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Patsey’s Plea: Black Women’s Survival in ’12 Years A Slave’

Patsey's Plea: Black Women's Survival in '12 Years A Slave'

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
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

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

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.
, 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

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.

Nijla Mu’min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. Visit her website HERE.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , ,



I want to know more about what happened to Pasty. Solomon was an amazing man to hold on to the dreams and love for his family. I don’t know if I could have been a slave during those times.The mind set was very different.Men and women only had God and each other. Values ,hearts and minds where different. Can someone find out Pasty last name .Thank God for strength.Thank God for love of family.


Thank goodness!! Finally! A good representation of patse . When I click on other things pertaining this subject they always try to romantisize the situation patsey was in by saying her master was in ‘love’ with her therefore trying to excuse him. I’m happy you didn’t by calling it what it is , a sexual obsession,instead of love.


Before writing an article, you should read the book the "movie"was based on. Shame on you. I did not watch 12 years a slave because I knew it was going to be filled with false scenes and storyline that never happened. And reading your article and numerous like it, I was correct. Patsey never asked Solomon to kill her after her flogging. She was just that strong in her soul. The movie did no justice to the book . You need to branch out farther then a Hollywood movie before writing an article. The movie depicts her as giving up when she asks to be killed. But in real life, she never gave up on life. Not once.


One book on slavery that I'd really love to see done on film is 'And the night hissed'. It's a nail-biting, heart pounding thriller set in the jungles of West Africa. It was recommended by a friend so I bought an e-copy from Authorhouse and was hooked! Movie material without a doubt. You guys should check it or sumtin.

Sean Stout

People keep saying this woman, Lupita, is changing views on what is beautiful. They are so very very wrong!!! Lupita HAS changed the concept of beauty. He skin color is amazing. Her face, when not playing a slave, is stunning! She amazing in her poise and grace. She is the new face of Hollywood. So to the ones saying she is changing Hollywood, wakeup! She already has!


wow perfection


Aimee Garcia,
Thank you. Perfect reply to FEDUP. Though, the one thing I'd be cautious about is calling imperislist Spain a mother country. The conquistadors and colonists were downright brutal and disgusting in their exploitation, abuse and marginalization of Native Americans, Africans, mulattos and mestizos. Spain under Vatican rule was more crazy ruler than nurturing mother. I get what you mean about language being what unifies Latinos, but I'd never call Spain "mother."


i wanted to see patsey get with the underground railroad …. hopefully she did


sorry, Nijla Mu'min. did you even watch Django? What love? the love that takes place before the movie events.

Aimee Garcia

TO FEDUP: Zoe Saldana is NOT a "Hispanic woman pretending to be black." She IS a BLACK Hispanic woman. We, Hispanics come in all colors. Countries in South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and a country in North America (Mexico) were originally populated by indigenous indians. Then came the European Invasion (at first, mainly from Spain.) After that, there came the invasion of the African black slaves that were transported by the Europeans to work in the fields and as domestics (the native populations of these countries was not enough; more was needed so the black slaves were brought in.) Because of this mix, modern Hispanics from all Hispanic countries come in all colors. You name the skin color, Hispanics have it. Many American black people love to complaint about racism, but they, themselves are perfect examples of racists. YOU are one of them! How dare you write that actress Zoe Saldana was "pretending" to be black in the movie "Colombiana"? Zoe is the daughter of a dark black Dominican father and a "light" black Puerto Rican mother. Zoe IS a BLACK Hispanic. I happen to have very fair skin, green eyes and natural golden brown hair; I'm the product of a white Chilean father and a white Cuban mother: I'm a white Hispanic woman. The word "Hispanic" has NOTHING AT ALL to do with RACE. "Hispanian" is the Latin word for Spain, and all Hispanics though coming from different countries and having different customs, different skin colors and looking different from each other have the common denominator of a single language: Spanish from our "Mother" country, Spain. That's what unite us, our language, not our skin color! Our language comes from Spain (Hispanian), so we are Hispanics! Slavery was abolished in the USA a long, long time ago, but American blacks like you, FEDUP, will always be enslaved by the chains in your narrow, silly minds!


