My hero: the slave

12 Years a Slave - a film based on the true story of free Black man Solomon Northup who was kidnapped and forced into slavery in the US - pulls out the duality that is often missing in films on social injustice and slavery.
Image of Solomon Northup's book sourced from net

Far from adhering to the simple Black = victim and White = oppressor formula, Steve McQueen tells us that the enslaved man, woman and even child should be depicted holistically as the complex characters they often are....both victim and hero – and in the case of the slave master both the oppressed and oppressor.

We witness in the protagonist - Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor),  his gradual loss of liberty as a free Black man who is duped and sold illegally into slavery in 1840s’ US.

And with this demise of freedom, we chart his path as he still manages to hold on to some dignity while being stripped of it.

This theme of duality envelopes the film and we see it played out in one scene where Solomon and two hostages try and hatch plans to escape from a moving ship on its way to the Deep South.

In this scene, I get the sense that Solomon’s dual personalities are actualised in his two fellow hostages. One talks of overpowering the crew, while the other suggests keeping quiet, and laying low as a better plan for survival. Solomon sits between them as these extensions of his thoughts fight it out.

But we soon discover, when the first attempts to defend the honour of a woman who is about to be raped by a crew member, that direct action may not be the best approach as the man is stabbed to death by his captor.

Survival of the fittest
Solomon and his remaining buddy are forced to throw him over board – his buddy chillingly saying that the dead man is better off than them.

This idea of duality goes even further when you look at the behaviour of Solomon’s more reflective ship mate. We see him transform from an intelligent and articulate individual to a subservient simpleton once he steps off the ship and into the arms of his slave master.

Even his posture changes, and as he bends lower upon seeing his master, he does so without even a second glance at Solomon. Every man for himself...

McQueen revisits this idea of obedience and whether that secures survival and safety in the same way that dissent seems not to in the sorry case of Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o). She – a slave that Solomon meets after being sold on from one master – ticks all the boxes.

She picks more cotton than any other slave on the plantation, is the object of her psychotic master’s affections and acquiesces to all his commands. And yet, she – like no other – suffers the most. Her reward for picking the most cotton is nightly rapes by Master Epps who derives pleasure from part strangling her while he comes. 

While her fellow slaves can at least rest in the knowledge that even after experiencing a torturous day of beatings, and hard labour – their nights are their own, there is no respite for Patsey. And that is why when she asks Solomon to drown her in the swamp, we feel her living hell.

But this remarkable woman is also unwittingly powerful. She is the main reason for her master’s continued wealth because of her dexterity at cotton picking. Without realising it, she stirs something up in her master that feeds his sexual desires and at the same time breeds jealousy and hatred in his wife.
This contradiction is made all the more powerful when Patsey goes in search of soap, which her slave mistress vindictively denies her. Upon Patsey’s return, she receives lashes from her master for being out of his sight.

Here, we see her at her most heroic and Master Epps at his most oppressed. She is mercilessly whipped by Master Epps till welts from the whip and blood form on her back. Her skin is whipped so much, it is stripped of skin till a white dermal layer is the only thing visible.
And at the same time, we see a man so consumed by his conflicting desires and inability to accept his feelings for a slave that his only way to deal with them was by outwardly pouring out his confused state on the poor Patsey.

The oppressed master
Throughout the film, we see the slow demise of Master Epps who – at times – appears mad and out of control. Patsey, on the other hand, portrays an unrelenting stoicism.  

Could I have endured that and much more and not gone insane? How did Patsey and so many millions of slaves manage to live, raise families, pass on traditions and love and live when they were forced into a system predicated on dehumanising them?

If nothing else, failing to show what McQueen has managed to capture in this film would be an injustice to the life-long struggles of extra-ordinary individuals.

The slave was more than just a victim of a barbaric global system. For me, each and every one of them are heroes for mankind – examples of strength, fortitude and endurance that people of every generation, creed and colour should be strive to emulate.

By Kirsty Osei-Bempong

For more blogs on slavery and its legacies, check
Belle - a new kind of English rose  
A podcast: Tudor England's African connections with historian Onyeka
Tudor England II: England's African connections
Gold Coast: a lucid look into Denmark's colonial past

All comments are welcome on this page. If you are having trouble posting on the Google+ page, please share your views via Facebook here. and Twitter here.

Please be aware that you may not reproduce, republish, modify or commercially exploit this content without our prior written consent. 


Popular posts from this blog

Ghanaian sitcom star leaves lasting legacy in Kwahu

What's your favourite Adinkra symbol?

Côte d’Ivoire sculptures: unmasking the truth

Ray Styles - the Ghanaian artist bucking the trend and following his art

An interview with Shoobs founder Louise Broni-Mensah