With 12 Years A Slave, based on the memoir by Solomon Northup, Steve McQueen tells the harrowing tale of a wronged man, tricked and sold into slavery in the mid-19th century American south. Many terrible and emotionally powerful scenes have been singled out, including one where the proud Solomon (Chiwetel Ejofor), determined to live, breaks down and joins his fellows singing spirituals during their back breaking labours in the fields; enduring.
It recalls a similar, overlooked moment and character in Ed Zwick’s Glory (1989), set some twenty odd years after the events of McQueen’s drama. Glory tells the tale of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first Union regiment in the Civil War comprised of soldiers of colour. A lot of research for the film was derived from the letters of its young white commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick). The enlisted volunteers are a stock bunch, including Oscar winning Denzel Washington as angry runaway slave Trip, and Morgan Freeman as grave digger turned Sergeant. In fact, the real regiment was somewhat different, reflecting the character of Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher); a free born Bostonian, and friend to Shaw and his second in command, Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes) Braugher told historynet.com :
“The script also deviated from history in that we’re playing stock characters, and stock characters are what make war films go. There’s the sharp-shootin’ country boy; the guy with a chip on his shoulder, who rightfully wants to seek revenge; the old wise head; the smarty-pants from the city. The real 54th Regiment was drawn from all over the Northeast, and its men were quite well educated, healthy and successful in what they did in civilian life—meaning you had a very well-fed, well-educated and well-trained regiment, vastly superior to the one we put on the screen.”
Thomas sets out on his army career as somewhat naive, seeing the war as an intellectual exercise. He assumes his friendship with his white officer friends can survive, but he must carve out his own, new path. Braugher again:
“He’s motivated by ideals, and the fighting of a war is not so much about ideals but about perseverance and tactics and discipline; a lot of things that are more distasteful than what he thought would be. But it really turns from a moment where Robert and Thomas are comrades-in-arms to a war in which Thomas is fighting for his own history, his own story. It moves from being a question of two men who love each other going to war to really a question of how do we best fulfill our duty to our country; how do we best tell our own story; how do we best make a name for ourselves; how do we best preserve our own union. The friendship necessarily has to fall by the wayside because the commander and soldier have different priorities, and that friendship really can’t survive the way it was before.”
This is best illustrated in two asides to Thomas’ face as the enlisted men are gathered around a campfire the night before the climactic and suicidal charge against the Confederate Fort Wagner. Thomas feels alone amidst the others as they sing the songs of the plantations, dismissing their spirituals as a demeaning reminder of what he is trying to stamp out. But the cameraderie that the singing and shared storytelling engenders, especially when the reluctant Trip, with whom he has previously butted heads, stumblingly embraces his fellows (“Hell, I love the 54th!”) breaks him down. The singing does not demean them, it strengthens their resolve, not to endure, as in the fields like Solomon Northup’s fellow slaves,but to survive, with their own pride. The struggle written all over Thomas’ face, he breaks down, tears rolling down his cheeks. Jaw clenched, he then lets go , clapping and singing in new found union…
Footnote: While the film is an excellent and honourable attempt to tell the african-american experience of the war, you may be forgiven in thinking the regiment won their struggle for equal pay to whites, addressed earlier. In fact, the struggle, up to the point of charges for mutiny and executions, continued until legislation authorising retrospective equal pay was passed, almost one year on from their assault on Fort Wagner. Read more here.