It's a privilege to share with our community this review of the Oscar-winning film, 12 Years a Slave, offered by author and former Learning Ally National Achievement Award winner, Peter Altschul. To those for whom sight is a taken-for-granted component of the movie-going experience, Peter's review gives a fresh perspective on the film with focus on dialogue, audio track, musical score, and the audience's verbal reactions. This review is reposted with Peter's permission; we encourage you to visit his website for more illuminating posts.
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Slavery Through Sound
By Peter Altschul
Last Saturday, my wife, Lisa, and I viewed the movie “Twelve Years a Slave,” leaving my guide dog at home for a well-deserved rest. Without giving away too much of the plot, Solomon Northup, a free African American man who worked as a skilled carpenter and fiddle player while living in Saratoga, New York, was offered a two-week gig as a musician. His employers, however, drugged him, and he woke up in chains as a slave. During the film, he first worked for a relatively benevolent master and later for one who was much crueler. Eventually, an abolitionist, at great risk to his own life, contacted Solomon’s family, and Solomon was eventually freed.
The soundscape of the movie is grim. The clinking of chains binding the slaves together, as well as the incessant whirr of tree frogs and crickets; the absence of bird calls until after Solomon was set free; the regular crack of the whip with the accompanying howls of pain; the cool, callous way in which the masters talked about “their” slaves; and the condescending, cruel tones in which the slaveowners talked to “their” slaves conveyed an atmosphere of tedious misery punctuated by unpredictable moments of violence.
Bangs, thuds, and audience gasps signaled these moments, which Lisa explained through nudges and whispers. For example, during an evening dance, a sickening thud caused gasps from people sitting around us; “the slaveowner’s wife hit Patsey (the most productive slave who the plantation owner regularly raped) in the head with a heavy crystal vase.” Later, after Patsey was brutally whipped first by Solomon after being ordered to do so by the slaveowner and later by the slaveowner himself, I heard more horrified gasps over Patsey’s sobs. “My God,” Lisa murmured, “there’s no flesh on her back.” Shortly afterwards, Lisa told me that Solomon had destroyed his fiddle that he had received from his first master as a gift.
The cruelty of three other scenes also caught my attention. The first scene featured a salesman cheerfully encouraging his customers to help themselves to food and drink while alerting them to the physical characteristics of potential slaves who stood naked around the room. During the second scene, the cruel master preached to “his” slaves about how the Bible sanctioned the way they were being treated. In the final scene, a fieldhand, instead of following through on his promise to get a letter to Solomon’s friends in New York, betrayed him to the cruel slaveowner, and Solomon only survived because of his understanding of the backbiting ways of the plantation and his ability to lie convincingly.
The film’s score, composed by Hans Zimmer, is notable in that he primarily uses stringed instruments, which are occasionally amplified to create distorted sounds that are both caustic and erie. This highlights both Solomon’s skill as a fiddle player while reinforcing the grim atmosphere of most of the movie. The film also features several “slave songs” in which I heard the beginnings of spirituals, gospel music, and even jazz.
Impressions cascaded through my mind as we left the movie. Slavery is gut-wrenchingly awful. Christianity served as a foundation both for those who opposed and supported it. While growing up, we’re told never to lie, but Solomon’s willingness and ability to convey falsehoods saved his life. The “peculiar institution of slavery” caused decent people to make inhumane choices. When Solomon told the more benevolent master that he was in fact a free man, the master responded that he “couldn’t hear this.” Instead, he did what he considered was the next best thing: to hand Solomon over to a much crueler master to whom he owed money so that Solomon’s life would no longer be in danger from some of his staff.
As we drove home, Lisa told me that the closing credits indicated that little information exists concerning the details of Solomon’s death. I wondered aloud if these details were kept private because Solomon’s experiences as a slave might have driven him to commit suicide.
“Or maybe somebody shot him,” Lisa said. “But we’ll never know.”
But we do know that slavery stains our history, and that, as the abolitionist warned the more cruel slaveowner, we would be suffering the consequences for generations to come. We’re still suffering.
Read more from Peter Altschul and learn about his book, "Breaking Barriers, at his website. You can also read our interview with Peter on the Learning Ally blog, and access his book in Learning Ally's library.