Spoiler alert: 12 Years a Slave is a Hollywood movie.
I've long lost faith in the idea that Hollywood is in the business to give us anything other than escapism. I’ll pay $14 for the experience of watching New York City (or some other far away planet with awesome looking aliens) get creatively and digitally blown to smithereens, which, of course, always leads to an epic “cock fight,” where two alphas spend the better part of ten minutes pounding the stuffing out of each other to overcooked, predictable music.
But I’ll also pay $14 to hear how “socially relevant” Hollywood films will use music to underscore their relevance. I wish sometimes that I could “turn off” hearing music as music, as something integral to my cinematic experiences, but I can’t. I love to see, and especially hear, people get to do their work despite Hollywood’s problems with race and originality. Heartfelt congratulations to director, Steve McQueen. You started from the bottom. Now you’re here. We see you. My problem might be that I can’t help but hear your work, too.
I’ve been thinking about slave music recently for another big project, so 12 Years a Slave, was timely. The film allowed me to see what basic assumptions circulate about music vis-à-vis the slaves’ interior thought and emotional life and how that would be conveyed to different audiences. There are lots of options, but Hollywood movies usually keep it simple in this regard, whether its any one of Meg Ryan’s changing same characters, or aliens, butlers, maids, baseball players, and even slaves.
Solomon Northup’s story details the experience of a talented black musician who thought it a reasonable idea to take a gig in what was essentially the South during the slave era, only to be kidnapped into slavery. Before we learn any of this, however, we experience two of the three primary streams of musical address we’ll hear throughout the film. Early on, we hear a group of adult male voices singing a capella, a heterophonic song whose lyrics toggle between work-song and spiritual subject matter.
We also hear classic Hollywood cinema music, all too familiar to film audiences, the music deployed to bring diverse viewers into similar listening positions vis-à-vis the characters’ interiority. When we hear it, we’re all supposed to feel the same way—scared, happy, sympathetic, revolted, etc., as the music demands. In this case, it’s solemn, a string section with an occasional digitally generated low drone tossed in for dramatic effect.
Later, Northup’s fiddle music (sometimes heard in concert with a fife or other string players) supplies the movie's third stream of musical address. This was Northup’s hustle, the thing that made him exceptional in both his free and enslaved lives.
Being “exceptional” in this regard and under such horrid circumstances was a mixed bag. As history reminds us, being musically talented during slavery would also make one easily marked—like a brand, in both senses of this word. Runaway slave advertisements often noted if the fugitive possessed such gifts.
At one point he's ordered to be human Muzak at a "slave boutique" as a mother is separated from her two children, presumably to bring a strained civility to one of slavery's many unthinkable horrors. Against, the family's shrieks, we hear his nervous arpeggios. The music that Northup plays sounds like the Irish jig music that swept the country in the 19th century, with its growing tastes for musical “otherness,” becoming a popular form before being supplanted by military bands and minstrel troupes. Essentially, Northup was a pop musician. Ironically—and there’s no elegant way to put this—the string music that often accompanies scenes in which we are encouraged by the director to relate to Northup’s emotional interior are the same chords in this summer’s world wide pop hit “Get Lucky.” Yes—as in “We’re up all night to get lucky.”
As luck would have it, one of his masters gives the now renamed “Platt” a fiddle, on which he secretly inscribes the names of his family. The fiddle gets him a paid gig, awakened in middle of the night to accompany the master’s cruel drunken impromptu parties. It provides comfort.
I found the fiddle a significant and exceptional object in this version of Northup’s narrative; it wasn’t a surprise when he smashes the violin to bits in a moment of highest frustration and lost hope. His exceptional past is just that: smashed with the violin. As the violin-bearing master tells him “You are an exceptional Niggah Platt, but I fear no good will come of it.” He is right. Platt, eager to show some swag, helps to engineer a way to facilitate a slave task in a more efficient way and shows up an envious white overseer. Not a good plan.