Movies like 12 Years A Slave, The Butler, and The Help will always have a place in cinema. I've come to understand that these stories must be told. They remind us, they enlighten us, they challenge us…at the very least they force us to step out of our "comfortable" lives for 120 minutes to take a peek at the gruesome things that happened to our ancestors not too long ago…

But anyone that knows me is aware of my love-hate relationship with these type of films. Is the only time I can see a quality movie starring people that share my skin color when it's about slavery? Can a black actor (black actresses have had slightly more variety in this area) only be nominated for an oscar when he's playing a slave, crooked cop, or toothless-ship-hijacking pirate?

I'm over it. And you know what? If I see another slave movie, it'll be too soon.

I don't need a constant reminder. It's not like I'll forget.

I'd like to see a legitimate movie about a black super-hero. A black spy (think Colombiana, but less revenge-y, and actually starring a black actress, not a Hispanic one pretending to be black) A sci-fi movie with a black cast, A psychological thriller with a black cast, heck, I'll even take a black Hangover as long as it's not saturated with black stereo-types and is grammatically correct.

That's what I want to see. I don't always want to see Patsey. Instead, I want to see what Patsey's descendants have become. I want to actually SEE all this progress that we've supposedly made. And if white film makers aren't giving us the opportunities….then we need to create them AND support our own.

I don't want to keep being reminded of what I once was…I want to see what I can soon become.


I just watched this movie with my boyfriend and became obsessed with finding out more about Patsey. I know we'll never have her story because she didn't write a book, but it is extraordinary to think of her outworking every man on the plantation and then surviving brutal treatment from both owners. I work in sexuality and health and you see a lot where women are subjected to years of forced sex and they learn how to negotiate survival in these contexts all of the time. The sex can become part survival sex, part rape and part a very real demonstration of these women's strength, ability to survive and even agentive decisions in contexts where they have almost no power. I really, really, really want to find out what happened to her now, however. I just bought the book, but I'd love to find out if any historian ever tracked her story down.


Patsey is freed at most after another 12 years (1865). It took hundred of thousands of deaths in the Civil War to achieve it. Some people criticize the American Constitution for including slavery. Its a fact, however, that there would have been no Constitution without slavery because of the insistence of the Southern States. This flaw was corrected "four score and seven years" later but its effects lingered, and even now Jim Crow flaps his feathers.


In the final analysis, it's all about collectively making your own movies and creating your own award venues.


Way too many defensive attacks here got what is a well structured and valid argument.

It's fair to say that for the majority of viewers, Patsey is the character that stays I'm the mind more searingly, than even the main character.

It's also valid to say that the whole film could easily have been carried by that character. The scene when the men return from the Judges cane fields and pass Patsey weeding, and we see more scars, bruises and her freshly bloodied eye – most of the audience gasped here in London, " look at what brutality has been done to her whilst we've been gone", we cared. We wanted her out of there so desperately.

This is not that common a reaction for such films and it's also valid of the writer of the above article to state that these films (about the slave trade) have never featured as their main protagonist a woman.

Well written, articulately put salient points on the matter.

Alvin Grimes

Django unchained was the story of a man who was willing to pass thru the gates of hell to rescue his woman. It was as stated in the movie, the story of Siegfried and Brunhilda, or any mythical story as the hero rescuing a damsel in distress. Its a drug that white men have fed themselves for thousands of years and it was taken from us during slavery because you can't make slaves out of warriors. It tells them again and again that there is nothing that they can't do and as a result believe it. I enjoyed seeing a man defying all odds to save the black woman that he loved. It was such an empowering film and such a refreshing change from the "b@#$h better have my money" madness that we continuously feed ourselves under the dream killing dogma of "keepin it real."


