The hanged man

A central sequence in the film has almost no dialogue except for its beginning and end, but it says much about the structures determining plantation life. Visually it traces the plantation household and the power relations within and outside it. The scene begins as Solomon is working as a carpenter building a small structure and his white slaver boss tells him repeatedly his work needs to be redone. The slave driver sets about to beat Solomon and Solomon refuses to strip. As the slaver reaches for his whip to strike, Solomon beats him to the ground, and then whips the white man with the coiled whip till exhausted. The overseer of the whole plantation rides up, sends the slave boss off, and tells Solomon, “Do not leave the plantation or I cannot protect you. Stay here.” As Simon sits on the unfinished building, shadows lengthen, and time passes till late afternoon. Three men, including the slave boss, ride up and bind Solomon, dragging him close to the big house and hanging him on a tree. The plantation overseer comes out, pistols in hand, calling out,

“Ford holds a mortgage on Platt of four hundred dollars. If you hang him, he loses his debt. Until that is canceled you have no claim to his life.”

The overseer chases the three men off. Solomon remains hanged but has been lowered enough so that his toes now reach the mud below him. Close ups of his feet show him struggling to gain purchase with them so as to be able to breathe. As time passes, the overseer, pistols still drawn, paces the veranda of the big house, and a bit later Mrs. Ford comes out briefly to look. The housemaid, Rachel, runs out, gives the hanged Solomon a drink of water and then rushes away. He stays hanged in this position for a long time. Finally Master Ford gallops up on horseback and with a machete cuts Solomon completely down.

Next, in the interior of the big house, Solomon lies on the foyer floor with his head on a fancy white pillow. Ford paces with a rifle, presumably fearing an armed contingent coming to lynch his slave. Simon tells Ford who he really is and Ford replies, “I cannot hear that,” that he has sold Solomon to a hard master, Epps, since no other slave owner would take this rebellious slave and his life was in danger at Ford’s. In addition, he has a debt for which Solomon is collateral. The slave lies half dead on the big house floor.

This section of the film is temporally prolonged, and for the most part it is without dialogue and accompanied by ambient sound. Sometimes the hanged Simon is seen with the slave cabins and new construction in the background, other times with the big house behind his head. Shadows lengthen between shots. The camera holds on him in long shot, toes struggling to gain purchase in the mud. In the background slaves come out of their cabins to go about their work. Some look at him, others do not. Children play on the grass behind him. A close up of Solomon’s muddied face shows his extreme condition.

Finally at dusk, there is a long shot showing the hanged man tiny in the background. Then back to the narrative action as Ford enters on horseback and cuts Solomon down.

McQueen says he wanted this scene to echo many other historical lynchings, but it does much more than that. Metonymically it lays out the structures and daily routines of the Southern plantation household, which unlike a home in the North was a unit of relatively self-sufficient production and in which slaves did both field and domestic labor. Since slaves and masters lived in close proximity, labor relations often closely meshed with personal ones.

As we see the layout of both the Ford and Epps plantations, there is a big house with a veranda around it and various buildings nearby: the slave cabins, a new building under construction, a kitchen garden, a cotton shed, other farm structures, a pigpen (Epps)—all just paces away from each other.

Within this space the male plantation owner, represented by his overseer, had full legal rights over the household. And the slave system needed regular enactments of violence to manage its coerced labor force. Slaves expected random whippings. In addition, there were certain rhythms to slave life, which we see even in the hanged man sequence described above—the slaves had a double day’s work, doing the plantation’s maintenance chores and cooking for themselves after a day working under overseers and drivers’ rule. In addition, as depicted in that sequence, slaves also always had to demonstrate that they “knew their place.” Avoiding violence meant reticence, keeping emotion off one’s face, sticking to the very narrow paths and actions allotted to them. Finally, it was not proper for Solomon to declare his identity to Ford, nor later to reveal he knew how to read and write. He was chattel, an expensive commodity ready for trade (he originally cost Ford $1200). Playing a socially dehumanized protagonist, throughout most of 12 Years a Slave, Cheiwetel Ejiofer faced the difficulty of creating a character who must suppress both emotion and knowledge from his public face.
The Epps plantation: act 3  
Solomon’s time under Master Epps constitutes a long 60-minute section of the film, ending in the climax of Epps (and Solomon) cruelly beating a female slave, Patsey, who suffers under Epps’ obsessive lust. This section of the film is more melodramatic than the rest of the film, with more close ups conveying heightened emotions. The melodrama also gains its force from its actors star performances (Michael Fassbender as plantation owner Epps and Lupita Nyong’o as the slave, Patsey).[15] [open endnotes in new window] Socially, the section depicts the power of the plantation owner. The melodrama traces the relation between this man’s absolute power and his personality and capriciousness. Interestingly as a matter of narrative choice, McQueen does not choose to develop in the plot much about the slave community, life in the cabins, slave rebellion or individual escape.
Instead, this section of the film builds audience involvement in more traditional ways, eliciting identification with the beautiful victimized woman and her suffering the attentions of the villainous but arrestingly-portrayed Epps. In addition, as the film portrays Solomon’s interactions with Epps, the film uses the actors’ bodies to indicate the two men’s degrees of power very finely, especially the master’s flamboyant exercise of his least whim and his large gestures, alongside the slave’s reticence and compacted bodily stance. At other moments, Solomon’s story advances as we witness his frustrated attempts to communicate back home. In that sense, this part of the film juggles two temporal registers, the familiar cinematic build toward a climax, and the narration of slave time—the felt experience of having no control over the flow of one’s life.

