Many movies came out in 2013, but none stood out more than 12 Years a Slave. Not only was it praised for its’ historical accuracy and acting, but also its’ music. Music has always been an important role in American history, particularly black history. Although many movies about slavery skims over this fact, 12 Years a Slave does the complete opposite. The critically acclaimed film signifies the cultural influence of black music in slavery, along with the white usage of the music, by bestowing a black musician, Solomon Northup. This resulted in a painfully accurate depiction of slavery as the audience follows Northup’s struggle against not only enslavement, but also himself. When he was a freedman, Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was an educated husband, father, carpenter and violinist. All of these characteristics made him a valued member of society but after his capture and enslavement, these talents and skills could get him killed. Freeman, the slave trader, arranges a “slave boutique” and utilizes Northup’s skills by making him play a fiddle during his human auction. As a woman is separated from her children after being sold, Freeman orders Northup to play louder. The concept that lively music would make the separation seem less unsettling is the first time both Northup and the audience get to see the logic of slavery. This scene is so contrasting to the dinner parties and events he attended during his time as a freedman and makes Northup truly realize that he’s in a new world and that music is valued entirely different here. Ejiofor had even said himself that “Music was his Northup’s way of feeling connected to the community and he was considered talented and special”. In his former life, music was something he was proud of, but as a slave, music began to have a different meaning. Unable to express his intelligence, it seems like Northup is forced to remain silent, but music is there to convey his emotions for him every step of the way. This is reinforced by 12 Years a Slave director, Steve McQueen, saying “What I was thinking about was silent movie stars… because when you’re on your own and you can’t talk to people about who you are, it’s all about how you can translate that to an audience”. Northup’s first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) , was a kind man and had a soft heart for Northup and even gifted Northup with a violin. With this violin, Northup took so much comfort in it that he carved his family’s name in it. Unfortunately, after experiencing many difficult situations, his view on music begins to change. It’s no longer something he takes pride in and brings happiness to people. It’s now become a symbol of survival and loss. His violin begins to become more painful than comforting. When he’s forced to play for his drunken new master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender),  late at night, the viewers can see that he’s no longer playing for the pleasure of his audience. Music has become a reminder to Northup that his happy past life is no longer something he can return to. If viewers can’t catch onto those subtle messages, there’s a scene in the movie that represents this message loud and clear. After witnessing Patsey being brutally whipped multiple times, something in Northup breaks and is later shown destroying the violin he cherished so much in a moment of anger and frustration. There are other scenes in which this message plays over and over again. With whatever hope he has left, it’s slowly eroded away when he’s had enough. His identity is on a never-ending loop as he keeps going from tragedy to hope over and over again. Huddled around a shoddy grave belonging to a recently fallen slave, a voice both strong and loud, leads a group of slaves into a moving rendition of “Roll, Jordan, Roll”. All but one is singing. As the camera focuses on Northup, the audience watches as he slowly, but surely, succumbs to not only the song, but his situation. Although “Roll, Jordan, Roll” is a song about giving slaves hope to escape, in that moment of time, it arguably does the opposite for Northup. “Roll, Jordan, Roll” has deep Biblical meaning that slaves can relate very well to. The Jordan sung in the song is a reference to the River Jordan in the Bible. This is significant because after being freed from the Egyptians’ oppression, the Israelites entered the Promised Land after passing through the River Jordan. Slaves sing “Roll. Jordan, Roll” to represent the freedom from injustice and persecution as they cross the barrier. Northup is an educated slave, who’s biggest oppression isn’t just his freedom, but his intelligence and talents. He psychologically holds out as long as he can, but as he continues to listen to the song, Northup begins to understand his situation; he accepts his role as a victim that he initially resisted. He fights against himself to hold onto his status as a free man, but as he joins in, he decides to assimilate in as a slave. He’s given up, yet with this understanding, maybe he hasn’t.”Roll, Jordan, Roll” is a prime example of slaves’ changing a Christian message to their advantage. Some argue that “Roll, Jordan, Roll” does exactly what it’s meant to do, empower him. Earlier in the movie, Northup proclaims “I don’t want to survive. I want to live”. Maybe hearing and joining in “Roll, Jordan, Roll” was when he realized that although he’s a slave, he wants to continue fighting. He doesn’t want to forget who he originally is. He wants to one day see his family again and be the freedman he once was. We know this because of his persistent determination to make it back home.


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