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A New Way of Looking at '12 Years a Slave': Through Its Music

A pop critic and a music scholar examine how the much-lauded movie explores the history of black music, and whether its score simplifies its complex emotions.
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Slave

In the past several weeks, there have been many days when Criticwire could have been nothing but posts pointing to great analyses of 12 Years a Slave. There's Wesley Morris' epochal review, which ties in Kanye West and Miley Cyrus; Steven Boone and Odie Henderson's "Black Man Talk", which says the movie is like " amessage to Black America. Weep for your children"; Bilge Eibri's account of the film's production, with fascinating insights from cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and sound designer Leslie Shatz, and his essay contrasting 12 Years a Slave with Solomon Northrup's Odyssey, the 1984 TV-movie of Northrup's book directed by Gordon Parks.

But two new analyses are of particular note in that they come at 12 Years a Slave from a different angle: through its music. At NPR, critic Ann Powers focuses on the representation of music onscreen, including Northrup's violin playing and the incorporation of slave work songs; while at Gawker, musicologist Guthrie P Ramsey, Jr extends the frame to include Hans Zimmer's score as well.

Ramsey rather pointedly contrasts the hetereophonic sound of the slave's work songs with the "classic Hollywood cinema music" of Zimmer's score, which urges a more heterogenous experience: "When we hear it, we're all supposed to feel the same way -- scared, happy, sympathetic, revolted, etc., as the music demands." (Ironically, he says, one of the themes Zimmer uses to convey Northrup's interior turmoil employes the same chord progression as Daft Punk's "Get Lucky.")

For the most part, Ramsey says, "the slave's emotional world was generally rendered emotionally flat-lined," which parallels the complaints of film critics whose felt that director Steve McQueen's gallery-honed visual style put up a wall between viewers and the story on screen. 

One astute person with whom I actually saw 12 Years a Slave told me that she found it difficult have both of her visual and auditory sensibilities simultaneously "on" during a any film. I heard her. Yet we know that our auditory and visual senses are intensely on during cinematic experiences. We're not just sitting in front of a big screen; we're sitting in the middle of a huge sound production. Understanding how the music of a film works is part of how we get at the heart of what makes a film tick. The work of the music in a film is partially what a film is "about." Though the visuals in 12 Years a Slave nudge us into a novel visual cinematic Hollywood experience, musically, the film is sadly more of the same old thing.

Powers, for her part, concentrates on the songs the movie's characters perform, which she argues function as "an expose of the central battle within American popular music, between black freedom and black compromise."

Solomon Northrup's violin playing is what sets him apart, allowing to live not only as a free man but, to judge by his clothing and the home we see him in, a relatively successful one. It's also what makes him attractive to the men who trick him and sell him into slavery. Even his name is taken from him, as he is beaten until he answers to the invented moniker "Platt," but he carves the name of his wife and children into his violin.

Powers focuses especially on the use of two songs: "Roll, Jordan, Roll,"  a classic black spiritual, and what she calls "Run N----- Run," which Paul Dano's overseer uses as a sadistic taunt. (The latter, needless to say, is absent from the film's soundtrack album.) 

"Run N----- Run" and "Roll Jordan Roll" are companion pieces. McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley didn't have to struggle to find them. Both songs were published in the 1867 anthology Slave Songs of the United States, the first songbook to bring African-American folk music to a wider audience. ("Roll Jordan Roll" holds the supreme place of honor at number one in the table of contents; the other is buried in the back.) The spiritual was a staple of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the black ensemble that connected African-American culture and high art, and remains a gospel standard. The trickster-turned-minstrel song became an early country favorite for casually racist artists like the Skillet Lickers and Uncle Dave Macon. In 12 Years a Slave, they form a pattern of oppression and resistance that reverberates.


This article is related to: From the Wire, 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen


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