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“The soul that is within me no man can degrade.”

– Frederick Douglass, “Narrative of the Live of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” (1845)

In the final chapter of The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W.E.B. Dubois wrote, “That they walked in darkness sang songs in the olden days.” Along with being a seminal cornerstone of sociological analysis, it was the first analytical piece of work into the history of African-American slavery. These songs were the spirituals, the roots of which were founded in the slave experience borne in the American Civil War, incorporating African theological sensibilities and the acquired Christian doctrines learned during slavery. The central themes of the spiritual revolved around grief and suffering, and freedom and liberation from oppression of the White masters. Physically defenseless against the slave-owners, the slave community found refuge in the outlet of song, at work, in the field, and during times of greatest existential suffering. As such, these spirituals acted as a communal bond, allowing for the full expression of a shared experience within the slavery community, as well as the individual aperture of emotion. Thus, the spiritual exists as an anthropological and historical record of the slave experience, reflecting an abiding exigency to endure. Twelve Years a Slave is the cinematic parallel to the spiritual, a testimony of the horror and anguish of a period of history which continues to rightfully blemish the face of humanity. It is a wholly necessary piece of work, one whose story strikes at the very heart of what it means to survive – and emerge with one’s humanity intact.

McQueen utilises music very sparingly, very carefully. It is purposeful, not merely an emotional conduit to the audience. In this film, song features centrally, as the slaves collectively work the fields or pick the cotton under cruelly bright, blue skies. The song is used to mock the slaves, as William Ford’s carpenter Tibeats (Paul Dano) leers derogation at the workers. The song is used to unite, as a fallen slave is mourned at a makeshift funeral. Essentially, the song is used a reflection of the slave condition – the acceptance of the denigration, and the persistent will to survive. The funeral scene in particular features “Roll, Jordan, Roll” and a closeup of Solomon Northrup’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor’s) face for long minutes. As the other slaves sing, he resists joining in, features battling with despair and resistance. When he gradually joins in, it signifies his inevitable capitulation to his condition; the transformation into the slave.

McQueen does not use stylish editing techniques to convey the emotional viscerality of the narrative – he readily shows it. Ejiofor’s magnificent face is an elegy in itself to the turmoil of a free man unlawfully condemned to slavery, maintaining one’s self-worth, and realising futility. Several long close-ups in the film focus solely on Ejiofor’s face, as it heartrendingly cycles through the motions of denial, anger, and defeat in long, agonizing minutes. These sustained, breathless moments of tension are used to incredible effect several times throughout the film, allowing the horrific realism of the situation to be appropriately felt by the viewer. In one such scene, Northrup is strung up by a noose, struggling and choking for breath until Ford reaches him, but those long moments are deeply felt. In another, Epps (a mesmerisingly unhinged Michael Fassbender) leads Northrup out into the night with a lantern. The air of thinly-veiled menace adds a heightened sense of unease to the scene, not least because it is utterly unpredictable; indeed, the tension ebbs and flows throughout the veins of the narrative, never yielding and never appearing plodding.

It is also a film of comparisons between two seemingly opposite features, but upon closer inspection, question whether they are truly distinct at all. McQueen plays with dark and light, and there is no in-between – there is the darkened, claustrophobic space illuminated only by dim candlelight, meant to convey the mental and physical darkness of the slave condition, and the bright and open blue sky of the deep South, canonically identified with freedom. The cruel irony is that the blue skies hang over the slave workers in the cotton field, fingers torn and callused after hours of work. All punishment occurs not in the secluded dark of a barn, but in the broad, open daylight. Light and dark in films are usually reserved for the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ respectively, but here, slavery is ubiquitous; not to be hidden away in the dark, but as a habitual routine of the daytime. Comparisons are also drawn between two of Northrup’s slave-masters, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Edwin Epps (Fassbender). The former is a benevolent preacher who treats Northrup with kindness and respect, while the latter is a feral and callously cruel sadist who manically oscillates between control and weakness. The question however, is not of distinctiveness, but of degree – the two men exist on a continuum. Despite Ford’s compassion and regret, he is nevertheless a willingly accomplice in the institution of slavery, a point which should not be forgotten in comparison to Epps’ zealous indulgence. The latter can barely conceive of a world in which blacks are not inferior, in comparison to Ford’s guilty complicity. While it may be tempting to pit a ‘good’ man against an ‘evil’ man, it is crucial to note that the two men exist on the same side of the social hierarchy – perhaps situated further apart than most, but still across a distinct line from the black slave.

If there is any flaw in the film, it is the appearance of Brad Pitt’s character as the messianic ‘voice of reason’. For all that it is incongruous and jolting, it is entirely unnecessary. We, the audience, do not need to hear in dialogue-form how wrong slavery is – throughout the film, we have seen it. Through Northrup’s eyes, we are witness to the inconceivable brutality of a not-too remote moment in history, one whose legacy still bleeds into the fabric of modern America. This is not a redemptive tale of slavery reflecting on the benevolence of the white enablers, as cinema has too often seen in the past several years – this is a narrative entirely told by the black voice. Northrup’s eventual liberation is one of immense relief but also a subdued joy, one that allows for the question of ‘what now?’ How does one fall back into the steps of one’s old life, seeing and knowing all that one has? For Northrup, the horror will inevitably linger on, the scars healed but not forgotten. It is a legacy which has long been ignored, but one which persists in the spiritual – the “Roll Jordan, Roll”, the “I’m Troubled in Mind”, the “Steal Away to Jesus” – sung and remembered by those who lived it.

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