There are an endless number of effecting moments in 12 Years A Slave. The despair of the boat ride that brings Solomon to the South. How Michael Fassbender embodies a truly sinister character in Edwin Epps. The eeriness of Mary Epps’ voice, heard off camera instructing Platt to whip Patsey. The joy and pain Solomon experiences writing and destroying a letter. But there is one moment, so profound, it somehow resonates above every other.
After a fellow slave dies in the cotton field, the group gathers. They sing “Roll Jordan Roll” led by one women. (It occurred to me that in any other film, this woman would be the stereotypical “Mammy” character. But in 12 Years A Slave, she’s just another one of the nameless faces of slavery.) As the group sings, the camera zooms in on Chiwetel Ejiofor for a piercing close-up. (Close-ups of Ejiofor’s face are everything in 12 Years A Slave.)
At this juncture of the film, we have experienced so much with Solomon. His happiness. His kidnapping. His physical pain. His heartbreak. His agony. His refusal to accept himself as Platt. And as he joins his fellow slaves in singing “Roll Jordan Roll”, we are experiencing his defeat.
Until now this song has only been heard quietly in the background. But now it is in the the forefront because at this moment Solomon is accepting himself as Platt and not as Solomon Northrup. He is not a free man. But by singing in the spiritual, he is also joining in their subtle resistance of Master Epps. You’re watching their search for humanity, their strength and their defiance against brutality. it’s powerful. (You can catch a glimpse of this scene in the film’s trailer.)[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIqodUJ-UfM]
There’s an added element beyond the scope of 12 Years A Slave. Ever since I saw Dirty Pretty Things (2002), I have been waiting for Chiwetel Ejiofor to have a breakout role. Of course, the major breakout star of 12 Years A Slave will undoubtedly be Lupita Nyong’o but this film is equally as important for Ejiofor who despite being a fantastic actor is getting a little recognition. Because when Chiwetel Ejiofor sings, it’s pretty damn awesome.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4-obzmm_T0]