Brenda Stevenson is a UCLA professor of history and African American studies, as well as author of "Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South" and “The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the L.A. Riots.” Stevenson recently attended a preview screening of the critically acclaimed new film "12 Years a Slave," which is based on the autobiographical account of Solomon Northrup. In this Q&A, Stevenson shares what she found most impressive, what the movie got right and what it could have done a little better.
What’s the setup?
“12 Years a Slave” is the film version of Solomon Northup’s autobiographical account of his ordeal as a free man from New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana in 1841, where he resides in that status until he is freed in 1853. Northup, who is literate, an accomplished musician, a skilled builder and inventor, husband and father of three, recorded his experiences and those of many slave men and women around him in an important, late antebellum document that was published soon after he returned to freedom. Steve McQueen is the film’s acclaimed director.
What about your background made the movie particularly interesting to you?
As a scholar of U.S. and Atlantic World slavery, particularly the experiences of enslaved women, I am especially interested in a film drawn from a document that is so rich in detail about many aspects of slave life — family, community, labor, relations with whites, religion and resistance. Moreover, Northup’s account is filled with the experiences of enslaved women, and not just as the victims of sexual abuse (there is a lot of that in it too), but also as skilled workers, gifted agriculturalists, agents of resistance and active slave community members. Given my intellectual interests and all of the pre-release acclaim and attention it has received, I was glad to be a guest at a pre-screening hosted by BET at the Pacific Design Center and have an opportunity to hear the director, writer (John Ridley) and its major actors (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Lupita Nyong’o) speak about the project.
What elements of the movie struck you as particularly accurate?
Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who was sold into slavery in 1841 and remained enslaved until 1853. The new film "12 Years a Slave," which provides an unflinching depiction of the horrors of slavery, is based on Northup's memoir.
The film is largely drawn from Northup’s account, and for that I was thankful. I was particularly impressed with the dialogue Ridley created. It is difficult to have slave characters speak the creole language of their day and locations without losing the audience. What we have in this film is a sense that the language is appropriately represented, but it is still changed enough for the audience to be able to follow. I also was very impressed, as I think most will be, with the depiction of the slave woman Patsey, a beautiful, very productive, cotton picker who is the sexual obsession of her sadistic master and the object of her mistress’s intense jealousy and abuse.
Where does the movie miss the mark from a historical perspective?
The movie is fairly accurate in many ways. Of course, McQueen and Ridley had to make critical decisions regarding what part of Northup’s text to adapt to film and what was to be left out. From my perspective, the two most problematic parts of the film are that the audience really does not feel the intense closeness of the slave community, as Northup describes it; nor is the audience given any detailed depictions of slave women’s experiences, except as concubines. The three major enslaved females (Eliza, Patsey and Harriet Shaw) are all concubines. Certainly concubinage was a significant experience for enslaved women and girls, but what is missing here is the other kind of work that women performed on an equal basis with men and the kinds of female resistance that resulted. This is especially noteworthy since the text by Northup describes an array of females with other experiences.
Was there a performance that stuck out for you? If so, why?
From my perspective, there were a number of exceedingly strong performances. Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Solomon Northup, brought a kind of understanding of Solomon’s intelligence, frustration and anger (controlled and not), that breathed a brilliance into the character. Likewise, Lupita Nyong’o, who played Patsey, demonstrated the heart wrenching pathos of the slave woman caught in her owner’s obsession. Both Michael Fassbender, who played owner Edwin Epps, and Sarah Paulson, who played his wife, brought to the screen accurate depictions of the cruelty and mania that infested those whites, men and women, who were the institution’s architects and chief beneficiaries.
Any other particularly memorable detail? Why does it stick with you?
The most haunting moment for me in the film is when Patsey is whipped, first by Solomon who, as overseer, is commanded by Epps to do so, and then by Epps himself in a jealous rage. Patsey has gone to borrow some soap from another concubine on a neighboring plantation because her mistress, Mrs. Epps, would not give her soap to clean herself. All she wanted was to be clean, and for that, this young woman, who could pick more cotton than any of Epps’ male slaves was stripped naked, tied down and whipped to within an inch of her life. I really hoped that the beating would end in her death. I cried because it did not, because she had to continue to bear the unbearable, and because I knew that this scene had been acted out countless times during the era of slavery.
If you had to give the movie a grade based on what you know of the subject what would you give it?
I would give the movie an A. It is, after all, a Hollywood movie, produced by Brad Pitt. It is not a documentary. Still, it is mostly accurate and the performances are magnificent.