I recently saw 12 Years a Slave and it’s phenomenal in all the ways you’ve heard. The movie focuses on Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a musician and family man kidnapped and sold into slavery. But it also lends its precise gaze to others, including the white slaveowners—male and female—corrupted by the act of owning human beings, and the enslaved women, often forced to endure unique losses and abuses.
This particular brand of horror is most visible in Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who works alongside Solomon on the plantation of the sadistic, perhaps even mad Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
Solomon’s tale contains evils enough but it was the powerlessness of Patsey, selected for extra abuse without rhyme or reason, that most touched me.
She spends her days picking more cotton than any of her counterparts, then endures confused, cruel rape by her master at night. She is systematically raped by Epps, who is violently obsessed with her. His obsession with Patsey is at the very core of his cruelty to her and the horrors to which he subjects her to.
She then suffers extra abuse from Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulsen), jealous of her husband’s infatuation. Here the white woman is not only complicit in the violence against Patsey, but actively perpetuates and embraces it.
Patsey begs Solomon to do the human mercy of helping her to kill yourself, only to have him refuse on principle. She is trapped in that—believing in Christian doctrine—she cannot kill herself, but insists that were Solomon to kill her it would be a mercy killing, an act of valor. For Patsey, death is the only foreseeable freedom from the violence of the plantation.
She sneaks away to get soap since Mistress Epps will not give her any, only to return and be whipped to unconsciousness—an act in which Solomon must partake (emphasizing not only Patsey’s abuse but the emasculation through forced complicity and inability to protect that Solomon experiences).
These are just a few of the inescapable horrors she suffers within a system that denies her humanity and subjects her to consistent and ongoing violence. In sum, the ongoing victim of a chattel system forces her to be the screen on which both the Epps project their irrational jealousies.
Switching gears a bit, I just wanted to end on how fantastic Lupita Nyong’o is as Patsey. A few notes then on Nyong’o's break-out role:
-She is entirely accomplished and worldly. Nyong’o studied in Yale’s acting program and has lived in Mexico, Kenya, and the US. Oh, and she made a documentary about albinism in Kenya.
-She rocks the red carpet. During the film, I kept feeling as if I’d seen Nyong’o somewhere before. Then I realized it had been on the fashion commentary blog Go Fug Yourself, where the Fug Girls have described her as “nailing it.” Thrust onto the circuit by the success of 12 Years a Slave, Nyong’o has been making an impressive debut.
-She works alongside some of the finest actors today and more than holds her own. In addition to the mesmerizing Ejiofor, 12 Years boasts Fassbender, Paulsen, Michael K. Williams, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Brad Pitt. Most of these performances, big and small, are excellent examples of acting in an excellent film. But as Patsey, newcomer Nyong’o carries one of the biggest roles and gives her character impressive depths and nuances.
(With thanks to Phoebe for feedback and edits!)