'12 Years A Slave' Is This Year's Best Film About Music : The Record Director Steve McQueen semi-submerged a narrative that roots out the way music has fed both racism and the fight against it, from the time in which his hero Solomon Northup lived to the present.

'12 Years A Slave' Is This Year's Best Film About Music

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight hide caption

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Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave.

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

12 Years a Slave is the most compelling film about music to be released this year, maybe this century. It's so many other things, too, as others have noted: a corrective to the weird cocktail of piety and cartoonishness that Hollywood usually supplies when depicting slavery; a gorgeous art film and an actor's hellish paradise; a cultural highlight of the Obama administration. This multivalent richness can obscure the crucial intervention director Steve McQueen makes, following the lead of his fiddler main character, to root out the way music has fed both racism and the fight against it since the time that his hero, Solomon Northup, first earned his living playing Africanized tunes at white people's parties.

Because 12 Years a Slave came to my Southern hometown late in its staggered release schedule, I was as prepared for its tattered viscera and smashed emotions as anyone could be. In his own provocative piece on Hans Zimmer's score and the soundtrack, the musicologist Guthrie Ramsey noted that for many people, the bombardment of awful sounds and images made a partial sensory shutdown necessary. The critical frame constructed around the movie since its release doesn't diminish its power, but it does create the space for different ways to consider it. One way — and I think McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley meant to construct it — is as an expose of the central battle within American popular music, between black freedom and black compromise.

Among the many challenges this film poses to viewers, one is to understand how music has both supported the liberation and self-expression of African-Americans and filled an imaginary space of reconciliation and even joy, where oppressors can lie to themselves about the cruelty they inflict. Music culture in America has often defeated racism and, just as often, perpetuated it. Frequently one gesture can't be separated from the other. In its focused, exacting examination of slavery's details, 12 Years a Slave makes music the opposite of a palliative by paying particular attention to how playing and listening to it could simultaneously form imaginary (and very occasionally, real) escape routes for those in bondage and feel like a chain.

What makes this a music film isn't Hans Zimmer's moody soundtrack or the songs collected and augmented by the composer and John Legend on the "from and inspired by" album. Those are just frames. Music breaks into Northup's story at every level, from the most fleeting moments to several of its climaxes. It tells a parallel story of how an art form grew up within and through subjugation and conflict. In slavery, music was both a way out of daily life and a way to thrive within it. Some of the most touching minor scenes show slaves finding, in song, what Martin Luther King, Jr. called "somebodiness": the girl Patsey, her master's rape victim, humming to herself while making corn dolls in the field; Northup, renamed Platt by his master and afraid to speak his true identity, carving the names of his wife and children into his fiddle, his other voice, which can speak who he really is. Others demonstrate how sweet sounds produced a haze around brutality. In the chattel market, Northup plays in order to cover the screams of a woman newly sold away from her children, so that browsing white couples won't turn away from their shopping, but also, perhaps, to distract himself from her pain.

Many more scenes show music as a mix of the functional and the pleasurable. Workers in the field sing to keep up their energy, but also so overseers can locate them and keep track of their labors. Northup takes or is rented out for engagements at white people's parties, and though McQueen shows him grimly sawing away as couples dance delightedly, he does earn money and an evening of relative comfort through his talent. In the fiddling scenes, filmgoers hear the first notes of what will become jazz. Others focus on spirituals, the slaves' Africanizations of Christian hymns, which gave rise to the most indelible African-American song traditions: gospel, blues, soul and rock 'n' roll.

Two songs are sung in full by actors, and they're at the heart of McQueen's music story. The first will never make it into any awards-season tributes. Spit into Northup's face by the weaselly overseer John Tibeats,"Run N----- Run" imparts terror with a jaunty step. Putting archaic African-American dialect into a petty overlord's mouth, this foully comical warning (the "pattarollers" it warns about are slave patrollers, government-appointed militia who rounded up would-be plantation escapees) works within the plot as a manifestation of terror: Tibeats' taunt negates the comfort of the master's church service that follows. Thematically, though, this is beginning of minstrelsy, the blackface mimicry that became America's first widely popular musical/theatrical form.

