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.
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.” 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.
 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/
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/