"12 Years A Slave": The Rising Tide of Black Life and Pain
Roll Jordan, roll
Roll Jordan, roll
I want to go to heaven when I die
To hear ol' Jordan roll
A rising tide. This is the closest feeling and image I can give to describe the impact of watching Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years A Slave, based on the true narrative by Solomon Northrup, a free black man who was captured and sold into slavery in 1841. It is a tide that hits, even when you’re not ready, recedes, then comes back with a force more powerful than the last.
This tide keeps coming, and you keep anticipating it, but nothing can prepare you for the overwhelming fear and loathing that fill your body when slave owner Master Epps (Michael Fassbender) enters the frame, and Solomon’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) face falls heavy with an aquatic force.
It’s like the water that McQueen frames near the beginning of the film when Northrup is transported to New Orleans in a boat, after being drugged and captured in Washington, and beaten into an unwilling submission. He quickly learns that his words—and life—mean nothing. Trying to explain his free status could cause more harm than not. Clinging to memories of his family and the violin he plays, he maneuvers through enslavement, performing as an illiterate named “Platt,” all the while listening and feeling the world and words around him. One of the greatest strengths of this film is Chiwetel’s expressive face. When he subverts his character of Platt and reacts, dissents, or questions, there is a war that happens in his face, a war that conveys much more than any dialogue. In one of the first scenes, he unexpectedly participates in an enslaved woman’s urgent need for intimacy. His face is observant, open to her needs, and strangely frightened. He knows humanity can be lost in captivity and he doesn’t want her to lose it. So, he touches her.
Newcomer actress Lupita Nyong’o plays Patsy, a fieldhand who is the target of Master Epps' brutal scorn and affection, going beyond the role of tragic heroine to portray a woman with a will to remain human. In one scene, her simple request for soap initiates one of the most difficult scenes of the film, giving way to a tide that rises in ways that make us fear it. Michael Fassbender evokes this fearsome quality every time he enters the frame, lit by the flicker of firelight in darkness. But there is something in Patsy that brings a quick glint of complexity to him, and she elevates the narrative with an Oscar-worthy performance.
The ebb and flow of the slave system penetrates even death. When a man falls hard in the cotton fields, he is kicked and doused with water. Later, an older woman sings an impassioned spiritual in his remembrance. Shot in a close-up, her face and voice fill the frame before the shot opens up to reveal a chorus of people surrounding her. Northrup, at first hesitant, opens his mouth slowly and begins to sing the words, each time with a successive force: “Roll, Jordan, roll.” The powerful song is a reference to the Ohio River, which ran between the free and slave states and, as he sings, Ejiofor's character is overcome with feeling. In his face, the tide rises. It rises higher, until the reverence for this fallen man becomes a defiant chant of hope, an awakening of the spirit. In the way that the woman needed intimacy to feel something, to feel human, to feel embodied, this spiritual fills this same void. There is a sort of sustenance in this singing, in touching, in playing a violin, in loving and Northrup opens up in these instances, reuniting with a touch that he’s lost.
It must also be said that the people within the film are beautiful. Brown skin shimmers under soft natural light as church sermons commence as well as in vicious scenes where men are lynched in the brush. Director McQueen, drawing on the visual aesthetic of his previous works Shame and Hunger, never shies away from frames that capture the ways that beauty exists in the most painful situations. His style is not showy because these people are beautiful: their skin is beautiful and the land complements this with lush orange sunsets and hanging willows. Even in its most vile forms, man-made hatred cannot erase this beauty. There is a fascinating paradox here and McQueen, working with cinematographer Sean Bobbit, captures it, letting black pain linger on the screen, but not for the cause of pity or violent humor. There are no bloody gunfights or white men with all the answers. Just day- to- day resistance to a certain death. As McQueen stated in a recent Charlie Rose interview, "Either we're going to make a film about slavery, or we're not."
Following the film, I heard an audience member say: “So sad. There were so many of them compared to the whites. They could’ve killed them. Wow, the power of conditioning.” My feeling coming out of the film was very different. There was so much revolt in the simple will to stay alive. To wash the deep wounds of another after a lashing, to provide water to someone on the verge of death, to love someone, to touch someone, to confront hatred in the face of death—these were all part of a will to live in a context where black life meant nothing more than the labor it could provide. So, I don’t feel defeated. I don’t feel like the film was a total brutal experience. It was water, unrelenting, rolling like Jordan, served and overwhelming, because at any moment, the tide can knock you down. These people got back up.
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