The Help, The Butler, Precious, The Blind Side and all the slave movies that have come out pander to the white liberals in Hollywood. Nothing will change until we stop acting in these films. Fed up of us acting like the victims and white people being treated as our saviours — mental slavery still continues…

Mino Warrior

Some of Kerry Washington's performance was left on the cutting room floor after test audiences found her seasoning process unpleasant. If her scenes are put back in she may seem less like a cardboard cut out.


If you want to know what Patsy's life was like after Solomon left, watch the 12 Years a Slave again because I'm sure it didn't change. Better yet, watch Mandingo or Roots. There's nothing new about the brutality of slavery.

Your optimism is quite charming…



Only white-supremacist enslaved minds would look at the Patsy character as one of depth for a Black woman to play. The role was as 2-dimensional as rice paper, only made full by the superb performance of Lupita Nyong'o.

These are the type of roles white Hollywood loves to see Black folks & people of color in. If someone makes a story about Nanni of the Jamaican Maroons, Nzingah of Angola, Harriet Tubman, Nefertiti, etc. we'll see if it gets all this praise (not likely).

For Precious Colored Girls with The Help of The Butler for 12 Years A Slave Unchained…

Li Ling

No doubt she is an excellent performer. I couldn't forget the secen when she was raped by a white man. Her helpless voice was like a dying lamb. There was no happyness for black women at that time. I kept thinking her character for days, only can feel horrible and frigtened. No dignity and freedom. Her pain was endless.


I felt the same way! I kept on thinking about Patsey days after the film was over. I like how we followed her story independent of Solomon. Lupita gave such a great performance. And now that you mentioned it, I am so thirsty to know how she lived her life. The final scene on the plantation when Solomon leaves was so heartbreaking. You could literally feel and see her pain jumping out of the screen. I felt so sad for her. Telling black history stories from women's perspectives is also a great idea, it adds a breath of fresh air to the experience. I loved the movie, and its commitment to telling the truth about slavery. It deserves all the great things that comes its way.


This is not the first time this story has been made into a film. Please remember, the PBS version starring "Avery Brooks," 1984.

However, this new theater version is certainly closer –in my opinion– to the truth as far as how Northup said "Patsey" was treated. And, I do mean closer since, from what I remember, Northup's autobiography suggests she suffered permanent damage to the point, she was never the same again.


I am definitely interested in seeing more of Patsey's story. To be honest I often times felt myself sympathizing more with Patsey rather than Solomon. Her journey speaks volumes about the mental state of women in slavery, and how they managed to survive with no end in sight. I wanted more than anything to witness Patsey's redemption, but I understand that in order to continue forward in the authenticity of the film, Patsey couldn't be saved. I agree that more stories about women like Patsey need to be seen and supported.

Barbara hampton-Barclay

Django is farce. You cannot possibly compare it with "12 years a Slave" a drama based on a true story. Django is supposed to be funny, sad, horrifying, ridiculous. 12 years is supposed to challenge your beliefs, reach your soul, stir your empathy, change your perceptions abotu slavery and GWTW.
Please do not compare the two. Do not insult the directors or the actors.


I'm sorry hers was not a great performance. The character of Patsey was merely a prop for the director to dramatize violence.


I'd love a film about nanny of the maroons; the jamaican equivalent of harriet tubman. It would have been great if steve had done this considering he is of west indian decent but I understand why he choose this story- more people can relate to it.


I loved the depiction of Patsey as rape victim as well as field slave. Some, particularly some black males, ignore the fact that this was the case for most enslaved women. The misinformation that those who were raped were somehow "favored" is so false. As the film showed, enslaved women had no protection and no ability to even protect themselves, especially against the white female who did the followup abuse.


More strong, experienced, nuanced female characters for the win!

I would love to see a movie about Aminata – The book of Negroes.

