Part Two: (Re)writing Love in 12 Years a Slave

Deeps > Contemporary Film and the Black Atlantic > Sentimentality and Love > Part Two: (Re)writing Love in 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave

Photograph: Francois Duhamel/AP

Given Tarantino’s controversial relationship with love in Django Unchained as described in the first part of this two-part blog post on sentimentality and love (see here), it is interesting to consider how director, Steve McQueen, works with love in 12 Years a Slave.  In an interview with Entertainment Weekly shortly after the movie was released an interviewer asked McQueen what he would say to potential viewers if they are scared to see his film because of the overwhelming amount of violence it contains.  McQueen replied,

What I would say is that for me this film has always been about love. Through the worst kind of environment, my ancestors and people like me survived and they survived through love. They didn’t have much choice… But in all that chaos, there was a sense of hope and love and that’s what Solomon went through for 12 years in his journey. He held on to his sense of love and that sense of hope. That’s why I’m sitting here talking to you now, because my family went through that and I’m sitting here so the film is about love, absolutely more than anything else.[1]

Oprah picks up on McQueen’s commentary on love with Chiwetel Ejiofor, who played Solomon Northup, in an interview she conducted with him through Oprah’s Next Chapter featured below.  As Ejiofor expands on McQueen’s interpretation of love, he remarks that one thing he found so inspiring about Solomon’s reflections in his manuscript was that there was “an absence of hatred.”  Ejiofor proceeds to claim that, “hatred was not useful for Solomon Northup.  Only love was useful.”

12 Years a Slave is not only about a type of enduring love that Solomon possesses which helps to sustain him even after he is forced into slavery again.  The movie is also about the love Edwin Epps (Dickie Gravois), the slave master, has for his slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), and his inability to understand why he is attracted to her.  Epp’s frustration with his love towards Patsey results in him physically abusing her.  His brutal attacks not only represent him trying to exert power over Patsey, but also his attempt to try to destroy his love for her in the process of beating her.

As Epps takes out his anger on Patsey, Solomon has no choice but to passively watch as his fellow slave serves as a sexual instrument for Epps.  Solomon can neither protect Patsey nor comfort her as she is taken advantage of repeatedly by Epps.  Epps behavior forces Solomon to reconsider whether it is possible for whites and blacks to ever function as allies for each other as he once believed they could prior to his re-enslavement.

Whereas Django Unchained fails to show how a black female slave could assert herself physically and sexually under the conditions of slavery, McQueen offers one possibility in 12 Years a Slave.  The beginning of 12 Years a Slave depicts Solomon sleeping in a small crowded shed with dozens of other slaves.  The camera then intensely focuses on a black woman forcing herself onto Solomon and using his hand to bring her to orgasm.  This scene, which forces viewers within the first few minutes of the film to consider if and how slaves could experience intimacy and sexual satisfaction under slavery, did not actually happen.

When McQueen creates and films this fictive scene of an unnamed woman using Solomon for her own bodily purposes, he not only allows himself to imagine how intimacy and love looked differently for slaves, but he also imagines female slaves finding resourceful, albeit painful, ways to make up for a consistent lack in their lives.  By featuring a black woman forcing herself onto a black man, McQueen imagines how a female slave might reclaim her body even at the risk of devaluing her black male counterpart.

In an article by Noah Berlatsky from The Guardian, he explains how McQueen gets history right even when he misrepresents details from Solomon’s life.  He begins by quoting McQueen who when asked why he would even include the opening sexual scene that features this woman taking advantage of the man nearest to her said, I wanted to include a “bit of tenderness… Then after she [unnamed slave] climaxes, she’s back… in hell.”[2]  As Berlatsky goes on to note, McQueen wants to represent the psychological depths of slavery realistically but he can only fully do this by relying on what is not real.

Part one of this two-part post includes an extended discussion on authenticity as it relates to recent slavery films.  Berlatsky’s article furthers that discussion by drawing a distinction between what is true and what is accurate.  He argues that it is not just important for McQueen and the cast of actors he assembles to represent the true facts of Solomon Northup’s life as represented in his autobiography, but it is also important for them to use art to make those facts and those fallacies look as accurate or as believable as possible.

By this logic, when McQueen risks preserving the authenticity of Solomon’s story as he films his movie, then he does so to serve a greater end: to create the illusion of “real” slavery for his viewers.  For McQueen, part of what makes 12 Years a Slave authentic is that it is deeply sentimental; it is meant to inspire sadness, fear, and frustration in its viewers, among other things.

When McQueen relies on invoking the sentimental to help unpack what the term “love” might look like for slave masters, slaves, and free men, he suggests that part of his job, as a director, is to help viewers use their feelings to make meaningful distinctions about the nature of love.

By using a scene that includes a sexually deprived female slave to start 12 Years a Slave, McQueen immediately begins a discussion about black female sexuality as it relates to love that Tarantino shied away from in Django Unchained.  Although people like Patsey and the unnamed slave woman are seldom given opportunities to speak at length in his movie, the camera does focus intently on them and thereby acknowledges them in a way that Tarantino refuses to do when he barely gives women, particularly the black women, screen time in his 165 minute movie.

