Roll, roll Jordan, roll
I want to go to heaven when I die
To hear Jordan roll (roll, roll, roll)
The camera lingers on Solomon Northup’s face as plantation slaves repeat the refrain of the Negro spiritual at a gravesite, after one of their fellow slaves dies suddenly in the cotton fields. For him, he has only been a slave for a handful of years at this point in the film and appears hesitant, but for the others present you get the feeling that it’s an accepted part of their world – not that it ever gets any easier when someone passes away – but more in a way that suggests they’ve sung that hymn so many times that a callous is beginning to form. As intensity builds in the song, Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) closes his eyes and begins to sing loudly about the idea of a better place, and at that point his prayer becomes our prayer.
The chorus suggests the dual-meaning of those singing it: first, a prayer that the departed slave will make it to Heaven, and secondly, hoping that they themselves will cross a river into a promised land of sorts, much like the Israelites of the book of Joshua. Unlike the Israelites, Northup has tasted the milk and honey of the promised land already, having built a life as a distinguished free man, an occupational violinist with a wife and family in Saratoga Springs New York. Tragically, it is stripped away at the hands of swindling white opportunists who captured him and quite literally sold him down the river to Louisiana slave traffickers.
As the memoir of the true story tells, Northup is sold to a man named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who can only cynically be described as one of the more “benevolent” plantation owners. He recognizes Northup’s exceptional qualities, but after a period of time, circumstances force Ford to sell Northup to a much harder slave owner named Epps (played by an animalistic Michael Fassbender). At Epps’s plantation, Northup spends the balance of his 12 years as a cotton-picker, spent and withered.
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Director Steve McQueen was maybe the perfect artist to direct this film - his first two features, Hunger and Shame, laid the basis for the stripping away of human dignity that this film so eloquently portrays. Hunger involves political hunger-strike movement in a Northern Irish prison, while Shame explores the evils of a spiraling debilitative sex addiction.
Aware of the collateral damage that such moral calamity produces, McQueen intelligently not only focuses his attention on the many abuses of slavery, but also extends it to its far-reaching purview. Epps has an eye for Patsy, a young black woman, a fact which haunts his wife (played coldly by an empty-eyed Sarah Paulson). Epps’s simultaneous sexual covetousness of Patsy along with his complete disregard for her well-being concludes with one of the more horrifying scenes in the film. Similarly, a down-on-his-luck unassuming white man who is friendly to Northup is not all that he seems. It affects intra-racial relationships as well – an older middle-aged black woman has shrewdly played her hand and become a housemaid for a neighboring plantation owner, and although you cannot fault her for doing so, the film makes you feel oddly uncomfortable about her elevated position as she sips her afternoon tea on the porch in white gloves.
In essence, every angle is explored here, and not a single interaction between or among characters in the film is less than substantially affected by the horrors of human trafficking.
This is precisely the thing that makes this film so interesting to discuss and share with others. As both literal and figurative descendants of participants to slavery, whether black, white, male, female, young or old, we have all inherited this monstrosity instituted by our forefathers.
We would be remiss not to recognize and rectify the shortcomings of those who came before us. Indeed, our own historical standing is at stake if we do not accept this undertaking. It should unify us all in pursuit of common goals. It should change us.
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With a story so moving, it would be easy to gloss over the cinematic accomplishment of this film. Acting of the highest order is on display, with Ejiofor giving the performance of the year, one that forces the viewer to empathize without ever crossing the line into a eliciting a Forrest Gump-like sense of pity. McQueen’s direction, something I admired artistically without quite enjoying in his first two films, was a wonder to behold. Here, he shows an impressive amount of restraint yet does not back down from the violence that transpires. He reminded me of all the things cinema is capable of accomplishing that television cannot.
One scene in particular showcases the dance McQueen is doing between brutality and gentility. After a bout with one of the white field supervisors, Northup is hung from a low-hanging branch, just low enough that his feet can barely reach the ground, keeping his neck from snapping. Kept off center from the camera, Northup is an afterthought. Children play around him and other slaves go about their business. No music plays, and the breeze gently whispers through the trees.
It is understandable to walk out of this film feeling negatively about the world. However, I do not take the film as a cinematic guilt trip, but rather an admonishment for our current times. In all, it is the most powerful artistic expression that I can recall of what it means to be a human and the shared suffering we must face.