“Property” (intended in a pejorative sense)
12 Years a Slave, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2013
The film is unflinching in its portrayal of brutality. Noosed, strung up, and choking with just his toes touching the dirt in punishment for attacking the overseer Tibeats, Northup seems to hang forever, as daily life goes on about him. Women caught up in the obscene sexual and property relations of slavery are as sadistic as the men. And yet, the film itself does not avoid sentimentality. The stilted reunion with Solomon’s family at the end (a grandson! and named Solomon!) is a tearjerker unworthy of the rest of this generally austere film. And there is too much Aaron-Copland-like schmaltz in Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack (one can’t help but think that this was imposed on McQueen, who has such a good instinct for the uses of silence); it recurs annoyingly in the flashbacks of life in Saratoga, and is again reminiscent of Lincoln, with its uplifting John Williams score.
This is particularly disappointing since Solomon Northup’s book is about an artist whose self-confessed “ruling passion” was playing the violin. “Had it not been for my beloved violin,” Northup, without specifying how he learned to play, recalls, “I scarcely can conceive how I could have endured the long years of bondage.” If he had a free moment on Sunday, he would steal away to a quiet place on the bayou and listen to his violin “lifting up its voice.” He tells us how “at midnight, when sleep had fled affrighted from the cabin, and my soul was disturbed and troubled with the contemplation of my fate, it would sing me a song of peace.” The film, for some reason, never lets us see or hear this intimate love of music, confining Solomon to fiddling joylessly for dances at the behest or command of white people. Since we never hear him playing for pleasure or solace, the scene where he destroys his violin, apparently in desperation (it’s not in Northup’s book), lacks emotional punch.
McQueen does make powerful use of the “slave songs” Northup vividly describes in his book. At a slave burial, the survivors take up the song “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” which recurs in the closing credits. Northup listens blankly for a chorus or two, then joins in, in an ever more resonant baritone, signifying either his defiant humanity (“I want to live!”) or his resignation and solidarity with the other slaves. There is at least one other brilliant musical stroke when, following Solomon’s kidnapping, the momentarily percussive soundtrack is revealed to be the whirring paddlewheel of a steamboat descending the Mississippi with its cargo of slaves into the heart of darkness, more menacing than the river of Apocalypse Now.