The most brutal scene in 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s faithful adaption of Solomon Northup’s slave narrative, is the whipping of Patsey, the slave master’s coerced mistress and one of the most productive workers on the plantation. She’s whipped for sneaking off to a neighboring plantation and bringing back a bar of soap, a luxury that her master does not provide. The scene comes very close in intensity, duration, and in blood shed to the scourging of Christ in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, a comparison that does not work to the advantage of McQueen’s film. In Northup’s biography the girl is spread- eagle on her stomach, tethered to four stakes. McQueen sets her upright, kneeling and tied to a pole, a posture perhaps designed to remind us, whether we are students of Renaissance paintings that depict New Testament scenes or devotees of the Stations of the Cross, of the flogging of Jesus at the pillar. Thus we are repeatedly shown the agony on the face of the victim and the wounds on her back. Is it possible that her thin, malnourished body could survive such pain?
Seeking relief from the brutality, the viewer may turn to the tableau that McQueen has constructed around the stake. The viewer may not only find distraction but also a lesson in the gender and economic dynamics of slavery, an institution that degraded the lives of slaves and masters alike. At some steps removed from the stake is the hysterical master punishing his slave mistress for leaving without permission, and, as he imagines, for intimacies with a slave on a neighboring plantation. Edwin Epps, the abusive, alcoholic slave owner is hysterical in his desire for seemingly insatiable vengeance. The autobiography describes him as overweight and portly, adding to his unattractiveness; the film’s villain is the handsome and fit Michael Fassbender. At a few steps removed from the evil owner is his shrewish wife. Jealous about her slave rival but also incapable of getting out of the toxic relationship with her husband because of the Southern code, she urges on the bloodbath. Yet, there’s a curb on her passion because she, like her husband, realizes that getting rid of Patsey, either by sale or by death, will mean a decline in farm productivity, for the dexterous Patsey can outpick all of the men. The film makes clear that Epps acts in part to please his green-eyed wife, a woman who is none too pleased with him. Lady McBeth is alive in Louisiana.
In the tableau the one who inflicts the pain is none other than Solomon Northup, rechristened Platt. Under the threat of death, he is forced by Epps to whip a fellow slave. He requests permission to stop but is ordered to double down. One can only wonder how long this act of impotence and humiliation will linger in Platt’s consciousness. And despite Patsey’s post-whipping forgiveness, one wonders too if her forgiveness of Platt and by extension all male slaves can ever be complete. In such moments are future relationships between black men and black women contaminated?
The tableau also raises other interesting questions, especially at a time when we hear talk of secession and redressing the “war of Northern aggression’’ coming from citizens who want to “take America back.” And at a time when relatively powerless individuals – black and white – who should be united by common interests, are pitted against one another (when has it not been so in America?). Epps’s Louisiana plot is light years away from the large-scale, Tidewater plantations that form our popular culture image of the antebellum South. The film drives out of our imagination these unrepresentative depictions of the slave economy. In the years immediately preceding the Civil War, there were more slaves living on hardscrabble, frontier farms than on the majestic plantations like Margaret Mitchell’s Tara, Scarlett O’Hara’s doamin. Platt is one of no more than a dozen slaves working for Epps, and Epps is subject to economic anxieties causes by weather, plant disease, and ambitious neighbors. Neither Northrup’s biography nor McQueen’s film venture into an examination of the macroeconomics of the “peculiar institution”; that’s the work of documentaries like the brand-new The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, a PBS series written by Dr. Henry Louis Gates. But if while looking at this case study, one is to extend any sympathy to the cruel slave owner, it is because he’s another poor soul who is a slave to forces outside of his control and saddled by the master narrative of white superiority that can’t explain his daily experiences. Degrading all who are part of its machinery, slavery set marginal whites against chattel blacks but it also set husbands against wives and, as the whipping scene makes clear, brothers against sisters against their will.