This connection is embedded in the song choice — "Run N----- Run" has been documented as originating among slaves, as a kind of scornful, even humorous, warning. Tibeats performing it points to the fact that it may have also been claimed by white minstrels like Thomas "Daddy" Rice, who were claiming and caricaturing slave songs during Northup's lifetime. (The song was popular among Confederates: as my fellow history nerd Jody Rosen has discovered, the song's main lyrics were once inscribed on a Rebel flag recovered in Arkansas, altered to ridicule President Lincoln.) The side eye Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Northup, gives Paul Dano's Tibeats even as he recoils in fear silently acknowledges the 150-plus years of cultural appropriation and misinterpretation African-Americans would subsequently endure.

The answer song to Tibeats' taunt is "Roll, Jordan Roll," one of the foundational texts of the spirituals tradition. The version in 12 Years a Slave is actually by composer Nicholas Britell, whose adaptations, re-creations and original takes on slave songs and spirituals are heard throughout the film. Standing at the graveside of a fellow laborer who's perished from exhaustion while picking cotton, Ejiofor's Northup at first resists, but finally joins in, his voice growing stronger as he blues the notes in the style that slaves invented. McQueen presents this moment as a major step in his hero's process of fulfilling the declaration upon being captured: "I don't want to survive; I want to live." "Roll, Jordan Roll," a primary example of slaves' claiming and subverting a Christian message to express their own needs and send their own messages, becomes, voiced by Northup, a sound of pained acceptance but also a tool of empowerment within the system designed to dehumanize him. Songs like this one, speaking of rivers, often sent coded messages about the hope for escape — for passing over the Mississippi or the Ohio and northward. They also established a temporary autonomous zone within people's hearts. Spirituals, the theologian James T. Cone wrote in his book on spirituals and the blues, "make clear that black slaves were not passively waiting for the future; they were actively living as if the future were already present in the community." Cone called this state "the transcendent present," and it's what allows Northup, and even the even more horrifically abused Patsey, to retain dignity even in the face of despair, and, subversively, stay alive.

"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.

Neither song, however, appears in Solomon Northup's book. The third scene to play a crucial role in McQueen's semi-submerged music narrative does. "All of us would be assembled in the large room of the great house, whenever Epps came home in one of his dancing moods," Northup recounted. "No matter how worn out and tired we were, there would be a general dance. When properly stationed on the door, I would strike up a tune."

Northup describes these forced gatherings as unpleasant, but McQueen drains all life from the one that he stages. Even Michael Fassbender's Epps, drunk and drained, seems to wish they could just wrap it up and go home. When Patsey moves with careless sensuality, she is brutally beaned by a whiskey decanter thrown by Epps' jealous wife. (Poor Sarah Paulson, by the way; she could have played a more multi-dimensional character if McQueen had written in her many children, or the kindness that, according to Northup's narrative, she showed every slave but the one her husband desired.) If "Roll Jordan Roll" lets some small glory seep into McQueen's story, and "Run N----- Run" carries the uncomfortable edge of fun, the dancing scene demands that viewers reject the idea that music can create its own reality, however momentary, in which people's inherent longing to connect defeats the equally powerful habit of turning others into aliens and objects. Epps's delusion is the viewer's own: how many times in your life has a dance floor utopia seemed to promise real change, only to leave nothing more than the stain of spilled drinks when the lights go on?

Wesley Morris, reviewing 12 Years a Slave in Grantland, connected the dancing scene to Miley Cyrus's notorious back-slapping of an African-American dancer at this year's MTV Video Music awards — "traipsing, like Mrs. Epps, among her fine beasts." He singled out Kanye West's performance of "Blood on the Leaves" in front of McQueen's illuminated photograph "Lynching Tree" as providing a powerful if imperfect counterpoint. Between the antebellum scenes McQueen captures and the current ones Morris highlights is a dialectical history of music as a force that stole power from African-Americans and granted it; that erased color lines and, by perpetuating stereotypes, further filled them in; that gave Solomon Northup and countless musicians after him the ability to both roam where others could not and to journey openly within himself, and yet also allowed non-black audiences to imagine that, if musicians like these seem so fulfilled, perhaps the nation's legacy of apartheid and abuse isn't quite so heavy.

