12 Years a Slave//Questioning Reactions to Steve McQueen’s Newest Film


Patsey makes a doll out of corn husks after a day of working Epps’ cotton fields. Patsey, played by Lupita Nyong’o, is the only other slave the audience really gets attached to, yet is unable to escape slavery. Screenshot from the trailer for “12 Years A Slave,” Fox Searchlight Pictures.

I wouldn’t say I enjoyed “12 Years A Slave.” Unless you’re a sadist, it’s impossible to feel enjoyment from a movie that forces you to watch a man whip the back of his lover until her flesh splatters into the mud around her. The film’s unflinching look at the horrors of slavery has been heralded as a breakthrough by outlets from the New York Times to The Guardian. The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a successful violin player and free man from upstate New York, who is abruptly kidnapped, enslaved, and sold to southern cotton plantations. The screenplay is adapted from a memoir by the real Solomon Northup, published several years after he returned home. A bestseller in the mid-19th century, and recently rediscovered, the story is a rare glimpse into slavery from the point of view of a slave. Throughout the film, I, and the audience around me, hoped against hope that he would escape, that someone would realize who he was, that he would return to his family and the life he had before.

The only problem is, why didn’t I, or most of the audience members around me, seem to care that any of the other slaves deserved freedom just as equally as Northup did?

Initially, my own academic background and experience led me to a very different reaction. I happened to see the film midway through my capstone, which explores why humans commit acts of malignant aggression—torture, rape, genocide. Throughout scenes of brutal beatings and mental abuse, I ran through theories in my head that could explain why any of this happened. Possibly the drunken slavemaster felt emasculated by his assertive wife, and so overperformed his authoritarian role over his slaves. Or maybe the dehumanization of slaves was so entrenched in Southern plantation culture that it was natural to treat them in such a cruel way. Perhaps every slave owner was a sadist who just wanted to exercise complete control over another human. After reflection, I am no closer to believing that any of these theories can explain what I saw on screen. But it was only after speaking with an American Studies major that I began to question the film itself, not just the actions of the characters.

“12 Years A Slave” is undoubtedly a phenomenal piece of filmmaking. For the story it chooses to tell, it does so poignantly and strikingly. Northup’s story is certainly worthy of telling. But I question why critics think this is the ultimate story to be told, rather than one of many.

The reason so many viewers are so drawn to Northup, that they (and I) hope and pray that he will finally get away, is because he is a free man who has been captured. Therefore, in many minds, he truly deserves to be freed, and go back to his beautiful family in his diverse neighborhood in Saratoga Springs, NY.

But distinguishing Northup’s right to regain his freedom from the right of any other slave is to say that those born into slavery did not have the same claim to freedom. And isn’t that the basic tenant of slaveowning?

Steve McQueen, the director, stated in an interview with IndieWire that he chose to build a narrative about slavery around a man kidnapped into it because he believed that would get him an “in” with the audience. Would the same audiences accept a movie like this about someone born into slavery? Who was not educated enough to tell Master Ford how to build the best raft? Who did not have the “redeeming” qualities of Northup in his free state — education, an idyllic family, a friendly disposition and nice clothing? In short, would the same audiences be able to sympathise with someone who had absolutely nothing in common with them?

It is not Northup, but the slave Patsey, who is the real challenge to that question. Her story is the most striking part of the movie, and should have been its center. She is the one who is whipped in the aforementioned scene, and the whole segment leading up to that is the most arresting part of the film. Patsey is whipped for disappearing from the plantation for several hours — not to run away, or break the rules, but to get a bar of soap to wash herself with. When her master confronts her about it, she pleads with him something like, “I work day in and day out for you, at least let me wash the smell off me.” Evidently, that is not enough. Human kindness does not apply here. Common decency does not apply here. Patsey is stripped, tied to a pole, and whipped until “her flesh is rent and meat and blood flow.” Patsey truly has no escape: no family, no former freedom, not even the grave, because she does not have the strength to take her own life. But it would be much harder to sell Patsey’s story than to sell Northup’s, whose story, while undoubtedly still valuable, is more palatable for the audiences at the Toronto film festival. It is important to note that Northup’s memoir was co-written by a liberal white abolitionist, which emphasizes how much the story is tailored to the audience. The audience doesn’t need to compromise its own comfort levels to receive the story.

In many ways, critics are right in calling this a great film. I might have included the film’s many merits, if I didn’t feel like they have been covered already in other spaces. But “12 Years a Slave” is not the great film about slavery, the be-all-end-all film that finally communicates the voice of the slave, or a mode of redemption for audience members who sit in the theater, watching the horror from the safety of their seats.

As I left the theater, wiping tears from my eyes, I heard a woman say, “How unlucky Patsey was— to be born beautiful.” At the time, I could not explain exactly why this comment upset me. But now, I realize that it was just one more example of assigning blame to some other source, rather than fully confronting the images on screen. Just as Ford, the paternalistic, “benign” master, tells Northup he cannot set him free because “I’ve got to pay my debt,” many of the viewers who have treated this film as the ultimate criticism of slavery have congratulated themselves for going so far as to see the film, and sympathise with its main character. But just as Northup is able to leave Patsey in the dirt as he finally leaves the plantation to return to his family, I, and so many other people, left the theater relieved that at least we could get out, even though so many were left behind.