Michael Fassbender has worked a long time with director McQueen. In this film Fassbender vigorously plays the plantation owner Epps with a focus on the way that man exercises his absolute power, the way it shapes him, and the way it affects the whole household. In the slave South, the master’s law was personal, not impersonal nor adjudicated, as in the North. Ideologically, slave culture assumed a natural hierarchy and order within the household, with slaves legally chattel. In practice, since slaves were expensive and tied up so much of a master’s capital, the slave owner and his wife had to learn to manage rather than just use force on slaves; and this entailed their knowing the slaves as people to a certain degree.

Furthermore, a slaveowner’s exercise of power within the household could easily lead to and be governed by personal sadism since his potential brutality, racism, and sexual use of slave women were taken for granted as part of normal masculinity within his class.

Several sequences portraying Epps and his wife’s conflicting relationships with the slave Patsey articulate the particular register of social power enacted intimately within the slave household. In an early sequence depicting slave life at Epps, after some shots of the slaves picking cotton, the slaves stand in the weighing shed where we hear the driver announce Patsey has picked 521 pounds. This is our introduction to Patsey. Epps stands close behind her and puts his hand on her shoulder. The manager continues with his accounting of pounds picked. Epps interrupts,

“I ain't done… Ain't I owed a minute to luxuriate on the work Patsey done? Damned Queen. Born and bred to the field. A nigger among niggers, and God give 'er to me. A lesson in the rewards of righteous livin'. All be observant ta that.”

Patsey looks determinedly away.

The human drama of this long section, with the many close ups of Epps (as there had not been of Ford) begins the arc of the “Patsey” story and establishes for the viewer the acting skill in the portrayal of the two characters. In addition, it sets out definitively how the master’s private life and desire affects the entire group. In fact, one of the major themes developed in this section is that the master and mistress’ private life is not private. In slave culture, it is laid out for all to see. Epps’ hand on Patsey’s shoulder, his words to the gathered slaves, and her look away are metonyms for his sexual abuse.

Another moment of the film featuring Patsey reveals more about the intimate enactment of power in the slave household. Epps comes into the slave quarters in the middle of the night holding a lantern. He tells them to come to the big house to dance; Solomon should bring his fiddle. The drunken Epps sets the slaves to dancing and then demands they do it with more “merriment.” Epps stares at Patsey, who seems momentarily lost in the dance; and Mrs. Epps, seeing the lust in her husband’s eyes, throws a heavy decanter at Patsey, hitting the slave square in the face. Patsey falls to the floor. Mrs. Epps demands that her husband sell this slave. When she threatens to leave him, he dismisses her and says he’ll keep Patsey rather than her. She has no options and leaves the room. Patsey is dragged out, Epps demands that Solomon continue playing, and the slaves dance.

The climax of the film shows Patsey’s brutal beating. In an interview with scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., a consultant on the film, McQueen said that he had to film such a scene in the manner he did to do justice to the subject matter, slavery.[16] The prolonged sequence is choreographed in lengthy tracking shots that move from wide shot to close up and back, showing both the characters’ intense emotions and the relations among them. It ends with gashing skin and spattering blood that are difficult to watch. It then cuts to a scene in a slave cabin, showing Patsey’s mangled back, the gathered slave community as mute witnesses, and an emotional exchange of looks between Patsey and Solomon.

