12 Years a Slave: Psychological Violence

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Watching 12 Years a Slave is not an easy thing to do. The scenes of brutal violence taken against enslaved African-Americans are nearly too numerous to detail. And yet, as the film is based on the autobiographical account of Solomon Northup’s capture and subsequent forced servitude, nearly all the scenes of violence are directly based on historically verifiable occurances of exactly what is portrayed.

Several critics of the film have posited that the violence itself has kept some people from seeing the film. Nicholas Barber of The Guardian explained that while he highly recommended the film to four friends, “None of them went to see it. One friend dismissed the film out of hand. ‘I know slavery’s a bad thing,’ he snapped. ‘What else is there to say?’…two people I spoke to simply explained that they didn’t fancy sitting through anything so relentlessly gruesome and depressing.”[1] Jeff Labrecque of Entertainment Weekly attributed the reluctance to see the film’s violent depictions not to our inability to stomach the material generally, but instead to the film’s American provenance. Comparing the violence to that in Schindler’s List, Labrecque writes:

Schindler’s List put the worst crime of the 20th century under the cinematic microscope, but perhaps one reason audiences proved able to swallow the film’s groteque depictions of inhumanity was the fact that the Holocaust occurred over there… in Europe… perpetrated by a Nazi madman. You can argue historical culpability, but the we in Schindler’s List, in most all cases, are the victims and the survivors – even Schindler himself, who is a reluctant hero. 12 Years a Slave, on the other hand, adds to a historical weight the United States still carries around. Slavery may have been abolished in this country 150 years ago, but it remains a stain on our national character and is part of the reason Hollywood hasn’t made many serious, intimate, historically accurate films about the enslavement of millions of Africans for 350 years on our shores. For most Americans, the we in the Solomon Northup story can be extremely discomforting. After all, we’re the good guys…aren’t we?”[2]

With so much controversy, and discomfort, surrounding the use of accurate depicitons of history, the viewer can’t help but ask why Director Steve McQueen found it necessary to keep the portrayals so true to history, to show everything that occurred. In an interivew with Epix, McQueen discusses why, for example, the scene where Northup is left hanging from a tree, with his toes just able to touch the ground, is as long as it is:

(Epix 2013)

McQueen attributes the need for the violent depictions to the need for the audience to understand not just the physical abuse elements of slavery, but the psychological as well. To depict only a limited physical violence would deny the terror of the entire slave experience. By allowing the scene to drag on, we see Solomon foregrounded against the quotidian activities of the slave quarter. Children continue to play, women scrub laundry uninterrupted, and cotton pickers make their way home. One could almost accept that all slaves had been desensitized to the blatant torture if it were not for the moment when a woman brings Solomon a mouthful of water; quickly pouring it into his mouth before stealing away under the gaze of the overseer. The other slaves could no more ignore and forget Solomon’s torture than they could obliviate the threat of physical violence taken against themselves in the future.

And that is the nature of the violence throughout the movie. It is set so close to normalcy, a slap mixed into a civil conversation, a reminder of physical power used as fluidly and easily as a point of logic, that the slave population could not conceivably imagine their existence without the presence of unnecessary pain. Solomon quickly learns that abuse usually accompanies an altering of the truth when he is beaten for refusing to change his life story from that of a freeman captured to a runaway from Georgia. He is again slapped when disembarking from the slave ship he “forgets” that his name is not Solomon but Platt. When the overseer insists that his wooden siding is not up to snuff, he resists the violence accompanying the falsity but is then reminded, through the hanging scene, that his truth has no power. The experience is not Solomon’s alone, when Patsy returns from a neighboring plantation where she sought nothing but soap, she is beaten because her master believes her truth to be one of infidelity to his already unwanted advances. McQueen’s depiction of slavery is one where the truth is unimportant and where violence enforces a narrative that cannot be denied without the threat of death, or worse, tortured life.

The violence also operates as a silencer between slaves, removing the opportunity for a community to form. While Solomon hangs, the rest of the slave are assumedly prohibited from helping him. While Solomon no doubt understands that prohibition, it would still be human nature to feel anger towards those who did not, though they could not, help. Knowing that the help was prevented due to their enslaved nature would then lead to a common shame, but rather than bond over that shame, it doubtless divides them, where each enslaved body becomes a reminder of shame to another enslaved person. Each would then avoid the others, as building connection would only serve as a reminder of negative emotion.

Much of the violence is also perpetrated, under orders, by slaves themselves. We see a black overseer in the cotton fields whipping other slaves to greater productivity. And in the most difficult scene of the film, Solomon is ordered to flay Patsy’s back. While his first blows are not backed with the power of a regular beating, after Solomon is threatened with his own death, he is forced to whip her as hard as he can. Again, while each enslaved person would understand why another would commit these violent acts, they cannot avoid entirely the shame and hard feelings that come with them, again destroying community before it can even really form.

Some may avoid the film because of its violent depictions of a past reality. But to leave out that violence in its most painful format is to misportray the effects on the slave population. The violence, though physical, rendered those enslaved persons members of a non-community, deterred by psychological trauma from forming the sorts of bonds that may have made the experience more bearable. McQueen thus gives viewers a new perspective, one that had not yet been shown in theaters. While it isn’t easy to watch, it is certainly worth it.


[2] http://popwatch.ew.com/2014/02/27/12-years-a-slave-schindlers-list/.

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/

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