’12 Years a Slave’: Why We Need More Women in Movie

Manohla Dargis wrote at the end of “Seeing You Seeing Me: The Trouble With ‘Blue is the Warmest Color,'” The truth is we need more women on screen, naked and not, hungry and not, to get this conversation really started.”

At the time this comment came to my attention, I was already chaffing under a New Yorker article about “12 Years a Slave.”

Dargis complained about her own discomfort regarding the manner in which the lesbian film was handled and she included comments by the author of the graphic novel upon which the movie “Blue” is based,. That author, Julie Maroh, also was unhappy with the sex scenes between Adele and Emma, writing “except for a few passages — this is all that it brings to my mind: a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn, and made me feel very ill at ease.”

Dargis concludes: “There’s a banality to how a lot of directors represent female bodies and female pleasure, partly because they borrow from the industrial handbook of male-oriented pornography.” The nudity isn’t the problem, but how lesbian sex is framed within “patriarchal anxieties.”

How does this relate to “12 Years a Slave”?  This British-American drama is based on the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup. Unlike “Daniel Lee’s The Butler,” the main character keeps the name of the author for the protagonist. The story takes place about two decades before the Civil War, starting in 1841. Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is show leading a happy middle-class existence with a nice bright house, well-dressed children and a lovely wife in the free state of Saratoga, New York.  While his wife and children are off on a trip, he agrees to travel with two men (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam) to play his violin in Washington, D.C. All seems well and the men pay him handsomely, but after a night of good food, he is drugged and wakes up in chains somewhere still in the area. He and others are smuggled on to a ship and taken to Louisiana where they are sold. There his is purchased first by a relatively nice owner, Baptist preacher William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch),  and later turned over to a cruel man, Edwin Epps. In his new position, Solomon often finds himself caught in between his master’s lust for a young slave (Lupita Nyong’o) and his master’s bitterly jealous wife (Sarah Paulson).

Before Solomon is turned over to the cruel master, there is a moment when under his kindly master, Solomon finds himself nearly lynched. He struggles to stay standing on his tiptoes in slippery mud. The other slaves at first stay hidden, but slowly go about their duties. Only one, a young female slave, dares to aid Solomon by giving him water. None of them dare cut him down. His kind master does finally free him, but feeling unable to protect him from his overseer, the master sells him to another man, known to be a hard taskmaster. By surviving his near lynching, Solomon passes to Edwin.

Solomon has chances to escape, when his mistress sends him to get supplies, but he witnesses escaped slaves being caught and lynched. Solomon has nowhere to go, in any case. When Solomon is finally saved, it is because he gains the trust of a Canadian man (Brad Pitt) who risks his life by contacting Solomon’s friends in the North.

The brutality of slavery is presented not only in respect to this learned free man, but also in respect to the black women he meets. Early on, he meets a woman who was a mistress to a white master and bore two children to her owner. She wears a beautiful orange dress and her children are also well clothed. Still she is sold along with her children; her fine gown is dirtied and she becomes a sex slave for the sailors taking the African Americans to Louisiana. When another black man rises in protest one of the sailors coming below deck to take her away for a recreational rape, the slave is shot. His dead body is thrown overboard.

This echoes an early scene in “The Butler.” The protagonist’s mother (played by Mariah Carey) is raped by the owner (Alex Pettyfer as Thomas Westfall) of the land they work. After the deed, the husband (David Banner) protests and he is shot dead. This didn’t happen in the life of the real butler Eugene Allen. Although the story is based in Allen’s story, the butler has been renamed Cecil Gaines and he gains a son. Allen had one son who served in Vietnam. Gaines has two sons, one of whom dies in Vietnam. The other goes on to meet history so that Allen’s relative inaction can be compared to the civil rights activities through the decades. Yet here again, we see the fate of black women under racism from the viewpoint of a black man.

If there wasn’t enough drama in the butler’s real life that it had to be changed, then one wonders why of all the slave narratives “!2 Years a Slave” was chosen. In an interview, British filmmaker Steve McQueen said “It was the Anne Frank story of America of that time.” Solomon Northup’s fate is a mystery and he depended upon others, a white man, to save him from slavery.

Yet in my readings, I remember vividly a passage from “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” This slave narrative was first published in 1861, the very year the American Civil War began.  The story presents a woman (Linda Brent as a pseudonym for Harriet Ann Jacobs), born into slavery in 1813, who understood that slavery was not a just or acceptable way of life. She began life as somewhat privileged, being taught to read, write and sew, but eventually comes under the authority of a man who would make her his mistress. She becomes the mistress of another man, bearing two children. She eventually escapes from North Carolina to Philadelphia. She died at the age of 84.

The passage I recalled was one of a male slave being tortured.

Some weeks after his escape, he was captured, tied, and carried back to his master’s plantation. This man considered punishment in his jail, on bread and water, after receiving hundreds of lashes, too mild for the poor slave’s offence. Therefore he decided, after the overseer should have whipped him to his satisfaction, to have him placed between the screws of the cotton gin, to stay as long as he had been in the woods. This wretched creature was cut with the whip from his head to his foot, then washed with strong brine, to prevent the flesh from mortifying, and make it heal sooner than it otherwise would. He was then put into the cotton gin, which was screwed down, only allowing him room to turn on his side when he could not lie on his back. Every morning a slave was sent with a piece of bread and bowl of water, which were placed within reach of the poor fellow. The slave was charged, under penalty of severe punishment, not to speak to him. 

