Jim Thomas’s Spirituals Choir is in winter hibernation mode, so there’s been nothing musical to report. Last night, though, I went to see Twelve Years a Slave, a film based on the memoir of Solomon Northrup, a free black man from upstate New York who was abducted and sold into slavery in 1841.
This is the world the slave songs came from. Call-and-response work songs help the slaves maintain momentum as they pick cotton or cut cane. “Roll, Jordan, Roll” is heard after a dead slave is laid to rest.
Others have raved about all aspects of the film: the superb performances, the deft direction, the story itself, and more. Twelve Years a Slave is in the running for the Oscars and other major movie awards, as well it should be. What struck me hardest as I watched, and now as I recollect, was the visceral feeling that there’s no escape. Not for Solomon, not for the viewer. Certainly not for the other slaves, but not for the white plantation owners and their hirelings either. This is a closed system. It magnifies the human failings of the slave owners — jealousy, anger, hypocrisy, pride — and turns them lethal. It turns the smallest act of empathy or trust into something heroic.
No escape. Solomon Northrup’s old world might as well be on another planet. He might as well have died and gone to hell. Only the title of the film tells you that years are passing — that, and the fact that when Solomon does manage to return from the dead, he finds his daughter married and himself a grandfather. The film doesn’t touch on the drama that must have been playing up north, as Solomon’s family realized he’d disappeared, presumably tried to find him, and gradually became reconciled to their loss. Only in myth can the living attempt to bring their loved ones out of hell. The results are rarely happy.
I could go on, and on and on. Suffice it to say that Twelve Years a Slave will be on my mind next spring when the Spirituals Choir reunites for its 10th season.
If you’re on the Vineyard, Twelve Years a Slave will be screened at the M.V. Film Center three times this coming weekend: Friday, Nov. 15, at 4 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 16, at 7:30; and Sunday, Nov. 17, at 4. Elsewhere, the film is being released more widely and shouldn’t be hard to find, at least in urban areas. Solomon Northrup’s memoir is in print and available from the usual online outlets. And for an insightful take on slave narratives in general and this one in particular, see Eric Herschthal’s blog on the New York Times website.
– Susanna J. Sturgis