Editor’s note: Written for MizHollywood. Plan on exploring film further in a future post and upon rewatching.
12 Years A Slave, which has already received stunning reviews out of the Toronto International Film Festival, features the story of Solomon Northrup, a free man who is drugged and kidnapped into slavery.
The film is based on Northrup’s book, a personal account of his years as a slave, and although the subject of the film is a man, there are several powerful portrayals by women.
Solomon’s life includes a wife, two children, and a career as a musician. Although we do not get to know Solomon’s wife Anne very well, there is a sense of equality in the Northrups’ marriage. Anne is getting ready to travel to serve as a cook to a family, a trip that is mentioned as a yearly occurrence. Solomon objects they are doing well enough, but she is determined to keep her promise and contribute to the family income.
Later, once he is enslaved, Solomon’s family becomes his driving force and his means for daily survival. He keeps them close to his heart by carving their names onto his violin, which he is presented by his first owner because he is such a talented fiddler.
Instead of using the film as a means of having characters speak against the institution of slavery, Director Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger) simply presents the daily lives of the slaves through stark yet intimate cinematography. By these means, he encourages his viewers to consider the mindset of those who were forced to be a part of the institution (those who were slaves), but also those who practiced it.
Michael Fassbender plays Master Edwin Epps, a slaveowner who thinks he has a legal and almost biblical right to treat slaves as his property, rather than people. However, it is the women in his life who make him a multi-dimensional character—not just the evil slave owner—but someone who is conflicted by his love for a slave girl, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) and his duty to his wife, Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson.)
Patsey is the most productive cotton picker on the plantation, far outweighing the men. It’s unclear whether Master Epps finds her attractive because she is a strong worker or because of her pure beauty. After all, since Epps considers her his “property,” maybe he’s turned on by her hard work in his name.
At first, Patsey is portrayed as someone who has a light heart and a happy spirit, despite her conditions. She’s always humming a song as she picks cotton. She’s allowed to travel to visit Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), a former slave married to her former master. Once when Solomon comes to fetch her from the Shaws’, Patsey even says something about how lucky they are and can’t they enjoy the nice tea Mistress Shaw has laid out for them.
But as her relationship with Master Epps progresses—a relationship which she does not want—she becomes hated and abused by Mistress Epps. Even more so than Master Epps’ unwanted affections, the actions and words by Mistress Epps beat Patsey’s spirit down until she’s as broken as the other slaves.
This is acted out in a literal fashion when Patsey disappears from Mistress Epps and must be punished when she returns. Patsey is whipped—first by Solomon, then by Master Epps—until she is not only figuratively but literally broken.
Mistress Epps, although a terrifying character, represents another point of view that is often ignored in the history of slavery. As a woman married to a slave owner, Mistress Epps shows how white women benefited from the institution and were active in the treatment and punishment of slaves. But they can also be considered slaves themselves. Even though she commands her husband to do as she wishes, she must endure his physical and emotional relationship with Patsey, without a choice about her own life.
Looking outside the film, McQueen’s journey to make this film actually starts with a woman. His wife, Bianca Stiger, a historian and journalist, was the one who recommended Northrup’s book to him. And on the production side, Dede Garner, produced the film as the president of Plan B Entertainment. Garner is the one who approached McQueen about working together on his next film after seeing his 2008 film Hunger.
- Why ’12 Years A Slave’ Is Different From ‘The Help’ And ‘Django Unchained’ – And Why It Matters (thinkprogress.org)
- “12 years a slave”: The perfect answer to Tarantino (salon.com)
- The Searing, Visceral 12 Years a Slave (theatlantic.com)