Benedict Cumberbatch (left) as Ford and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight hide caption

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Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Benedict Cumberbatch (left) as Ford and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave.

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

McQueen's film is a polemic against the notion that American music can make up for the marginalization and confinement that many of its originators endured. His visions of misery set to a fiddler's tune stand in contrast to 175 years' worth of mediated excuses, like this account of a slaves' ball, from the New Orleans newspaper The Daily Delta during the time when Northup lived on Epps' plantation: "The colored folk had a nice time of it to themselves, and enjoyed the evening, seemingly to their hearts content. We like to see our slaves enjoying themselves occasionally. Such a ball and such happy looking dancers were never seen north of Mason and Dixon."

It stands against modern entertainment grounded in songs sentimentalizing slavery times, like "Carolina Sunshine" ("Pickaninies romping all day/in cotton fields of white") and the still-sung "Dixie," and in revues that featured "darkies" in plantation rags or "jungle-bunny" grass skirts. 12 Years a Slave challenges the process by which these blatantly twisted spectacles gradually become assimilated into less overtly offensive fare — a process interrupted only by the occasional shock, like Cyrus's cathartic twerking, which itself simply repeated the moves dancers innovated in early 20th-century shows like The Plantation Revue.

To make his point, McQueen remains historically accurate, but uses his editor's prerogative. The vast literature of the South includes many accounts of slaves finding temporary release in both music and dance, among themselves and even in the company of whites. Northup himself treasured his fiddle as both a source of personal solace and a passport allowing brief respite from the servitude of Epps' farm. Architectural evidence shows that certain plantation buildings were converted to house slave dances, and slaves also regularly engaged in customs like the masked ball McQueen where shows Northup performing, dressing in costume and dancing in the streets. Any small sense of freedom Northup experienced in his time of bondage came from his beloved instrument: as he wrote, "The young men and maidens of Holmesville always knew there was to be a jollification somewhere, whenever Platt Epps was seen passing through the town with his fiddle in his hand."

As other critics have noted, historical accuracy is important to the truth of 12 Years a Slave, activating it with a current of authenticity that supports the message he and his collaborators offer for viewers today. McQueen takes what he needs from history to make a point about how we remember. The film's intensity comes from almost unbearably close attention to skin that bleeds, sweat that drips — and mutterings and wails murmured or yelled out by people as they are being hurt or trying to overcome their wounds. How hate and fear gave vibration to music, how music turned those emotions into more without losing their sting, is what McQueen explores and wants filmgoers to remember. It's a painful reminder to never relax into fantasies of reconciliation that have only ever partially been realized.

On the Legend-curated album, which includes "Roll, Jordan Roll" but not "Run N----- Run," at least one song "inspired by" Northup's narrative approaches McQueen's uncompromising close attention. "Driva Man" is performed by the Alabama Shakes in a style that honors the Max Roach original, which was part of the drummer and lyricist Oscar Brown, Jr.'s 1960 Freedom Now! Suite. The song, like 12 Years A Slave, is unrelenting. The drum is a whip. The vocalist — Brittany Howard in the new version, doing justice to originator Abbey Lincoln — barks like an overseer and moans like a field hand, taking possession of adversarial voices within a cycle of violence — as a cacophony of horns played by the section from fellow Alabama band St. Paul and the Broken Bones forms a cotton-bush tangle in the mix. She hacks through it. "Driva Man" is music that cuts against every ecstatic impulse that music usually offers. Can we enjoy it? Can we enjoy McQueen's work, the story of a man who is being destroyed before our eyes? To realize and answer yes is to begin to grasp that art never offers a solution, only a way to not only survive but to live in a world where most people are still far from truly free.

Correction March 4, 2014

A previous version of this story misspelled Solomon Northup's surname.