“The Truth Shall Set You Free: 12 Years a Slave and the films of Steve McQueen”


by Faith A. Pennick

The most talked about film of this fall, if not the entire year, is 12 Years a Slave. Based on the book by Solomon Northup, it is the author’s true story: a free Black man and musician living in New York state with his wife and two children, who was kidnapped and taken to Louisiana where he was enslaved.

An acclaimed visual artist of British-Grenadian heritage, 12 Years director Steve McQueen transitioned into feature filmmaking focusing on tough subjects. McQueen’s first film, Hunger (2008), illustrated the imprisonment, hunger strike, and death of Irish Republican Army volunteer Bobby Sands. McQueen’s follow up was Shame (2011), a harrowing character study of a sex addict cloaked in the trappings of financial success and relative privilege.

I concur with the consensus among film critics, journalists and filmgoers that 12 Years a Slave is a brilliant, honest and unflinching depiction of slavery in the United States. The performances in the film are stellar nearly across the board, so I won’t reiterate those accolades here, although I will shine a light on a 12 Years actor not getting much ink: Liza J. Bennett. Bennett portrays the wife of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, William Ford. It’s a very small role, but the comment she makes to an inconsolable slave regarding the loss of her children is staggering, particularly because she delivers it with a look of doe-eyed sympathy. Everyone in the theater where I saw the film gasped at that moment.

What is being human?

12 Years a Slave is more than a narrative of the atrocities committed against Black bodies and souls. It is also a forceful rumination on the human condition. McQueen chooses to play in this fertile ground: What will a regular person endure, ignore or rise above? When staring down the depths of Hell, what part of your psyche is surrendered to get you through the day?

A glaring example of this in 12 Years a Slave is the scene where Northup, after being renamed Platt by the slave trader who sells him, is close to being lynched after defending himself against a white submaster who tried to beat him. The lynching is halted, but Platt is left hanging from a tree for hours until his master comes home. As Platt stands on his tiptoes—in mud—trying to keep his neck from breaking, other slaves in the distance go about their day. They all see Platt. The viewer can see the dread in their faces, but the slaves do nothing to help him. Their own survival instincts win out. The scene continues for several agonizing minutes: Platt delicately shuffles his body like a battered ballerina as children play in the verdant fields behind him. Later, a female slave holds of a cup of water to Platt’s mouth and hydrates him, and then scurries away. Another submaster looks on from the porch. So does the master’s wife. Platt still teeters in the mud. A slip away from certain death.

Later in 12 Years, we see abhorrent Master Epps, barefoot and wearing a crisp white night shirt against cotton blooming in the background, “welcoming” Platt and his other slaves back after being on loan to another slave master. During this exchange, Epps holds the hand of a little slave girl. After verbally menacing the men, Epps picks the girl up in his arms and walks back to the main house, laughing with her and promising the girl candy. The girl is dark-skinned and nearly clashes against Epps’ pale skin and the “pure” white color of his clothing. When I first saw the film, I speculated that McQueen intentionally “flipped the script” in traditional color coding in film, in which the color black (the girl) represents innocence and sweetness and white (Epps) equates to evil.

Briefly, I had an “aww” moment when Epps picked up the girl and laughed with her. How could I square that reaction towards a character (also based on a real man) who was an alcoholic, racist, rapist, and possibly bipolar?

Apparently my visceral response to that exchange was completely off the mark. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Michael Fassbender, the actor who portrayed Epps, said bringing the young girl into the scene was his idea, adding to McQueen’s suggestion that Fassbender shoot the scene wearing no pants (so it wasn’t a nightshirt after all, eh?). “It says so much with him holding her hand, not wearing pants,” Fassbender said. “He’s priming the next Patsey.” For those who haven’t seen the film, Patsey is the young slave Epps rapes, brutalizes and secretly loves.

The repulsive thought behind Fassbender’s contribution to that scene makes perfect sense. As I play back those images in my head, it angers me that I didn’t put the pieces together. The subversion of black/white color symbolism is still accurate, even if it was accidental. But my “aww” moment? Perhaps, subliminally, I wanted a brief respite from Epps’ wretchedness and 12 Years a Slave’s overall brutality. I set aside both history and rape culture to give Epps the benefit of the doubt that even he could show untainted kindness to a little slave girl.