What a fantastic, emotional read.


I was reminded of Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice which was probably the finest/saddest movie made about the Holocaust. I have never forgotten her and when she was forced to choose which of her two children should live or die. The ultimate cruelty is the forced separation of people who love each other, who are innocent, have done no wrong and their only crime is that they are not of the same blood as their oppressors. I understand this as the daughter-in-law of Holocaust survivors. My children are proof that humanity and love will prevail.

We do need more films with oppressed women as the main character. Sometimes I don't think the story is about race. I think it is about the physical power of men over women and the territorial imperative.

I will never forget the tragedy of Patsey watching Solomon being driven away. And, I know he was haunted by her and those who were enslaved with him for the rest of his life.

I am haunted by inhumanity because I don't understand it.


I would like to see more about Patsey, her story and others like it. The part was played well, and the story compelling. She sticks in your mind. The tremendous strength and courage of these women and others like her needs to be portrayed. Of course I wanted to see her find her way out of her difficulties, Northrup to come back and save her, but that was not likely the reality.


Best and fairest article about 12 Years a Slave I've seen on this site. I agree that it's time to see films about the struggles and lives of women like Patsy. I have thought about her character a lot since seeing the film 3 weeks ago.


Do you truly not get that "Django Unchained" was just a "spaghetti western?" Seriously, it should not be compared to anything EXCEPT other spaghetti westerns. It was a fantasy film in the same genre of the Clint Eastwood classics of the same genre. The only difference is that Tarantino (love it or hate it) used the fantasy of a triumphal slave, as opposed to a triumphal cowboy.

Why in the world would you compare two such totally different films / genres?


I just saw 12 Years A Slave today. Very touching yet disturbing movie. I haven't seen DJango or any other slavery movie that I can recall of. I agree with this article. There needs to be more female protagonists, even if they're not the hero, but more about their stories. I learned about women in slavery when I took a African American history class last semester and I understood why black women are more rebels, even in modern day society. Some women consented to sex with the masters just to get by, also getting their heads shaved to remove their individuality. I'm not sure how society would take another slavery movie, but it's worth seeing a woman's point of view as the main characters.

Lakisha May

I remember seeing something on Shadow and Act about Dolen Perkins Valdez book, "Wench" becoming a film. I wonder if that is still being considered. I hope so because this book is like a book of Patsys, but the women assert their power and the story is centered on them solely. Its a powerful and necessary novel.


Well said. I was dismayed at how the role of Broomhilda was written, but relieved that Solomon Northrup and then John Ridley and then Steve McQueen focused on the voice of Black women. Not just one, but three in memorable roles! Lupita has moved to the front position of Oscar buzz and I hope she wins.

Wishful thinking, I like to think that Patsy eventually escaped Epps either through flight North or through an early death. In the movie, it seemed like Patsy's time as Epps's toy/pummel bag was nearly up since Fassbender's character was paying a little too much attention to the next little girl in line.

Also, I truly hope Northrup was able to assist other slaves from Epps farm if they ever made it up to his Underground Railroad station. Understandably, Northrup kept specific details quiet about his life and work after the events of the story.


"Patsey, and other black female characters in 12 Years A Slave become human because they cannot be saved." This statement is so true and so heart wrenching because Patsey's story is the story of millions of women who were enslaved in the Americas.

Eliza's story is more compelling in the book but a two hour movie does not give you enough time to develop everyone.


This is a great commentary. Nyong-o was amazing in this role and because of her commitment to it- I am haunted by her Patsey. I have thought about Patsey often since I saw the film. And I have thought about Eliza, also. I was left with a feeling of narrative and emotional incompleteness, because, as the writer suggests, the patriarchal lens is not enough for me. I have wondered about Patsey's aspirations (her art, her turned up pinky) and her death (did she die still brutalized?). I, like the writer, am ready to see more about women like Patsey-moved from the margins to the center.

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