that.
Platt gets some food from Eliza working in the kitchen. He notices that she seems to have gone a bit crazy. She says that she was just talking to her son Randall. Plat has to tell her that her son died some time ago. Eliza finds it hard to believe. Platt says goodbye and leaves.
Mrs. Epps speaks to Platt. She says there is something about him that just doesnít figure. But she canít figure out what it is. But one thing she knows for sure is that he is a lot smarter than he lets on. Platt says no, heís not smart at all (probably referring to being tricked by the white slavers).
Mrs Epps speaks with Eliza. She wants Eliza to keep a eye on Mr. Epps going to see Jenny. She wants to be informed of what the two do. Eliza tells her at the other plantation, Platt and Jenny were sweet on each other. Mrs. Epps finds that very interesting and says: "Weíll just have to get them together."
Eliza dies. They have a burial for her. Noah says some words over her grave.
On Sunday Platt plays his fiddle for Jenny. Epps catches them together. Platt protests that itís Sunday, their day off. Epps doesnít care. He says that Platt has an uppity way of speaking and he better fix that right now. Epps then takes Plattís fiddle and breaks it.
Later Jenny talks to Platt. She says she knows that he is hurt and mad. But she says she is better off if she lets Epps come to her. Platt is not happy. Jenny says sheís sorry, but just like Platt she wants to live. Before they part she tells him to come here to her cabin when he wants her.
Epps Plantation. 1850. Epps says he is making Platt his new driver. He also tells him that he will also have a place of his own. Epps then gives him the key to the supplies and a whip. Because of the whip and a horse, one of the male slaves tells him off for thinking heís better than them.
A white carpenter named Bass speaks with a group of plantation owners. Then he turns to Platt who is cutting the hedges and asks him if he thinks Epps's owning him is fair? Platt slowly says yes. Bass then asks what if it was reversed and Platt was the slave owner? Would Platt be a slave owner? Platt says no. Epps makes Platt Bassís carpentry helper.
One day, out of jealousy, Mrs. Epps goes after Jenny. She then orders Platt to whip her. Platt says thatís not his job. Mrs. Epps should do it. She refuses that idea. Bass asks Mrs. Epps not to make Platt do it. But Mrs. Epps still insists. So Platt takes Jenny into the wood shed. Mrs. Epps is a bit upset and leaves when she hears the landing of the whip and the screams of Jenny. But Platt only whipped the wood, while Jenny screamed in order to fool Mrs. Epps.
Bass works with Platt. They take a break and Bass gives him a present. Itís a very nice fiddle. Bass tells him that he doesnít care about a manís skin color. Platt sees a potential aide. He asks Bass to help him escape. He tells his story to Bass who is amazed that Platt was never a slave and he is originally from New York City. Platt asks Bass to mail a letter home for him. Bass says he will do it.
Bassís work is finished on the Epps plantation and he moves on.
Jenny comes to Platt saying that she wants to speak with him. But thereís Epps again interfering with the two people. Epps is going to whip Platt this time. But Platt starts fighting Epps. Mrs. Epps breaks up the fight. She is very upset because she knows the fight is over Jenny. She threatens her husband that she will leave the house with their son. Mrs. Epps then tells Epps to beat Jenny. Epps says he will not. His wife slaps him across the face and hurriedly scampers away.
Platt starts running away again. Noah is out in the woods and as Epps comes by he trips the big man. He again tells Epps that heís crazy for trying to escape. Itís impossible. But Platt tells the old man that heís dying inside. "I want my freedom." And heís willing to run for his life to gain his freedom.
In Saratoga Springs, Henry tells Anne that they have found Solomon. He just got a letter from him. Now they know exactly where he is. Henry says he will go to Washington, D.C. tomorrow to talk to one of the Louisiana senators.
Henry speaks with the senator. The senator tells him to get to Marksville in Louisiana. There he will contact the local lawyer. Henry says he is grateful for his help and is surprised at how accommodating the senator is about this matter. The Louisiana man says that he supports the institutions of the south, but slavery has laws and tampering with those laws is a crime.
January, 1853. Henry from Saratoga Springs comes to the Epps Plantation with the local sheriff. Epps canít believe that itís his old friend Henry. Mr. Epps arrives and demands to know whatís going on. The sheriff tells him he has a court order for the release of the man Platt. Epps comes over trying to make trouble. He wants to know from Platt who mailed that letter he sent. Platt refuses to tell him.
Henry and Solomon prepare to leave. Solomon changes into a business suit. Jenny says goodbye to Solomon. She says: "Youíre free now and Iím happy for you." Solomon says he will miss her and never forget her. Jenny asks him to hold her, please. Solomon and Jenny hug each other. After that Solomon stands up in the coach and tells the slaves that he wishes he could take everybody. Henry and Solomon leave. Jenny cries.
Henry tells Solomon that he survived and suggests he write his story. Solomon thinks itís a good idea. He adds that he is scared to death. He has had twelve years of no freedom whatsoever and that he will never be his old self again.
Solomon finally arrives at the stage coach station for Saratoga Springs. He and Anne hug each other tightly, while the children patiently wait their turn.
In 1853, Solomon Northup wrote his autobiography Twelve Years a Slave. It became a best-seller and helped focus attention on the Abolitionist cause.
Birch and two of the kidnappers Merrill and Bram were eventually brought to separate trials. Birch was acquitted by a court because Solomon as a black man could not testify in a Washington, D.C. court. Merrill and Bram got off because of legal technicalities and were never convicted. Solomon went back to carpentry. Nothing else is known about him, not even when and where he died.
Good movie. And an interesting one. I enjoyed it. I knew that the southerners would come north to pursue escaped slaves, but, although it's not surprising at all, I was not aware of the southern theft of free blacks. For those still idiotic enough to say that slavery wasn't so bad, they should see this movie. The labor was hard enough, but then the slaves had to face harassment and humiliation. The slave owners of Louisiana seemed to know about the capture of free blacks, but were happy to benefit from the crime (in both the south and north). Avery Brooks was very good as Solomon. and so were Mason Adams as Ford the slave owner and John Saxon really made one hate Solomon's second slave owner Mr. Epps.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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