copyright 2018, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 58, winter, 2017-2018

12 Years a Slave and The Birth of a Nation: two moments in representing race

by Julia Lesage

In this essay I offer a close analysis of two films, 12 Years a Slave and The Birth of a Nation, made a century apart, about slavery and its aftermath in the United States. In one sense, 12 Years a Slave is today’s counter-narrative to Griffiths’ historically important work.[1] [open endnotes in new window]. I am hoping here that discussing these two films together lets us re-think cinematic historical representation in relation to the very different aesthetic choices that shape each film. Especially important, re-viewing The Birth of a Nation alongside 12 Years a Slave puts into clearer view U.S. racial history, and the history of racial representation, as the films provide insight into hegemonic social structures still troubling us today, such as the dangers that black men and women face in public space.

In considering the filmmakers’ political intention, I have no evidence that 12 Years a Slave’s director Steve McQueen or script writer John Ridley thought of Birth of a Nation when developing their film, only that McQueen wanted to make a film about slavery since the details of that history are so rarely brought up in contemporary popular culture or acknowledged in popular memory. McQueen said in interviews that he long had the idea to make a film about slavery with the protagonist being a freeman kidnapped and sold into bondage. Such a character, as an “outsider,” would learn the rules of survival along with the viewer. McQueen and black screenwriter John Ridley read about U.S. slavery and discussed this project but did not settle on a specific approach until the director’s wife, Bianca Stigter, showed them Northup’s 1863 autobiography, 12 Years a Slave, filled with many concrete details about slave labor and the daily life of slaves.[2]

The Birth of a Nation, in contrast, was based on a racist sentimental novel, The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon, tracing at length the romance between two couples who bridge North and South, a Southern version of Reconstruction, philosophical discussions about whites and blacks as two species, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. It is highly melodramatic, a kind of anti-Uncle Tom’s Cabin.[3] To a certain degree, the older and newer films’ contrasting literary origins suggest the appropriateness of a very different visual style for each, although the style differences also can equally be attributed to new audience expectations across the large span of years. In this essay, I analyze 12 Years a Slave first, since it takes up the antebellum slave era in the United States. In turn The Birth of a Nation treats the antebellum South, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. However, my organization is also conceptually motivated. 12 Years a Slave uses a realist narrative script and visual style, presenting many details of slave life; in contrast, The Birth of a Nation has a much more melodramatic script and suppresses references to the mores and economy of the antebellum South in favor of developing a new plotline about Southern white women under sexual threat from black men (the Southern “rape complex”)[4] and white men regaining public space, all of which is not depicted realistically but metaphorically (as the film’s title announces). Deriving from his left-liberal politics and his greater distance years-wise, McQueen’s contemporary film traces the story of what Griffiths’ conservative film, closer to the slave era, cannot face.

Metonymy and metaphor

Briefly put, 12 Years a Slave relies on a rhetoric of metonymy to draw meaning from its fictional world, while The Birth of a Nation delineates its fictional world in the service of a raced and gendered national metaphor. That is, 12 Years a Slave draws upon the conventions of “realist” cinematic narrative, as delineated by Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson in The Classical Hollywood Cinema.[5] The aesthetic tropes of that cinema have achieved a dominance in commercial fictional film and television worldwide, and in 12 Years a Slave, director McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley largely adhere to its conventions, breaking from them only occasionally for some specific reason related to the theme—one man’s experience under slavery. In realist fictional cinema, audience expectations about cohesive and “readable” characters and spaces are adhered to, as well as audience expectations that costume, camera work (for example, long shot, close up, tracking, shot duration, continuity editing, and mise en scene) will be used in a predictable way to express meaning. In this perspective, “realist” meaning usually comes from metonymy, a rhetorical device in which the part—in cinema, a small visual detail or a camera move, such as a close up—can express the meaning of the whole. In fact, it is the way the narrative accumulates density by building upon and emphasizing one small embedded detail after another that makes it realistic.[6] The aesthetic “moves” of fiction filmmaking are well known by screenwriters, sound designers, costumers, actors, and directors but are often not noticed by audiences at all; the very word “continuity” means invisibility of process is the makers’ goal.

