How “12 Years a Slave” Demonstrates True Life: Thoughts on this Conceptually Rich Film

20 12 2013

I am still in process of reading the book to compare points of accuracy versus artistic expression, but I want to offer a few unpolished thoughts about the spirit behind Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.”


In my mind “12 Years a Slave” is about three things:

1)     The tension and myth of white male protection and permission,

2)     The tension and myth of black male protection over the black female; and  

3)     The necessity of the black church.

And of course mixed messily in between all this is the invisibly visible black female voice.



I truly believe that if “Django” incited rage and righteous anger, revenge (fantasy) even, then “12 Years a Slave” incites despair – long, putrid, pungent, soul-shattering despair.


The narrative is beyond sad. It melancholic. The scenes are hard to watch. They do in fact breed anger, but this anger we can do nothing with. In “Django” we can celebrate that anger wins out and that (some of) the white people who caused heartache are destroyed. But in “12 Years a Slave” victory cannot be celebrated, because one man’s triumph reminds the viewer that freedom of one does not free all. It reminds the reader that freedom is an exception to the rule, and further that freedom must be handed to you. “Django” like “12 Years a Slave” still relies on white help in order for freedom to be a reality for (certain) black people. And freedom is a rare thing for many who were born into and died a slave. Freedom is elusive, a taunting myth. Solomon Northrup ultimately receives it, but in this reception, he becomes the “exceptional Negro.”


The Tension and Myth of White Male Protection and Permission

In this wonderful dialogue (from 22:55 onwards) Melissa Harris-Perry argues that at the end of “12 Years a Slave” the only semblance of justice that Solomon Northup has belongs to the American court system. He still has to seek his voice within the framework of American democracy (but unfortunately his case is not heard and no “justice” comes to the men who have wronged him). He has to work within a legal framework that admittedly chooses not to work for, read protect, him. He still must work through, within and against a system built for and by white men.


Even Northrup’s misperception (which, in the same dialogue, bell hooks calls a “naïve” one) is that his good master will protect him from the bad overseers. He thinks the good white men, or the ones who treat him as decent as one can treat a slave, the ones who think of black bodies naturally functioning as property (and thus they must keep their property in good shape), will protect him from the ones whose hate is not so subtle.


He thinks that the master who tried to buy him, and Eliza and her children, is good – for at least he tried and when Solomon was lynched for days at a time on this master’s plantation, he heroically comes in on a horse to cut him down.


Northrup thinks the hired hand who treated his whipping wounds and struck up a conversation with him would actually deliver a letter on his behalf because he gave him his word (in exchange for his money). He thought he was a good one.


He even thinks that the men (including the judge – which is an interesting concept to imagine, the judge liberating him/Christ as judge) who come and rescue him at the end are good. But What Northrup fails to realize that his freedom must first pass through white flesh, white help, white permission, white protection. Through another hired hand (from Canada, not America, who happens to be played by Brad Pitt whose own family aesthetics are interesting in itself) Northrup is granted his freedom. He obtains the right white permission to exist as a man, as a free black person.  


His freedom only is because (certain) white men allow it.


Given this reality, his freedom is a myth, a choice for the white men in his society to grant or not. Northrup as a black man has no control over his life. And he also learns while in slavery, that unlike his perceived situation at home, that he has no ability to offer any protection to the black woman as well.


The Tension and Myth of Black Male Protection

Black female autonomy seems nearly non-existent in this film. Outside of Northrup’s wife, black women are portrayed as slaves who never escape. So where does autonomy rest for the black women? In their choice to be, to exist, to (choose to) live in their own way, not solely as chattel, not solely as slaves.


The opening scene where Northrup is fingering a fellow female slave is disturbing. But even in its disruption (of how the viewer is used to a film opening), we know something important is happening. What it is, we are not sure, but I hope to offer my best reading and frankly, guess, of what is happening in it.


The woman Northrup engages in this sexual manner craves sexual contact. And by his participation, it seems that he craves the same (and to be clear, there is a distinction between participation and refusal language that is important. Another classmate read that moment as him being sexually used, and if a black woman were in his position, it could be read as sexual assault. So I think it important to think of his role as a participating one rather than one that was not resistant). Northrup gives this unnamed young slave sexual contact that she initiates, that they both want, and then she turns around and cries when she/he/they is/are done.


Perhaps she is disturbed by their (necessary) sexual interaction. He is disturbed as well. No words are exchanged. They don’t need to be. They are in the frightening throws of slavery. Her crying signals this in a few ways. But her crying is also a disruption, a disturbing revelation of what her life will not be. The actuality that she is slave by her body alone is concretized. Her crying is disturbing because it contains words, her tears are her words. They speak to the reality that her body is something that is owned now – and perhaps this silent sexual moment was the last moment where her sexual choice was her own – and it was with a complete stranger. And she weeps as this is a sad reality.


