12 Years a Slave tackles many issues throughout its narrative, doing so in the elegant and unflinchingly honest way only director Steve McQueen can deliver. Hans Zimmer’s score works well to reflect the action on screen, playing almost like a horror score at times, but music becomes more than just something accenting the background and driving the emotion, it is also a major part of the story.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a violinist and his talents have not only helped provide him a comfortable life, they have made him a respected member of his community. Solomon is certainly skilled, but it is also clear that he simply loves to play. Unfortunately, that love leads him down a path that changes his life forever.
In Saratoga, New York, Solomon is a free man who plays for pleasure and additional income, but once he is kidnapped and shipped south, all the talents and skills that made him a valued member of society could now get him killed. Freeman (Paul Giamatti), the slave trader in charge of getting the highest price for his latest “stock,” quickly utilizes Solomon’s talents and has him play during his human auction as those around him are sold off and families are ruthlessly broken apart. The idea that upbeat music would keep those being sold and separated seem less upsetting is the first glimpse both Solomon and audiences get of the logic existing south of the Mason-Dixon line.
The image of Solomon playing as people scream for their family members — people who they will likely never see again — is a stark contrast to the elaborate dinner parties and events he used to lend his talents to. This is a new world for Solomon, and music is valued very differently here.
Ejiofor himself recently noted, “Music was his [Solomon’s] way of feeling connected to the community and he was considered talented and special.” In this new environment, music becomes something Solomon performs at the command of his masters, so letting those masters know he is talented becomes a threat instead of something to take pride in.
Luckily, Solomon’s first master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a kind man who acknowledges his talents and goes so far as to gift Solomon a violin – an object that becomes a source of comfort and hope for Solomon as he etches his family’s names into it. A physical representation of his former life. But Solomon’s comfort under Ford’s ownership quickly ends as he finds himself with a new, much more dangerous master.
Solomon’s new world is not without music as songs are sung out over the cotton fields, but these tunes are now accented by the threatening percussion of a lash being whipped. He and his fellow slaves also sing as they lay those fallen to rest, and this act of singing together feels reminiscent to the community Solomon lost, but there is a palpable sorrow in these songs which works as a bitter contrast to the joy creating and sharing music once held. Music no longer brings people together in happiness, it becomes a symbol mirroring both survival and loss.
Solomon’s violin, which was the last tangible connection to his life before his enslavement, starts to become more painful than comforting. When Solomon performs now, it is rarely for the pleasure of his audience. There are many difficult scenes featured in 12 Years a Slave, but as we watch Solomon playing at a “party” where his new master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), sits drunk and demands his slaves dance for his entertainment, it becomes clear that music no longer means what it once did for Solomon. Something that had given him hope now acts as a raw reminder of the life he may never return to.
When Solomon played during the auction after first arriving in Louisiana, there were still some visages of his old life streaming across his face as he performed, but his new life as a slave and all the brutal things that came with it wear heavily on the notes. Watching his face as he performs for Epps makes it clear that he finally understands the true depth of the situation he is in, and there are no comforts there.
12 Years a Slave is in theaters Friday, October 18th.