In contrast, and coming at the inception of Hollywood fiction film and shaping it, The Birth of a Nation uses a much more overtly melodramatic structure, a dramatic genre which audiences at the time knew and loved. It pays very little attention to the kinds of structures that later films might delineate: versions of popular knowledge, especially about science, work processes, or psychological states; the war between the sexes (except for raced rape threat), the lives of the working class. Rather, it takes for granted what Deborah Barker has described as the Southern rape complex, in which black-on-white rape becomes a metaphor for the defeated South, and indeed this film probably was one of the main vehicles for re-generating that complex over many years. Since the film excises the structures of slavery and the antebellum mindset of slaveholding class from its narrative, the film narrative projects onto blacks that class’s deepest fears—loss of civic control and white male impotency masked by this new emphasis on sexually aggressive black men. Metaphor works by not representing something directly, here not developing reference to details of antebellum slave economy and daily life, both for masters and slaves. Rather the metaphor works by analogy (the rape of the South) and substitution of a comparator of a different order. Furthermore, not only did the rape metaphor shape a film narrative, it also became what George Lakoff and Mark Johnson would call a “conceptual metaphor,” a common ideological mindset that people in a given culture might use to organize their experience. Here the metaphor is about controlling public life and racial purity, including that of white women.[7]

To say that the recent film, like many other theatrical successes, relies on a realism based in metonymy and that the older film relies on a popular melodramatic structure to develop a politically expedient metaphor is not to isolate these aesthetic strategies as unique to either film. 12 Years a Slave has many melodramatic moments of heightened emotion; and it, too, can be seen as delivering a “message” or metaphor for people; in fact, historical fictions often deliver messages for contemporary times. The Birth of a Nation, in turn, was hailed as milestone of realist historical fiction, especially in its depiction of the Civil War. It uses metonymy to establish what Roland Barthes calls “the reality effect.” In practice, theatrical melodrama was long known for taking up current problems and staging them with realistic sets and costumes; the plot structures however remained very similar—beleaguered innocents, suffering victims, heroes, villains, and evil vs. good.[9]

I turn now to a close analysis of selected moments from these two films to indicate how they tell their stories, reference history, and address an audience—or potentially have different effects on viewers depending on the viewers’ own situations. Since I have a background in both production and criticism, I have a particular interest in how cinematic/script tactics influence meaning and this will be reflected in what I see in the films and thus what I write.

12 Years a Slave: Solomon Northup as a free man in the North

12 Years a Slave introduces protagonist Solomon Northup as a free black man in 1841 living in Saratoga NY. Both he and his wife, Anne, work, he as a musician and his wife as a caterer who travels throughout the Northeast to work at hotels for special events. Solomon takes pride in his family and has a lively social presence in the town. At one point early in the film, in a flashback, we see him walking with his family on a commercial street, tipping his hat and chatting to another black family and then crossing the street, the whole family well dressed and freely enjoying access to urban public space. The family enters Parker’s store, where the children run in first and the younger takes a piece of candy. Anne Northup is shopping for a carryall bag for a trip away from home; she picks out a bag that Solomon thinks is a little expensive. Then a simply dressed black man, whom we had seen earlier following behind a well-dressed white man on the street, enters the store, stands in the doorway, and wonderingly looks around. His unfamiliarity with such a store and its goods seems to mark him as a slave. As Parker excuses himself from Solomon and Anne and goes to greet this man as a potential new customer, the man’s master comes in and pardons himself for the intrusion. Solomon looks the master in the eye and responds cordially, “No intrusion,” as an equal. The man says, “Good day, sir,” addressing himself only to Parker, and deliberately so.

This brief sequence and our earlier view of Solomon’s family’s large two-story frame house present a somewhat utopian view of what a cook and a fiddler might afford at the time, but in fact it is a common kind of middle class mise-en-scene that film viewers are used to seeing as a protagonist’s “home.” In this narrative, these domestic fantasies of home preoccupy Solomon after he has been kidnapped and beaten and is held in a basement cell by slavers, about to be shipped South. The memories make clear to the viewer the kind of identity Solomon has relied upon as a freeman in the North and is now losing. Small aspects of the visual track, such as costumes or the acts of shopping, walking around the city, taking a carriage, freely talking with whites establish as a concrete reality Solomon’s way of life, which he will lose.