When McQueen writes love into the storyline and dangles the sentimental scene after scene in his film, he shows the possibilities for reconstructing black womanhood, love, and female sexuality in the twenty first century.  He also suggests that sentimentality does not always have to function as a form of deception as Baldwin once thought.  Instead the sentimental can actually open new avenues for discussion when it refuses to represent merely the factual and facilitates imaginative leaps.


[1] See entire interview here: http://insidemovies.ew.com/2013/11/28/12-years-a-slave-the-emotional-reactions-that-make-director-steve-mcqueen-thankful-qa/

[2] http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/10/how-em-12-years-a-slave-em-gets-history-right-by-getting-it-wrong/280911/

How to cite this project: Sasha Panaram, Hannah Rogers, Thayne Stoddard. “Contemporary Film and the Black Atlantic.” Deeps, (Accessed on Date) http://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/

One thought on “Part Two: (Re)writing Love in 12 Years a Slave”

  1. 12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup, an educated and free black man living in New York during the 1840’s who gets abducted, shipped to the south, and sold into slavery. It is a film that stimulates at both an emotional level and an intellectual one.

    Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup. He’s been a “that guy” actor for sometime – film-goers may know his face but not his name. After this film his name will be known. He gives, quite simply, the best performance from a leading actor since Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood. Because of his character’s position as a slave he is usually unable to speak his mind unless he is prepared to be beaten. As a result Ejiofor is forced to utilize body language and his eyes, which become enormous pools of emotion to express himself to the audience. He’s forced to endure terrible things, but he always maintains a certain dignity and nobility that makes his plight even more affecting. It’s a performance of incredible subtlety that may leave you speechless and in complete awe.

    Micheal Fassbender gives the best performance of his already extremely impressive career, even besting his previous high marks from the films Shame and Hunger (both directed by Steve McQueen, who also directed 12 Years a Slave). He plays Edwynn Epps, a vicious and demonic slaver and perhaps the most loathsome and disgusting character ever put on screen. If alive today, he’d likely be a drunk with severe anger management issues. By turns pathetic and terrifying, he embodies the ultimate nightmare of a deeply flawed man given absolute power over other human beings, and through that absolute power finds only madness, which drives him to deeper cruelty. He’s always a menacing and malignant presence even when not on screen, as his slaves must always be aware and prepared for his seemingly random bouts of sadism.

    Other actors give excellent performances as well. Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard are all great in relatively small roles. But in this film of titans it’s the one you’ve probably never heard of who perhaps stands above them all. In her first role in a feature film, Lupita Nyong’o, playing the pretty young slave Patsey – the object of Edwynn Epps demented and horrifying affections and the emotional epicenter of the entire picture, gives one of the most devastating performances I have ever seen. A portrait of unbearable sadness, her character is a mirror image of Solomon. While Solomon is a man who refuses to break and give up the dignity which he’s known since birth, she is one who has long since been broken, and who never knew dignity in the first place. Her life is a living hell, forced to endure the “love” of Edwyn Epps and the brutal jealousy of his wife, she’s trapped in a terrible triangle that she can’t escape. Despite that, she retains a level of innocence that only heightens the tragedy of her character. It actually gets to the point where simply looking at this character might be enough to bring you to tears. It’s a shattering performance.

    Starting his career as a video artist before making full length films, Steve McQueen has an uncanny eye for imagery and contrast. He’s also a very patient film maker, utilizing long, steady single shots to emphasize various things. In his prior films this has felt like a purely stylistic choice, here, it’s a choice aimed directly at our heart. When the events on screen become their most horrifying and ugly is when his camera becomes the most unflinching. At times feeling perhaps like we’re seeing out of the solemn eyes of the ghost of some murdered slave, watching in sorrow and rage. This is both McQueen’s most accessible and artistically searing film yet.

    There are also moments of stunning natural beauty that would make Terrence Malick proud. Alone, these shots would inspire wonder, but in the context of this film they make us feel more forlorn, as if the ugliness of man is encroaching on the natural beauty of the world.

    Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about 12 Years a Slave is the way that it portrays slavery itself. Instead of taking the easy way out and limiting his exploration of the topic solely to the slaves, Steve McQueen increases the scope and we see how it affects those who profited by it. Take Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. A seemingly decent and caring man who treats his slaves with some semblance of respect and kindness. He comes off as a relatively good man who is trapped within the powerful confines of the institution of slavery. In 12 Years a Slave, slavery is shown as a horrifying and destructive social construct that drains the humanity from everyone it touches, turning good men into moral quandaries, turning flawed men into monsters, and turning an entire race of people into livestock and tools.

    To watch 12 Years a Slave is to be confronted with the grim reality of slavery in a way that’s never been done before. To say this is the best film ever made about slavery feels trivial, as slavery is a subject in film that has been shown with naive romanticism from films like Gone With the Wind or silly exploitation from something like Django Unchained. Both of which serve to make the topic digestible. To watch 12 Years a Slave is to experience a level of despair and misery that can become overwhelming. It’s a film of such ugliness, such blunt emotional trauma, that it may haunt you for hours if not days after seeing it. So why should you watch a film that could leave you reeling and devastated? Because, it’s also one of the greatest cinematic achievements of our time.

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