Hanz Zimmer’s film score was challenged to depict a black world that oscillated between two extreme poles in the screenplay: horrific mutilations, rapes, physical and psychological torture on the one side; and the mundane—backbreaking labor, eating, and, perhaps, sex on the other. No love music here. Sex is mostly depicted as a function of tyranny or presented in the context of some kind of control: enforced, painful, and horrible. Zimmer, a German musician, is obviously a Hollywood Insider with film credits including Batman Begins, Muppet Treasure Island, and Kung Fu Panda 2.
Who better to score a slave? I could hear the suits say during the pre-production meeting.
Once I got over the “Get Lucky” association, I thought one of the more typical uses of Hollywood cinema music was a lynching scene which employed a dramatic, agitated score against the choking and gagging young black men. The aesthetics of this scene—their writhing bodies, the score, the looks of abjection among the three black men—combine to chilling effect.
Otherwise, the slave’s emotional world was generally rendered musically flat-lined, even during the beating scenes, a decision that may have highlighted to some viewers how numbness may have become a strategy of survival. It might have connoted that this wasn’t a "fight" scene from an action film; it was human torture. Those of us who believe we know better about the emotional worlds of the enslaved from our studies may have found this move a missed opportunity. I’ll have to check out Kung Fu Panda 2 to see how their inner thought life was rendered musically. Presumably, the movie is about the Pandas.
I might be wrong.
The singing of slave songs most provocatively and robustly represented slave agency to this listener. At one point, a worksong “Run, Niggah, Run” is sung in the field, importantly, with a female leader. The song moves from this diegetic position in the film to extra-diegetic ones as several scenes change over. At one point, during a sermon from the master, the song’s lyrics provide the kind of unimaginable dissonance between Christian teachings and their own harsh existence. Is this why early Black Church and Work Music developed the clash of musical modes that produced the “blue notes” upon which an entire music system was developed, one in which dissonance was logical? Another poignant moment occurs when a group of slaves run into some Native Americans and they begin swapping songs and perhaps some of the pain. Thankfully, we are spared cartoon Native American music here. But the very sight of Native Americans inspired a foreboding “Oouuuu!” from my progressive New York City audience.
Besides the Chuck Berry fiddle-smashing move, another musical moment provides a high point in the dramatic arch of the film. At a slave graveside, McQueen trains the camera on a black woman, allowing us to study her for a few moments, as if it were a Gordon Parks photograph. She raises the spiritual, “Roll, Jordan, Roll” and the others join in with strong, declarative heterophony, in which individuals could assert their individuality, their humanness within the context of a Black Song Collective. A man had dropped dead during the song “Work This Cotton” the day before in the field. As the graveside song swells among the group, Mr. Solomon Northup, the exceptional musician, joins in, singing, clapping, and presumably accepting his lot. It’s clear he would drop dead picking cotton or be lynched for insubordination or seal his own fate if he accidentally revealed he could actually read and write. But, alas, he does get lucky in the end and it is, of course, scored with the “Get Lucky” chords.
Against the vast natural beauty of the Louisiana landscape and the richly shot, magnificently diverse skin tones of the enslaved, the music seemed contained in comparison. This was probably done intentionally to convey this world of constraint and cruelty. There are few registrations of the miraculous range of agencies that surely existed among the exceptional and unexceptional slaves. We are allowed one glimpse of such a world when Patsey, an enslaved woman who endures inconceivable brutalities, is seen daydreaming and making dolls from the straw of the field on the Sabbath. She is singing a song of unknown origin. As Patsey exclaims to Northup when he’s sent to retrieve her from her visiting a friend on another plantation, even she was “free to roam on the Sabbath.”
“Run, Patsey, run,” “Sing, Patsey, sing,” “Dance, Patsey, dance.” Love, Patsey, love. We know you did, because we’re here. We’re still watching, listening, living the miracle you that you were everyday.
I'm always surprised when I ask very smart cultural critics or even average moviegoers what a film was about and they rarely mention the music. 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.
Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. is author of The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History and the Challenge of Bebop and founding editor of the blog MusiQology.com. Follow him on Twitter@DrGuyMusiqology.