’12 Years a Slave’ directed by Steve McQueen is a 2013 period drama and an adaptation of the narrative memoir ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ by Solomon Northrup. It is poignant in its depiction of slavery in the 19th Century United States, especially since many textbooks in schools have been erasing slavery and the lasting impact it has had on the U.S.A.
Solomon Northrup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free African-American man who worked as a violinist before being kidnapped and forced into slavery. His journey highlights how racism and xenophobia were rife in the United States, and even free men were not truly free as they could be sold into slavery fairly easily.
However, I personally found Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) a far more interesting character than Solomon. Its her story that emotionally affected me the most. She was born into slavery, and the film does not provide her character with any resolution, as at the end of the film she is seen still as property of her master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). In particular, the whipping scene in which Epps whips Patsey due to her being given soap by a neighbour, is poignant in depicting the unreasonable and brutal nature of punishments given to slaves.
McQueen's use of rape as a plot device is problematic and unnecessary.
'Because rape is widely acknowledged as a Very Serious Topic, there’s also a tendency to treat rape scenes as a means to be edgy or shocking.'Whilst it is realistic, and would have occurred frequently during slavery, the films depictions of rape are troubling. The scene between Solomon and an unnamed woman seemed to have no purpose, or at least a very subtle one. On the other hand, the scene between Epps and Patsey shows the dynamic between master and slave, and how disturbing the relationship power dynamic is. However, this could have been avoided, as shown with 'Mad Max' (2015). In this film, rape scenes are not shown, but simply believed to have happened through character testimony. This method has been viewed positively and remains just as hard hitting, whilst preventing unnecessary sexualisation of female characters.
‘It is troubling that McQueen and Ridley include a fictitious sexualised woman while excluding a temporarily free black woman on the run, that they use fictional elements to emphasise the vulnerability of the already exposed Patsy, and that they use Eliza’s body to grant Robert a more dignified death.’This quote reinforces the idea that women are exploited as plot devices in the film. McQueen created a fictional arc for Robert in which he died trying to protect Eliza from being raped by their white captors. Whereas in the original memoir this did not occur, Robert died of smallpox.
12 Years a Slave's portrayal of slavery shows exactly how it was - brutal and unforgiving - but does so with the unnecessary use of the female body as a plot device. However, its explicit violence can shock an audience into remembering and acknowledging the suffering that was experienced by slaves in the United States.