Black women’s tears litter “12 Years a Slave.”


Northrup’s first encounter with a mourning black woman is in their holding cell (prison: the modern day slave ship?). He experiences Eliza, a young mother who is separated from her children and sold into slavery with him. Separated from her children, she enters into a perpetual state of grief, sadness and longing, mourning that Northrup can only identify with so much.


Although suffering through his own grief of not being with his family, Northrup screams at Eliza to pull it together. He has an angry exchange with her about hiding grief as a survival tool. But black women teach Northrup a lesson about life and living: it is not about survival. It is Eliza and later Patsy, who remind and show Northrup that how they are “living” as slaves, is the epitome of despair, that to live, one has to feel, one has to own their interiority, which for them was spelt out in grief. These women are not afraid to admit where they are. They are in deep despair. They see the maltreatment of themselves, or the lack of treating them as human beings, as the definition of despair. They remind Solomon that if he can’t tap into that, he is not living, but surviving – merely existing. They give him an ontological lesson in being a black human being, for be a black human being in slavery is to acknowledge what their human condition is. It is one of despair. To be a black human being who is forced to be a slave requires feeling human emotion. They in a sense, remind him to be human and not livestock. They have to remind him that to be human requires being and not simply doing. They show him that slaves survive but wronged black people, despair for despair keeps them human in a system that aims to dehumanize them. They ask him to choose the lesser of two evils: to live as a black person in despair rather than function quietly and obediently as a slave. For to enter into ontological slave territory is to believe the myth that one can be re-shaped, re-formed, re-named, by this new Adam, who of course named everything but humans. To be a black person was to sit in the throws of despair and as humans, feel it intensely. Eliza and Patsy remind Northrup to live and do so in the present. And his present was a despairing one (which brings up some connections to JanMohamed’s The Death Bound Subject)


This lesson of “life” or “death” is also concretized in the initial ship scene with Solomon and the two other slave men, one advocating for rebellion, mutiny and freedom, the other for putting your head down and succumbing to the reality that they are slaves (but only in order to survive). The former dies in an act of resistance, of protecting a black woman from white sexual contact. He refutes and he dies. This scene alone is the microcosm of the lesson of life. The cautious and survival-advocating slave lives. He is freed as his master finds him and takes him back. He biologically continues life but as a full-fledged slave. His social life is death even though his physical life still keeps him. The former dies and as they are throwing him over board the cautious slave says that it is better that way. This man’s refusal for himself and others to be treated as a slave allowed him to die and thus live. He was no longer bound by the social structures that rendered him inhuman. His death became a choice to live whereas the slave who lives lives only as chattel, lives as object, as inhuman. He knows not real life.


Near the end of the film, Solomon has about 5 second scene where he stares straight into the camera in deep hurt and pain. It is in this moment that I believe he is allowing himself to enter into despair and thus feel human in his context. He embraces the tension that Eliza and Patsy taught him – rest in moments of despair. Don’t leave them too quickly, for they teach you what life feels like, even if it is one of pain. Nevertheless, he wrestles with what they teach him about black life, and struggles about what they teach him about his black male power.


Northrup learns the painful reality that unlike his wife, he cannot protect these black women he encounters. As Eliza’s grief consumes her and ultimately gets her in trouble, she is removed from the plantation not to be seen again. And in the mixture of her grief and his deep powerlessness, Solomon cannot protect her. She is dragged away to an unknown fate – after weeping, after despairing too much – during the weekly church service. As she approaches her unknown fate, Eliza screams Solomon’s name, but he is powerless to do anything lest he risk losing his life.


Northrup unfortunately cannot offer much to another young female slave at his next plantation. Patsy is at the mercy of her white master and his jealous wife. But she seeks solace through Northrup, even in a dark form. When she offers him a deal: a gift in exchange for her request for him to murder her, Northrup obstinately refuses. He thinks her proposition a disgusting one as he is transfixed on surviving so that he might one day be free. But what he fails to recognize is that survival takes on a masculine form in this film. The tension is between survival (discussed on the ship by black males) and despair (learned in slavery through black female words, weeping and singing). But survival participates in the work of enslaving and dehumanizing him.  


Northrup easily enters into survival mode (at each plantation seemingly getting dumber) because he has something to survive for. He has a future that he built in the past waiting on him – he has his family. Patsy only knows plantation life, thus her future is sutured to continuous physical and verbal abuse, rape, and mental denigration. Patsy has nothing to survive for. She has nothing to live for. She does not have free papers (not necessarily freedom) like Solomon has. All she has the plantation and “life” as a slave. To her, freedom is death. Solomon fails to see this connection.


