You know a performance is powerful when you’re still thinking about it weeks after seeing the film. This is the case of the Lupita Nyong’o in Steve McQueen’s film adaptation of Solomon Northrup's 12 Years A Slave. She plays Patsey, an enslaved woman whom Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) meets after being sold to Edwin Epps’ New Orleans plantation.
While there is little comparison between the two films, 12 Years A Slave and Django Unchained both feature enslaved black women in rare cinematic representations.
However, Twelve Years A Slave does something that Django Unchained was unable to. It portrays fully realized black women who lived during slavery, and who had voices. In Django Unchained, Kerry Washington’s character Broomhilda appears in numerous scenes, but never really says or feels anything beyond loud shrieks of pain, surprise, or fear. Her performance was intentionally limited by director Quentin Tarantino, who fashioned Django as her savior, or the only way she would escape her doomed fate.
There is a scene in 12 Years A Slave where Patsey, played beautifully by Nyong’o, makes an impassioned plea to sadistic plantation owner Edwin Epps that she be able to remain clean and receive soap after picking profuse amounts of cotton for him. There is a fragility and strength in her face, and a will of defiance despite his sudden brutality. There is no happy ending here. She will not ride off with Solomon on a horse as the plantation burns down.
Many have described Django Unchained as a love story, but after seeing the film, I wondered, “what love?” Love between Django and Dr. King Schultz? Love between Samuel L. Jackson's pathologically subservient Stephen and plantation owner Calvin Candie? These forms of love were a lot more palpable and developed than any love between Django and Broomhilda. A love story demands more of the cinematic form, and more of its characters. The relationship between Solomon and Patsey, while marred with suffering, is one of love but not the Hollywood, savior love.
In one scene, Patsey asks Solomon to help end her life, an act that we must see as sacred, given the endless violence and potential death she faces at the hands of people who hate her.
Patsey, and other black female characters in 12 Years A Slave become human because they cannot be saved. They exist in the slave economy, and they find ways to survive within their given context. I thought about Patsey for a long time after seeing 12 Years A Slave. I thought about how she collapsed when Northrup finally rides off into his freedom, and her face, bloodied by Epps’ mixture of hatred and sexual obsession. I thought about the dolls she crafted, and how she might’ve lived for the rest of her life. I want to see a movie about Patsey.
There is a tendency in cinema to frame historical events from a patriarchal lens, connecting them with a man’s journey to fight or survive injustice. Women may be featured, but they don’t assume the role of the “hero.” Especially within films that address black history, there’s a dearth in gender inclusion when it comes to telling these stories. But after seeing the depth and beauty of Lupita Nyong’o in this role, I am reminded that there’s a need for these stories, told from black women’s perspectives, highlighting the distinct struggles that they faced.
These women do not have to be portrayed as the “hero,” for that model doesn’t always fit historical periods where so many people were suffering, but they need to be prominently featured and well developed. The stories and ideas are endless. There are the more well-known figures like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and then there are those stories and women shrouded in mystery, waiting to be explored, similar to Northrup’s 12 Years A Slave, a book many didn’t know about until the film adaptation was made.
As 12 Years A Slave garners more Oscar season buzz, Solomon and Patsey will find their way into the hearts and minds of many. Their struggles will be associated with the horrors of American slavery, and not merely with that of genre event or spectacle. Hopefully, this is just the beginning.
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