12 Minutes in 12 Years as a Slave

Slave Picture

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.



About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Director of the Lewis University Arts & Ideas program.

One thought on “12 Minutes in 12 Years as a Slave

  1. March 10, 2014 at 6:14 pm

    One of the things that have been thrown around for months now is the notion that awards season voting bodies won’t respond to it because it’s too “difficult” to sit through. Let’s define difficult, shall we? Is it difficult to see the first openly gay politician gunned down by his closeted colleague? Is it difficult to see a reformed convict put to death by our country for his crimes? Is it difficult to see a mother choose which one of her children dies during the Holocaust? I’d argue that these answers add up to a resounding yes. Yet, no one threw those phrases of “too difficult” around.

    I’ve watched hundreds of films throughout my short 29-year history and I’ve seen some difficult cinema. Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” can make anyone quiver in shame as it shows the despicable reality of the Holocaust. Paul Greengrass’ “United 93”, which is almost an emotional biopic of America’s darkest hour, makes me want to crawl up into a ball and cry. And finally, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, one of the highest grossing films of all-time, shows the labor of our sins fleshed out into the beaten skin of an honest man. And still, no one threw these hyperbolic terms out saying, “it’s too hard watch.” Is it because this is an American tragedy, done by Americans? Is it the guilt of someone’s ancestors manifesting it in your tear ducts? I can’t answer that. Only the person who says it can. The structure of this country is built on the backs and blood of slaves. But slavery didn’t just exist in America, it was everywhere. It was horrifying what occurred for over 200 years and believe it or not, still exists in some parts of the world TODAY.

    Now when approaching the powerful film by McQueen and distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, there is a resounding honesty that McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley inhabit. There are no tricks or gimmicks, no cheap takes on a side story or character that is put there for time filling or a life-lesson for Solomon to learn. Everything is genuine. Is the film heartbreaking? Oh my God yes. Did I cry for several minutes after the screening? Embarrassingly so. I was enamored the entire time, head to toe, moment to moment.

    I have long admired the talent that’s been evident in the works of Chiwetel Ejiofor. I’ve known he was capable of what he has accomplished as Solomon Northup and he hits it out of the park. He has the urgency, worry, and drive to get home to his family and executes every emotion flawlessly even when all hope seems to be lost. Where he shines incredibly are the small nuances that he takes as the story slows down, you notice aspects of Solomon that make him even more believable.

    As Edwin Epps, Solomon’s last owner, Michael Fassbender digs down deep into some evil territory. Acts as the “Amon Goeth” of our tale, he is exactly what you’d expect a person who believes this should be a way of life to behave. He’s vile and strikes fear into not only the people he interacts with but with the viewers who watch. As Mrs. Epps, Sarah Paulson is just as wretched. Abusive, conniving, entitled, and I loved every second of her.

    Mark my words; Lupita Nyong’o is the emotional epicenter of the entire film. The heartache, tears, and anger that will grow inside during the feature will have our beautiful “Patsey” at the core. She is the great find of our film year and will surely go on to more dynamic and passionate projects in the future. You’re watching the birth of a star.

    Hans Zimmer puts forth a very pronounced score, enriched with all the subtle ticks that strike the chords of tone. One thing that cannot be denied is the exquisite camera work of Sean Bobbit. Weaving through the parts of boat and then through the grassroots of a cotton field, he puts himself in the leagues of Roger Deakins and Seamus McGarvey as one of the most innovative and exciting DP’s in the business. Especially following his work in “The Place Beyond the Pines” earlier this year. Simply marvelous.

    Oscar chances, since I know many of you are wondering. Put the Oscar’s in my hands, you have a dozen nominations reap for the taking. Best Picture, Director, Lead Actor, Supporting Actor, dual Supporting Actresses, Adapted Screenplay, Production Design, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, Original Score. There’s also a strong and rich sound scope that is present. The sounds of nature as the slaves walk or as Solomon approaches his master’s house is noticed. The big question is, can it win? I haven’t seen everything yet so I cannot yet if it deserves it or not. I can say, if critics and audiences can get off this “difficult” watch nonsense and accept the cinematic endeavor as a look into our own history as told from a great auteur, there’s no reason it can’t top the night. I’m very aware that seeing this film along with Steve McQueen crowned by Oscar is nearly erasing 85 years of history in the Academy. Are they willing and ready to begin looking into new realms and allowing someone not necessarily in their inner circles to make a bold statement as McQueen and Ridley take in “12 Years a Slave?” I remain hopeful.

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