When Patsy goes into town to get soap to clean her body and her master flies into a jealous rage, Northrup is made to whip Patsy. Instead of taking the punishment on his own flesh, he allows the white sadomasochistic master and wife duo to watch her physical suffering being inflicted on her black flesh. Patsy even yells “I’d rather you do it Platt.” She would rather be beat by a black man, than by her white sexually abusive master. This is the black female’s plight – she’d rathr be hurt by her own than by the other.


Unfortunately, after Platt gives a few lesser whippings, he is forced to inflict harsher ones. But he stops. And it is his stopping the whipping, that opens to door for greater torment. When he stops the white master comes in and whips her anyway (while the white mistress watches). In this moment, Patsy, the black woman, demonstrates the ongoing, deep plight of the black woman – she is victim of the black male, the white male and the white female (the onlooker). Unfortunately in that moment, we see the slave who is worst off. Solomon cannot protect her; no, he can only contribute to her plight. He can only make her plight worse.


Even in the house, Patsy is non-protectable flesh (shout out to feminism!). She’s constantly physically abused by the white mistress, but Solomon can do is stop doing (playing the fiddle) and stand by watching open-mouthed. When she is whipped after his initial attempts, he stands by unable to help, outside of cursing judgment upon the master. When he is freed, he cannot do anything but embrace her and then embrace his own freedom. Every man for himself. Every male for himself. Every male, quick, back to survival mode!


Northrup’s character is complex. He enters into ebbs and flows of despair and survival, ultimately seeing (or perhaps failing to see) that despair does greater “survival” work in the end. He allows himself to feel, he allows himself to bury feeling and thus being and solely function as a doing. Then he allows himself to feel and be again. But ultimately gains his freedom and switches back to survival mode. He cannot free Patsy. There is no point in trying. Although Eliza and Patsy teach him how to keep his humanity, how to feel, how to live in despair and feel one’s own cries, as well as the cries of others – the original notion of survival wins. He has to escape. He neglects the new form survival takes in despair where the community becomes important to him, where other slaves, functioning as best as they can as black people should matter.


Ultimately we see Northrup’s inability to hold on to despair, to being human, even in his freedom. He imitates a certain type of maleness in solely seeing about himself (which he cannot be blamed for). The reality is survival can only take one form for him; his approximating a white man, through his freedom does not leave space for notions like despair, and thus holding the pain of the entire community, for that would make him responsible for the Patsy’s and the Eliza’s – and he has no capacity or power to hold them, and thus free them. He has no capacity to survive on a deeper level than what he had known earlier.


Northrup can do nothing for these women, and it is obviously a place of torture for him. At the end of the movie, when Northrup is reunited with his family, he does something curious, he tries to embrace this notion of despair he was taught to unapologetically live in: he apologizes to his wife. In this moment it can be inferred that Northrup is not apologizing for not being home for 12 years, he is not apologizing for his absence to his family, but he is apologizing for being an absent presence and proactive protective force to black women. He is apologizing to all of the black women he encountered in slavery that he could not protect. He apologizes for not knowing how and not being able to ultimately embrace despair into a new reality of black being (together). He apologizes for not being able to feel himself, feel the community, and thus free the community. He apologizes that he can ultimately, only, and somewhat protect himself (through white help).


The Necessity of the Black Church  


*I confess, this section is rushed and needs deeper thought so there may be further edits!*


For me, “12 Years a Slave” proves the necessity of the black church. It is not only a space of survival, but it a place of being human. Like Patsy and Eliza encouraged Northrup to do, it was a place for black slaves to feel and be human. They had space for their emotion, for their interiority, for interior and psychic life. Worship gathering gave them space to make noise together, to feel in that noise, and to, in swift and religious moments, affirm each other’s humanity.


Their gathering had something to do with belief in God, but it more to do with black people having a space to communally function and to rename each other (through weeping, through song – the language of black women in this film) as God’s human creation.


Music is quite important in “12 Years a Slave.” All the songs sung in the fields and the songs sung in black worship gathering (funerals) are started from the throats of black women, for they get it. They understand that tears and song are their voice. And they share this, quite generously, with men.


Solomon has a conversion moment into an ebb of despair at the death of a fellow slave. Song is struck up. Emotions are felt. And Solomon is captured by it, raptured even. He sings with vigor. He closes his eyes. He lets the words matter to him. He lets the event and process of singing sorrow minister to him.


This is why the black church is important. It is a place of mattering and ministry. Its humanizing ministry must not be obliterated in the name of reconciliation. It must be allowed to be a leader to all churches, white churches especially. White people must see that this black church is the real church, for in this space, perhaps they too can learn what it means to be, and to be, what Dr. Jennings invokes in the mere existence of a black church, a miracle.  


It is true for the slaves: Jesus really is the way, truth and the life. But what “12 Years a Slave” does is show us the complexity of what this “life” even means. It muddies it and challenges every single Christian to dare to use Christian-ese or general language and concepts in its presence. It dares Christianity to be something else other than a religion of despair, of feeling, of truth.  

%d bloggers like this: