Healing from Historic Trauma: “12 Years a Slave”

It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too.
Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lacy groves.

Such is the “rememory” of Sethe, the main character in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, who recalls the glorious splendor of the trees on the farm where she spent time as a slave, even if she could not recollect the faces of the men hanging from those trees.  Unlike Morrison’s subtle language–much like a “lacy grove” hiding the grotesque scene of lynching–Afro-British director Steve McQueen approaches his film, 12 Years a Slave, in much more stark and harrowing visuals: fire and brimstone all right, a “pretty place” sure enough, but the gruesome scene will be candid.

Undeniably, McQueen dwells on the scene of hell and refuses to look away (meaning we, the audience, cannot look away), focusing his shot on Solomon Northup (played brilliantly by Chiwetel Ejiofor) hanging all day from one of those gorgeous trees, barely standing on the tips of his toes to keep himself alive, all while the moss in the trees glide in the Southern breeze and the enslaved and enslavers go about their daily routines.  After all, this punishment is “routine” for those African Americans who dared to assert their humanity.

I had the great privilege of viewing this much-acclaimed film, adapted from Solomon Northup’s narrative of his experiences as a free black man kidnapped from Saratoga, N.Y., in 1841, when he is drugged and later sold away from his family as a slave in Louisiana.  The screening was part of a fundraising event for our local Underground Railroad History organization in upstate New York, with Northup’s descendants in attendance. This is definitely a film to be experienced in community and in solidarity, and while I hesitate to ever say any film is a “must see” (especially one so triggering as this), I will say the cinematic experience is worth it.

Earlier this year, McQueen exhibited an artistic photograph, “Lynching Tree,” featured as the backdrop to Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves” performance at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards show.  Considering the brouhaha over Miley Cyrus’s hypersexualized performance of racial appropriation at this show and how it overshadowed any attention to West’s historical analogy between slavery and the present, these racial spectacles are crudely exposed for their superficialities when compared to 12 Years a Slave. And yet, the present-day controversies somehow seem related.  We keep harping back to the same racial hurt because we’ve never, truly, dealt with that historical trauma. The myths that we have been telling ourselves about our nation’s history are constantly undermined by scenes of hanged bodies, mixed-race progeny of rape and centuries of exploited-labor-turned-commodity. Perhaps more than in any other film, McQueen details the unending toil of cane-cutting, tree-chopping and cotton-picking. This is the nation literally built on the whipped and tortured backs of bondspeople.

Slavery from 1619 to 1865, followed by Jim Crow from 1896 to 1965, is the backdrop to the white supremacist legacy that has yet to be overthrown by less than 50 years of our post-Civil Rights and “postracial” era.  There is no way to seriously overcome this oppressive and repressive system without first healing from our past.  Our great myth-making narratives–cinema being one of them–could help with the healing rather than contribute to our denial–a denial that creates contradictions in folks who reenact Civil War battles and wave Confederate flags while ironically telling other folks to “get over it.”

With more than 200 slave narratives in existence in our cultural history, it is astounding that Solomon Northup’s is the first to receive big-screen adaptation. Maybe his spirit churned more loudly than others (here’s hoping that the spirits of Harriet Tubman, William and Ellen Craft and Olaudah Equiano will start making some noise around some gifted filmmakers out there). We are fortunate to have McQueen’s honest eye and take-no-prisoners approach to filmmaking on this subject, not to mention the willingness of Brad Pitt, doubling as “white savior” in both his minimal role in the film and his role as a film producer, to finance it.

And then the performances: Ejiofor’s eyes alone convey worlds of pain and desperate salvaging of his dignity. His arch nemesis (Michael Fassbender craftily and menacingly capturing the predatory nature of slaveowner Edwin Epps) certainly brings the element of surprise and cruelty that only power can deliver. And while I fault both McQueen and Fassbender for describing Epps’ depraved relationship with his prized slave Patsey (played to heartbreaking perfection by newcomer Lupita Nyong’o) as one of “love” instead of one of power (otherwise called rape), I do commend them for attempting to reach more than a two-dimensional portrayal of “evil slaveowners” and “pitiable slaves.”

This of course brings me to the portrayal of the women in slavery. They happen to be the most interesting characters in the story, not least of which is tied to the conventions of the slave narrative that highlighted the brutalities of slavery through the black female body, since audiences then and now seem more comfortable with abject suffering visited upon women. The slave mother Eliza (played by Adepero Oduye) is separated from her children on the slave market and Patsey preyed upon by an obsessive batterer (Epps’ behavior is a classic study of this, from the way he routinely violates the personal spaces of his slaves–down to and including waking them up from their beds at night to dance for him–to the way he threateningly sneaks into a slave’s room or, worse, coddles a little slave girl while walking around shamelessly pantless, truly triggering for any survivor who recognizes the signs).  This violence, ingrained in sexuality, shapes the female slave experience in this narrative, so once again we have the “ultimate victim” in Patsey, whose excruciating whipping scene serves as the climax to this draining visitation of the dark ordeal of our collective history.

There are subtle moments of resistance, captured in Eliza’s refusal to stop wailing for her lost children; in Mrs. Shaw (Alfre Woodard), the black wife of a plantation owner who has  capitalized on her being “favored” by her master; or even in Patsey refusing to play the sexual temptress for Epps. But I found myself wanting more of those subtleties, since I couldn’t help but have those dark thoughts (i.e., what grace allowed Patsey, who suffered so greatly under both her master and mistress, to create corn dolls instead of “voodoo dolls”? Because, yes, in my own reimagining, I was stuffing pins into her innocent dolls, transferring my hate for her owners). I wanted the subtle resistance, if only to recapture the subjectivity of those who were enslaved, to fully appreciate how they survived and also how they found grace enough to birth descendants who would later shape the political process in this country, force this nation to “live out the true meaning of its creed,” and get everyone around the world dancing joyously–and marching politically–to the same groove.  Our ancestors had to have something more than just “wanting to survive,” something akin to “wanting to live,” as Solomon proclaimed. We today are living proof of that will to live.

I would hope that 12 Years a Slave, as superb as is its cinematography, direction, performances and editing, is not the final word on slavery in cinema.  If anything, McQueen has thrown down the gauntlet, inviting many of us to revisit the subject, confront our historical trauma and heal from it. Toni Morrison may have hinted at the trauma, but 12 Years a Slave has the temerity to witness it candidly and boldly call on us to do the same.

Photo courtesy of FilmosphereCom via Creative Commons 2.0


Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.