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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
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.

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

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