Holding Up A Mirror to Our Flawed World

Steve McQueen’s canvas is always brutal truth, and from it conjures power and meaning out of otherwise mundane events or actions. For example, the prison guard who has a moment of doubt in Hunger. We see his daily ritual before going to work: brushing his teeth, putting on his uniform. Seems normal, until we see the guard walk outside and check underneath his car for a bomb. Those who sympathize with the Irish republicans would view this man as the enemy. McQueen sees him not based on his political affiliation that is never expressed, but simply as a man trying to take care of his family.

In Shame, the lead character Brandon is emotionally paralyzed—it’s unclear if it’s a byproduct of his sex addiction or its cause. Brandon is white, but African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar could have written We Wear the Mask with him in mind. McQueen uses Chic’s classic song I Want Your Love as a signifier when Sissy, his free-spirited sister, floats back into Brandon’s life early in Shame. A turntable (yes, an actual album!) plays the song as Brandon comes home to an uninvited Sissy taking a shower in his bathroom. I wondered for months why that song was used in that scene. Of course. Sissy wants Brandon’s love. Brandon needs to feel love. I. WANT. YOUR. LOVE.

We also see Brandon embrace his dormant vulnerability near the end of the film after Sissy’s suicide attempt. As Sissy lies on a hospital bed, Brandon caresses her wrist—revealing in a tight close-up the healed, ruby razor marks connoting their implied troubled childhood like rings on a tree trunk.

The most complete and emotionally impacting stories are told in the details. Unlike some filmmakers for whom subtlety is an aberration, Steve McQueen employs seemingly innocuous moments (like the one with Epps and the little girl in 12 Years) to enhance–or subvert–the extreme narrative. 12 Years a Slave will continue to be analyzed as it heads to an inevitable (and much deserved) Academy Award nomination season. It’s my hope that viewers will appreciate the film’s exquisite sum and its meaningful parts.

Faith Pennick is a filmmaker and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her most recent film, Weightless–a documentary about a scuba diving camp for plus-sized women, aired on the Documentary Channel. Pennick is currently working on a feature-length screenplay, Double Effect, that she plans to direct in 2015. Pennick’s website is www.orgchaos.com. She can be followed on Twitter @orgchaosmedia.

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Comments (3)

With all the accolades give to the film, I was initially underwhelmed when I saw it. But, honestly, I have been discovering and thinking about so many of the themes in this film nearly every day.

At any rate, I don’t feel like Epps loved Patsy. Love feels like too kind a word for his violent obsession with her. He was possessive above all else. Their relationship in particular was something that I never really thought about in regards to American slavery. Wanting to know more, I started reading a diary of a slave girl (found it on Amazon) and learned even more gut wrenching things about the dynamic of being the rape victim of a slave master who has a wife and/or family. In particular, the freed woman who wrote the book talks about how her master (and other overseers and the like) would actually start towards a sexual encounter with slave women by being kind to them. What shocked me about that was the feeling of these men that they had to woo these women prior to raping them.

RE: Epps love of Patsey…I totally get what you’re saying. Watching it I was like, “how could Epps even REMOTELY be in love with her and treat her like THAT?” But what I had to remind myself that I’m looking at that scene as an educated, feminist, FREE Black woman with agency. Epps could not–in a political or personal sphere–acknowledge his love for Patsey, on top of how fucked up he was in general. Epps didn’t have the tools to express love in a healthy way towards ANYONE. Unfortunately, you don’t have to go in to history to see how patriarchy and rage damages a lot of men. There are husbands/boyfriends out there RIGHT NOW who beat up and/or rape their wives/girlfriends and in the same breath still claim they love them. Also, FYI, I referenced love because in numerous “12 Years” interviews, particularly with Fassbender and McQueen they mention Epps’ love of Patsey. I did not read the book, but as the source material I have to assume that Northup wrote about it as well.

[…] Faith’s take on 12 Years a Slave was about the overall themes of Steve McQueen’s work, rather than treading the same ground of […]

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