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Roll Jordan Roll — A 12 Years a Slave Essay

This essay is available in video form at the bottom of the post.

12 Years a Slave is a powerful piece of filmmaking from director Steve McQueen. The film is both uncompromising and unflinching, masterfully made in all regards. The casting of 12 Years a Slave deserves to be applauded and lionized.

The film makes use of high profile actors and recognizable character-actors in very small roles. Doing this places extreme emphasis on even the smallest characters. Paul Giamatti, Michael K. Williams, Bill Camp, Garrett Dillahunt, Scoot McNairy, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, even Benedict Cumberbatch’s role is a pretty small one in the grand scheme of things, and plenty of other accomplished actors play roles of a size typically relegated to up-and-coming, unproven, or new actors. So why do this?

Casting this way can add a bit more gravitas to the roles, sure, but it also adds an extra layer of importance to these small characters in the eyes of the audience. Seeing a face they recognize cues the audience to pay attention to this person in a somewhat meta way. It tells them that this character is important, otherwise they wouldn’t have cast such a recognizable actor in the role. Then when that character is either unceremoniously killed, or leaves the film without any sense of conclusion or closure on their behalf, we’re left with an odd feeling, maybe even a sense of dislocation. Though these people may have only briefly passed through Solomon Northrup’s life, they left a deep and lasting impression. Casting in this way is an attempt to create a similar impression on the audience from these characters despite their limited screen time.

It’s a more external filmmaking tool employed by Steve McQueen and the film’s casting directors Meagan Lewis and Francine Maisler, but one that I think is knowing utilized. There’s a quote by Alexander Mackendrick from his book On Film-making where he says “It might not be too much to say that what a film director really directs is his audience’s attention.” McQueen is extrinsically calling upon any given audience member’s knowledge of these actors and their outside body of work to subconsciously guide their attention to these characters and show that no single individual involved in this horrific process is insignificant.

And of course the film still makes a point of casting newcomers, like Lupita Nyongo who won best supporting actress for her first feature film performance.

When I first started writing this 12 Years a Slave essay, the scene I planned to focus on was the extended hanging scene.

This needs to be among the most impactful single shots of the decade and the entire sequence is masterfully constructed. But Channel Criswell already made an excellent analysis of this scene.

Then I turned to this scene, where Solomon is sent out to pick up sundries, wanders off the path, and stumbles across a lynching in the forest. This scene does a lot. It arrives in a moment where it seems as though Solomon is about to attempt a run-away. This immediate discovery is a stark reminder, if anyone could forget, just how dangerous and evil this land is. It brings a thought to the forefront of your mind; Even if he can manage to escape his master, so what? How far can he travel without falling prey to an alternate visage of evil.

As an audience member you have so much empathy for Solomon, and are placed so deeply within his point of view that the fear he feels and the tension felt in this moment are nearly unbearable. This sequence is more genuinely frightening than the majority of horror films.

But there’s another scene that I want to look at, one that is more important on a character level. The Roll Jordan Roll scene. This is yet another powerful sequence, with this shot in particular being one of the most affecting of the entire film in my eyes.

To fully appreciate its impact requires context. Solomon was a free man who was abducted and forced into slavery. His name, Solomon Northup, was ripped from him and replaced with the moniker Platt. His identity is stripped and replaced with an alternate that suits his captors and their monetary goals. They tell him that his name is Platt and that he is a runaway slave from Georgia.

At first Solomon rejects the new name and refuses to oblige their slave claims of him. He holds onto his good name and his free man status as he is beat mercilessly into submission. Throughout the film, other slaves have sung similar songs around him, but Solomon has never joined in. The film makes a point to show his abstention from the songs and one of his masters throughout his 12 year odyssey takes notice, finding it peculiar.

There is a lot of history to these slave work songs, sometimes called spirituals, and they hold a multitude of purposes. The songs can be a distraction from the terrible situation the singers are in. They can be a coping mechanism, they can be a way to retain some semblance of hope, and importantly they were often an act of solidarity. Singing together in harmony held a sense of shared struggle and support. These songs were often used by the underground railroad and contained hidden messages that slaves could openly pass without their overseers taking notice. A double meaning would be applied to key words within the songs such as in the lyric “bound for the land of Canaan” where in the true meaning, the word ‘Canaan’ is transposed for ‘Canada’, where slavery was outlawed, without saying it outright. There’s a whole history to these songs and dozens of them dubbed “map songs” were pivotal to underground railroad escape instructions as they were able to be passed openly, were easily remembered, and didn’t require the ability to read.

Roll Jordan Roll was one of these songs. The US Slave Song Project acknowledges it as one of three songs to commemorate the crossing of the Atlantic, and songs which made reference to rivers often signified the idea of crossing the Ohio or Mississippi rivers into the north. The song was originally written about 100 years earlier by a white preacher, and later arrived as a slave work song from plantation owners and overseers who thought the song’s Christian message would help pacify the slaves.

12 Years a Slave uses this song during a funeral for a slave who died of exhaustion in the cotton fields. If the meaning of this song is about escaping slavery, then its usage at this funeral can signify the deceased’s escape from his tortured life of slavery. As Thayne Stoddard writes in The Black Atlantic, “the freedom in this scene is not to another land where they are no longer enslaved, but to death and perhaps an afterlife.” Solomon joining in this song isn’t just an act to mourn the deceased’s death, or to celebrate his escape… this moment signifies a deep internal change within Solomon and Chiwetal Ejiofor’s incredible performance conveys this brilliantly without a single word of exposition. This moment signifies his gradual loss of hope reaching its final resting place, to the point where he now needs this song to give him any ounce of hope to which he can cling. He needs the song and the support it provides his fellow slaves in the same situation for the slightest degree of comfort.

Until now he has resisted, but when he starts to sing, he has relinquished his hope to retain his free man status, his hope of ever having it restored, and is now in his mind, just another slave, as those in power around him have wanted from the beginning. Until this moment he has tried to set himself apart from the others, maintain some semblance of his former free life. He works with Ford to devise a new plan to transport his goods and save him time and money, he does this to impress Ford and gain his respect, an attempt to elevate his status and prove his worth. He uses his skill at the violin as another means to set himself apart, but eventually his hope is dismantled piece by piece. He breaks the violin, he stops rejecting his newfound status as a slave, he stops holding onto the Solomon Northup name and accepts the Platt moniker thrust upon him, he hides his ability to read from Mistress Epps and when asked about his past, relays the fabricated backstory provided to him by his captors. He fully assumes the identity that suits those in power and the moment he joins in singing Roll Jordan Roll is him fully succumbing to being a slave internally as well as externally.

All of this meaning is conveyed with such a deft touch from McQueen and everyone else involved. 12 Years a Slave is a real powerhouse of a film.

You can see this essay in video form below.