Comparing this passage to what we see in “12 Years a Slave” shows us how mild indeed this film “12 Years” was, but that is not why I take issue with the movie. In David Denby’s article “Fighting to Survive,” he writes “12 Years a Slave” is easily the greatest feature film ever made about slavery. It shows up the plantation scenes of ‘Gone with the Wind’ as the sentimental kitsch they are, and, intentionally or not, it’s an an artist’s rebuke to Quentin Tarantino’s high-pitched, luridly extravagant ‘Django Unchained.'”

The greatest film has yet to be made because if the grief that women suffered under slavery is such an important point, that women suffered the same type of whipping, did the same work, but also were raped and saw their children sold into slavery, then we need to see the point of view of the women who suffered and survived. We need to see the suffering from a woman’s point of view and not in terms of helpless patriarchal angst of a man unable to protect his women or women of his kind. In “12 Years,” we see the regret in Solomon’s face (Ejiofor) when he cannot prevent the suffering of Patsey. He cannot protect a black woman, and she’s not really his woman except in an us-versus-them, black-versus-white way.

What dramatic tension would you have without Patsey and Solomon’s urge to protect her?

“Django Unchained” was like a black man’s revenge movie, almost in the same manner as vigilante movies such as “Death Wish” or “Dirty Harry.” The protagonist, Django, is seeking his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Despite her torture, the nude scenes of Washington don’t express the horror of slavery as “12 Years.” She is smooth-skinned and unscarred. That is what men want to see.

Without Broomhilda, what kind of movie would we have? Just a man seeking revenge for his own mistreatment?

Of course, “Gone with the Wind” was written by a woman. That was what one woman and, perhaps, many others saw and wanted to see about the Deep South and slavery.

That is not likely what men saw.  The parallel black universe to Scarlett O’Hara’s Tara is the suffering of black women under men–black and white. Scarlett had to depend upon men because she lived in a man’s world, something that is seen again in plays and movies such as “The Little Foxes.”

Jacobs unlike Northup was able to free herself and unlike Scarlett O’Hara was able to find a measure of independence from men, even as she saw the father of her children, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, take a wife and become  a member of North Carolina’s House of Representatives and serve in the state senate. Sawyer also served briefly in the Confederate Army as a major. He died in 1865. Harriet Ann Jacobs lived until 1897.

Harriet Ann Jacobs story has more drama, more heroics than either “The Butler” or “12 Years a Slave,” yet it has not been the subject of a movie, television or feature film. One hopes that if Jacobs life story does become a movie, depictions of her sexual harassment and her subsequent involvement with Sawyer will not seem like male-oriented pornography.

There were other women, more famous than Harriet Ann Jacobs such as Harriet Tubman.  Tubman was the subject of a 1978 mini series (“A Woman Called Moses” starring Cicely Tyson) and a TV movie short, “The Quest for Freedom” (1992).  There was Sojourner Truth who delivered the inspiring speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” Sojourner Truth was mentioned in the PBS series “This Far by Faith,” in the fourth episode, “Freedom Faith.” Harriet Ann Jacobs has not been the topic of a TV movies. Solomon Northup has.  Avery Brooks starred in a PBS 1984 movie, “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey” which was later reissued as “Half Slave, Half Free.” The thought that this story was “completely obscure” as described in a USA Today article is misleading.

On “12 Years a Slave,” Dargis wrote that director McQueen’s “Sympathies are as unqualifed as his control” and there is much to admire about “the cleareyed, unsentimental quality of its images–this is a place where trees hang with beautiful moss and black bodies.”  She calls the movie “the one that finally makes it impossible for Americans to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century” of “paternalistic gentry with the pretty plantations, their genteel manners and all the fiddle-dee-dee rest” which are a “backdrop for an outrage.” As a freeman, she calls Northup an “exceptional historical witness.” In a way, so was the real butler upon which “Daniel Lee’s The Butler” was based.  But was Northup exceptional enough to merit a big budget movie?

At the end of “12 Years a Slave” you see there has been a transformation in Solomon Northup. Where he once took freedom and his family for granted, he became more sympathetic to black slaves, but he did not do anything particularly heroic during his 12 years as a slave.  He doesn’t save himself; he survives and he is saved by a white man. This movie, while told from the perspective of a person of color,  is another version of white man saves the world. Northup’s story is significant, but to a lesser degree than so many others.

The greatest movie about slavery hasn’t been made because a movie hasn’t been made about the enslavement of women by men–by their slave owner masters under an unjust racist legal system and by their fathers and husbands under a sexist legal system.  While the director McQueen compares the memoir “12 Years” to Anne Frank’s Diary, we forget that Frank also chaffed under the restrictions of her parents and that her father censored her diary, the diary that the world first came to know. Even in the world that Anne Frank knew, and the one she failed to survive was one dominated by men. A parallel contrast between the era portrayed in “12 Years a Slave” and “Gone with the Wind” would be  told from the eyes of a woman, an enslaved woman who felt the same need to appeal to men for support and protection because of cultural and legal constraints and was yet determined to live her life as best she could and find a better life for her children.

The sexist laws are why Scarlett O’Hara’s struggles and connivances are more sympathetic than had she been a man. That is why a woman, a black woman, who survived and found freedom would have been more heroic. That is why the greatest film about slavery has yet to be made, because we are asked to view the rape of women under slavery and racism from the perspective a man who has his manhood threatened because he can’t protect his woman or women. In today’s world, we can criticize the necessity of a white man’s point of view, but now let’s move forward and criticize the male point of view toward a female problem.  Compared to Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Harriet Ann Jacobs, Solomon Northup was only able to survive, and lacking in both courage and boldness. If he were white would he be acceptable as our protagonist or would we judge him to be a bit cowardly? The lesson this story teaches is almost the same as Cinderella: Wait because someday your prince/saviour will come.

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