The setup to the beating begins with shots of slave women hanging homespun shirts on clotheslines; by implication that means it’s Sunday, which slaves have off and during which they do chores like their own laundry. A drunken Epps comes down angrily from the big house searching for Patsey. She enters in the background of the shot. He grabs and shakes her, accusing her of going to Shaw’s plantation to have sex with “that libertine.” She says she went there to get some soap, which Mrs. Epps had denied her, since picking cotton made her “stink so much” it made her gag. As Epps has her tied to a pole for a beating, we hear Mrs. Epps voice off commanding,

“Do it. Strike the life from her.”

Epps cannot bring himself to beat Patsey, so he commands Solomon to do it. Then Mrs. Epps says Solomon is “pantomiming” and making a fool of Epps. Epps points a pistol at Solomon threatening to “kill every nigger in my sight” if Solomon does not proceed more vigorously. Solomon whips Patsey fiercely and then can do no more.

When he is exhausted, Epps yells to Solomon: “There is no sin! A man does how he pleases with his property. At the moment, Platt [Solomon’s slave name], I am of great pleasure. You be goddamn careful I don't come to wantin' to lightenin' my mood no further.” Then Epps and the Mistress head silently back to the big house and Simon comes forward to untie Patsey.

During this sequence, the lengthy tracking shots recompose the scene to delineate the different characters, the slaves in the background as witnesses, the big house, the people’s faces, the brutal action. Patsey’s naked back is not shown until toward the end. At that point the camera has moved in to show a close up of Epps face, then a swish pan to her back with shreds being torn off at each stroke, then back to Epps swinging now in a circular motion hitting her on every downstroke, the camera moving in closer and closer to his face.

In the next location, the slave cabin, the camera also emphasizes interpersonal emotions and social life, slowly tilting up to emphasize the whole slave community together in the cabin, sad witnesses to this atrocity. Patsey looks up to Solomon and cries; the viewer would remember that she had earlier asked him to drown her to put her out of her misery. In a close up of Solomon, we see his anguish and a tear falling from his eye and rolling down his cheek.[17]

This beating scene is justified both by the plot and the subject matter. It seizes audience attention. It is like a rape scene, in that it shows Epps’ sadism proceeding from his obsessive lust, but enacting it to the borderline between life and death. It is also questionable cinematic practice. For a long time media culture has depicted vulnerable women, naked women, violated women in a way that performs, either subtly or overtly, as a spectacle that reproduces the social enforcement of the gender binary, the subordination of female to male. Discussing the social response to a smutty story in a way that would be applicable to viewing the flaying of Patsey and Patsey’s flayed back, Sigmund Freud said that even a disgusted listener would feel shame tinged with repressed excitement. That is the function of smut.[18] This sequence in 12 Years a Slave, like rape and rape threat sequences, reenacts a common location in representation, one fantasized by both oneself and others.[19] Furthermore, the flaying of the body, or torture scenes more generally, within the context of a realist aesthetic have become part of the iconography of narrative cinema. That means that audiences have a certain learned behavior with which they view such material, expecting a frisson, knowing the story will then move on.

Even more problematic is tying this frisson to the beating of a black body. Abolitionists used such a tactic of showing slavery’s bodily toll by having former slaves display their scars, which predictably would both horrify and thrill white viewers. In this vein, Jasmine Nichole Cobb recognizes the achievements of 12 Years a Slave but has reservations about the film’s very use of a classical realist style. Constant visual surveillance over their captive workforce was a necessity for slave owners, she points out, but the Reconstruction extended such a white looking-practice to a more general, watchful suspicion of people’s “blackness,” which now underlies racism in the United States:

“…exactness as tethered to the historical record will delimit a comprehensive view of slavery as a system that fixated upon the objectification of blackness. Slavery cultivated the habit of observing blackness, indeed, cultivated whiteness, in part, through the surveillance of blacks. Accuracy as an object in McQueen’s 12 Years demands a willful commitment to the fetishization of black visibility and suffering as essential elements of transatlantic slavery. Demanding that viewers witness slavery’s sadistic theatrics, to take part in the subjecting experience, McQueen offers up a screen of subjection to contemplate ideas about humanity.”[20]

Cobb astutely describes contemporary racial discrimination’s origins partially in slavery’s visual regime, surveilling blackness. I will return this point both in regards to 12 Years a Slave and later The Birth of a Nation about the social effects of certain ways of representing race.

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