’12 Years a Slave’ Is Harrowing and Illuminating

“Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.”

— Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

“Sell her,” demands Mary Epps (Sarah Paulson). “Sell the negress.” Mary has just then thrown a decanter at the “negress,” Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), bloodying her forehead and sending her directly to floor. Now Patsey is crying in pain, off-screen, while the camera in 12 Years a Slave fixes on Mary, now glaring at her husband Edwin (Michael Fassbender). “You will remove that black bitch from this property,” she hisses: she knows he’s been raping Patsey regularly, and she wants it to end.

Mary doesn’t call it rape, being a slave owner’s wife and seeing Patsey as property. But the horror of this scene lies precisely in the limits on both women, limits that are at once alike and utterly different. As Mary makes Patsey the target of her upset — and that decanter — she makes vividly clear a dimension of slavery too often unremembered. It’s this sort of exposure that makes 12 Years a Slave so harrowing and so illuminating. Even for its focus through the individual experience and perspective of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a real life free man sold into slavery, it reveals, again and again, the pervasive, sustained systemic effects.

Such effects are palpable in the tension between Mary and Patsey, escalating throughout Steve McQueen and John Ridley’s superb film, which Solomon — called Platt by the slave sellers and owners — observes but doesn’t always understand. That difficulty of understanding is a function of what you see and also what you don’t, the ways the movie expands and compresses time, the designation its title at once abstract and utterly material, the intersections of time and bodies. Structured more as a series of moments than a singular forward movement, 12 Years a Slave invites you to put together causes and effects, to see all at once (and so, feel overwhelmed) and also to grasp how trauma is also incremental, molding expectations as it crushes souls. And so, as Patsey remains off screen in this moment while the white folks argue, your attention is directed much like Solomon’s, not to Patsey their victim, but to their simultaneously spectacular and mundane machinations.

Like Patsey, Solomon becomes a victim of these machinations, the economics of slavery as much as the racism that allows it. He is a victim of course, kidnapped and sold into slavery by a couple of white men wearing top hats and waistcoats whose intentions he misreads. A couple of times, the film flashes back to Solomon’s life as a father and husband, wearing his own store-bought vest and impressive boots. But for the most part, it remains focused on Solomon’s present, endless, impossible, frightening in every way at every moment, time fractured and expanded simultaneously.

The rupturing of time is matched with breaking bodies, through torture, through chains and bits, dismemberings and whippings. Mary’s attack on Patsey is preceded by Epps’ other sort of assault, his invasion of the slave quarters late at night, dragging his properties, unprotesting, into his home to dance for him (Solomon plays the fiddle, his work before his kidnapping) underlines the slaves’ daily humiliation and exhaustion, but also Epps’ awful assumptions about people as property. In this, he’s typical, for even the owner who treats Solomon well (Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch), does so tentatively. Though he admires Solomon — “You’re an exceptional nigger, Platt, but I fear no good will come of it” — he is more worried about himself, should he be caught looking out for his exceptional property as if he was a person. Here again, the film laments the damage of slavery as a system, in Ford’s inability to see beyond it.

Epps is the film’s most appalling embodiment of this damage, in his abuses of Patsey and Mary, in his assaults on all his slaves, in his creepy play with the black children he’s fathered. For even as Solomon might imagine he can survive at Ford’s, he is also reminded repeatedly that he cannot, especially when faced with the venality of the overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano), whose effort to hang him leads to one of the film’s most memorable, seemingly endless scenes, as the camera cuts from Solomon’s agonized face to his tiptoes in mud, as he tries for long hours to keep from hanging, and then to other slaves behind him, tending to their work, afraid to look at him, much less to cut him down.

The metaphor for slavery here seems obvious, the ever precarious balance between life and death, made fiercely visceral. Again and still, the isolation of this metaphor can be deceptive, and so the film returns Solomon to moments where his empathy as well as his life is at stake, his self-definition not only a function of surviving but also of understanding another sort of experience. Solomon has a hard time seeing that rape takes many shapes, his difficulty inviting you to sort out the nuances as well as the brutalities of slavery.

He faces another shift in perspective with regard to another woman, Eliza (Adepero Oduye), who loses her two children — sired by her owner — when they are all sold apart. As she wails inconsolably, Solomon grows weary of the sound and instructs her, suggesting that she will only injure herself further if she doesn’t come out of her despair. He suggests that he is a parent too, but has found a way to focus elsewhere, unable for that moment to comprehend the breadth of her agony, that her children are not living in a home with another parent, but are slaves.

The moment when Solomon watches Eliza dragged away, sold who knows where, may or may not signal a change for him, but when he is asked to be responsible for Patsey’s fate, three times, he is less able to look away. First, Mary cuts Patsey’s face in another display of rage: the movement is so swift it’s hard to read what Mary’s done. Again, Solomon is in the room, playing his fiddle, unable to react. The consequence for Patsey is revealed after, in a scene where her injured face fills the frame as she must explain to Solomon her situation. He’s guessed she is privileged, like Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard) with whom he witnesses her having tea on the Shaws’ porch, as Mistress Shaw explains that she no longer required to work in the field, her master now keeping her inside, for a price. But Patsey articulates her own difficulties: “I ain’t got no comfort from this,” she says, mournfully.

This lack of comfort is underlined when Patsey asks Solomon to kill her, so her suffering might end, and he is horrified by the very thought. But he is able, eventually, to whip her. It’s a scene as bizarre and gruesome as you can imagine, with Mary urging on both her slave and her husband to beat Patsey, with Patsey insisting she’d rather have him do it than Epps, and with Epps himself lurching out of control, while the camera moves sinuously, from his face to Mary’s to Solomon’s to Patsey’s — and also showing Patsey’s bloody, swelling back as she’s tied to a tree and beaten almost to death. The camera connects all these pieces, all these moments in time and all these bodies, devastated for all possible futures even if they survive.

You see that the body at risk here, in this most disturbing of the film’s many disturbing scenes, is Patsey’s. Assaulted by black and white men and feared by a white woman, exposed in every way, this body lingers in your mind, as Solomon makes his way back North, as he sees his wife and daughter, and her child. Signifying so many “mortifications,” Patsey reveals to Solomon what he and you must see.

RATING 10 / 10