Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is an important film that is also difficult to watch. Film critic Armond White describes it as a “horror show” that will encourage “howls of discomfort.” But as uncomfortable as those two-plus hours are, they only graze the surface of the horrors of lived slavery. Asked about the “hard to watch” label by LA Times’s Steven Zeitchik, McQueen said in no uncertain terms, “The truth can sometimes be hard to watch. […] But if we want to understand where we’re going, we have to understand our past.” At the same time, I remain wary of how spectacular displays of black pain impact viewing audiences. (Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection proves ever-timely, relevant and useful for viewing such explicit representations of bodily trauma.) Will confronting the slave past by seeing it represented make us feel self-congratulatory in what too many have misidentified as a “postracial” era? Or will witnessing representations of slavery embolden us to confront the imperial, racial, and sexual violence of the present: the “afterlife of slavery?”
As I turned away from some of the film’s explicit scenes, I became aware of its attention to sound as well. Averting my eyes didn’t blot out the simulation of whip cracks; a mother’s incessant wailing following the sale of her children; or Patsey’s (played brilliantly by Lupita Nyong’o) tortured screams. I thought about Frederick Douglass’s Aunt Hester, whose “heart-rending shrieks” would wake him up at dawn. Harriet Jacobs renders more subtle registers of hearing in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. She mentions the “stinging scorching words” of a sexually predatory master and the nighttime whispers of a jealous mistress as some of the quotidian terrors of slavery she endured.
Through sound, song, and dance turned moan and scream and back to song again, McQueen’s film captures the affective memories of slavery. One of the most emotional scenes—at least for me—takes place at the burial of a slave who has fallen dead from overwork in the cotton fields. The slave community sends their brother “home” with “Roll Jordan Roll,” “I want to go to heaven when I die.” The camera closes in on Solomon’s/Platt’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) pained expression. For the first time, “Platt,” who is usually playing the fiddle, joins his voice with the robust cries of others. The kidnapped “free” man becomes resigned to his fate as a slave and turns his hope for freedom toward the afterlife. As a complement to the violence of whipping and plantation labor, that act of singing—like the scenes when the mistress forces the slaves to dance for her entertainment—broadens the “truth” of slavery by bringing the aural and the emotional facets of the institution to bear on the physical toil and abuse.
The affective sway of 12 Years a Slave doesn’t dim the unrelenting cruelty displayed on the screen though. To some extent, it heightens it. Solomon’s hopelessness is alleviated by his rescue, but the mournful refrain of “Roll Jordan Roll” haunts viewers as we contemplate Patsey’s fate. Patsey—who makes corn husk dolls after picking cotton clean; who begs for death to escape the sadistic clutches of a sexually depraved master; who, just for a moment, loses herself in the music and dances to her own tune; whose back is skinned clean because she wanted to bathe with soap—is not rescued by a Canadian carpenter or a gun-toting Django-like avenger. Patsey’s tragic fate, for some, may belie enslaved women’s various modes of resistance. At the same time, the film refuses to allow us to “look away” from the tortured gaze of one who is left behind. By making Patsey’s the last image of slavery we see, McQueen’s film reframes the history of slavery through a female gendered lens that makes the trials of black girlhood and womanhood as essential to our remembrances as the more often recounted narratives of stolen manhood.