After watching Lupita Nyong’o win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and the film itself, 12 Years a Slave, win Best Picture a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but return to the film for a second viewing. I happened to find the time on a 11 hour transatlantic flight, and while somewhere over that big open expanse of water, I watched and listened to the now famous scene where Chiwetal Ejiofor, playing Solomon Northup, first seems to embrace his fate, joining in song with his co-enslaved peers. The scene is haunting, and I recommend watching it here.
(Adapted by Nicholas Britell)
The lyrics themselves are simple, and the chorus repeated numerous times.
Went down to the river Jordan,
where John baptized three.
Well I woke the devil in hell
sayin John ain’t baptise me
Roll, Jordan, roll
Roll, Jordan, roll
My soul arise in heaven, Lord
for the year when Jordan roll
Well some say John was a baptist
some say John was a Jew
But I say John was a preacher of God
and my bible says so too.
A quick google search for the song provides the viewer/listener with some historical context. The song was originally written by an English Methodist preacher, Charles Wesley sometime in the 1700s. The song became popular in the United States sometime during the Second Great Awakening of the 1800s, and eventually reached Black slaves as a means to Christianize them, in the hopes that doing so would make them more cooperative in their slaved condition. (1) But the song ultimately had the opposite effect. Ann Powers described the song as “a primary example of slaves’ claiming and subverting a Christian message to express their own needs and send their own messages…Songs like this one, speaking of rivers, often sent coded messages about the hope for escape – passing over the Mississippi or the Ohio and northward.” (2) Powers claims that the song, and Northup’s joining in during the middle of a chorus, is further affirmation of Northup’s statement upon being captured, “I don’t want to survive; I want to live.”
I can’t help but question that conclusion, or at the very least, to read more depth into the simple claim that Northup is asserting his intention to “live” rather than “survive.” Though I’m far from an academic film critic, I think the scene warrants a closer reading, and that through just such a reading, it becomes clear that while Northup (and the director McQueen) may be signaling rebellion, the lyrics along with the setting of the song signify a community dynamic that is both hopeful and resigned. Northup’s joining is then more complicated, and demonstrates both a joining to that community, and one can’t help but hear his hopelessness as well.
The setting of the funeral is key to this reading. The man who died was another slave, one who simply dropped dead in the middle of the cotton fields, assumedly from exhaustion. While the song may have been meant to signal a hope that those enslaved singers would find some freedom, the freedom in this scene is not to another land where they are no longer enslaved, but to death and perhaps an afterlife. There is a certain macabre rebellion even if one reads this as a hopeful escape through death; in a way the dead man himself has robbed his owner of something by making further labour an impossibility. One can’t help but hear the respect for the man in the voices of the other singers; there is a resolution in their expression and the generally upbeat nature of the song that would seem to signify their standing proudly at this man’s graveside, saluting his ability to leave the fields.
And while the song is lead by the more elderly woman, the sense of community is not a hierarchical one. There is no preacher standing in a position of power, and the men and women are scattered equally through the small group. They clap in unison, bound together by the repetitive sound of flesh meeting flesh, perhaps ironically reversing what would usually be a violent contact of master-slave and turning it into one of community. All these factors might suggest a sort of egalitarianism worthy of praise; even in an enslaved state these African-Americans are able to preserve human dignity and respect for one another by coming together in a way that shows no more respect for one over another. But the rest of the movie itself provides a different reading. We do not know any of these other slaves standing around Northup. They haven’t been introduced to us, and we don’t know their life stories at all. The community has at the most basic level only one thing in common, their enslaved state. They did not choose to come together, there is not sense of family units within the crowd. They are simply together because there is no one else with whom they could be. The community then is forced, in much the same way as others have stated that the creation of African American culture in the early slave period was simply an amalgam of all the different cultures the Africans brought with them, so too are these individuals struggling to find connection, and triumph, in horrible circumstances.
And perhaps therein lies the beauty, and satisfaction, present in this scene. Though Northup is joining that community through his singing, he is not just joining the hopelessness (though he certainly seems to be accepting that as well). He joins a tragic community, one bound by circumstances yes, but also through their combined dignity of rebelling, at least through song and sound, against their oppressor. The repetition of the lyric, “roll, Jordan roll,” itself suggests the unstoppable power of water, and eventual freedom, as a force. Though traveling over that water first enslaved them, so will it free them, whether in crossing over a physical river to freedom, or perhaps, as the dead slave, passing over the river Styx into death. Again, though it may be rooted in the dark hope that freedom must come eventually, even in death, Northup’s joining is a signal that he finally identifies with those enslaved around him, no longer differentiated by his previously free state. The scene is haunting, and Chiwetal Ejiofor’s portrayal of Northup, joining in song with a look of triumphant defeat, warrants the more complicated reading of rebellion. And while McConaughey doubtless gave a great performance, Ejiofor could just as easily have won for this scene alone.
- See Calt, Stephen (2008). I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues Chicago: Chicago Review Press.
- Ann Powers (2013). ’12 Years a Slave’ Is This Year’s Best Film About Music. NPR.