Following a freeman into slavery means that the narrative will focus on his loss of identity. Thus these origin-flashbacks of “home” are somewhat utopian since they are based on a memory of what Solomon has lost. They set up a contrast between the capitalist North and the agrarian slaveholding South as they indicate differences in economy, law, geography, public and private space, gender relations, and personal and social psychology. In terms of the narrative message, the script was based on research but in this historical fiction, such concepts which the viewer may or may not tease out, are expressed metonymically, through contrastive detail.

Solomon’s native concept of self is that of the bourgeois individual as it developed in the industrial North, along with ideas of entrepreneurship and the self-made, self-reliant man.[10] As that ideology is enacted legally in the North, Solomon and Anne can enter into contract labor as free agents, use their money for clothing and a home, have full legal rights over their family, and live in a thriving urban space with many stores to shop in and places to visit or work. They have the freedom to move through all public space, including traveling out of state. When Simon takes a job that requires him to travel, for example, he looks forward to seeing more of the country. In particular, he is proud of his craft as a violinist/fiddler, his family and his role as pater familias, his companionate marriage, his house, his family’s personal appearance, and his ability to craft for himself and them “a good life.” Such moral autonomy means that he is free to grow, develop both material and inner resources, act, plan, create values, choose many aspects of his daily routines, and forge short and long term goals. In particular, to think of oneself as an individual means assuming certain things about time: the reliability of cause and effect and the efficacy of planning forward to one’s own advantage. And because this vision of selfhood, a kind of possessive individualism, has become a dominant if often uncommented on ideology under capitalism, filmmakers most commonly invest a protagonist with such traits.

What is unique about 12 Years a Slave, and I will elaborate on this at length later, is that the way of filming social space says something about the power relations depicted, and thus about gender and race as well as about class. As the film progresses, uncommented upon visual details have much to communicate about how the industrial North and the slave South defined basic values and took for granted different versions of society. In watching the above scene, for example, first-time viewers of 12 Years may not attend to the slaveowner’s facial expression after Solomon addresses him directly, but they cannot miss how that man hustles his slave out of the store. I draw attention to this kind of play between small gestures and emphatic acts, because such an aesthetic strategy delineates social space throughout the film.

Narrative disjunctures

With a structure similar to a captivity narrative, 12 Years’ storyline has a double reversal, the capture and the rescue. In this film there are also two major “punctuation” scenes, each shot as a cinematic tour de force and each summarizing Solomon’s experience as a slave at two different plantations, that of Ford and of Epps. Narratively, each succeeding section of the film has a different style and tone:

The film has a disjunctive narrative structure. There is not much dramatic tension carried over from one episode to another. Following its protagonist in almost every scene, the script uses numerous incidents to develop Solomon’s frustration that he has lost his identity and depict his efforts to communicate with loved ones in the North. But his release is not the climax of the film; when it does come, it is a surprise to both him and those around him. Furthermore, when he leaves the Epps plantation, all the characters he has known there drop from the film, abruptly.

In fact, for an author to treat the very theme of the slave experience entails disrupting ordinary narrative causality. Sam Worley, discussing Solomon Northup’s autobiography, makes this point:

“Any hope of rational narrative form is shattered by his [Solomon’s] kidnapping. His descent into slavery brings with it a vision of the world as a place of contingency, illusion, and disorder, neither inherently rational nor irrational.”[12]

From the moment he is kidnapped, Solomon and the other slaves cannot predict or make plans for anything. They can hardly rely on cause and effect. They know the basic rules of the game—obeying orders, speaking little, and effacing self—and these sometimes work. The slaves expect punishment for their lapses but also unpredictable beatings at the master’s caprice. Solomon learns this hard lesson when he is kidnapped and thrown into captivity.

In Washington DC, after spending an evening drinking with his new employers, Solomon awakens in a darkened room. With the camera shooting down from the ceiling, he lies as a small white-clothed figure in a black space, a fetus emerging into a new life as a slave. Step by step, we see Solomon learn what of his identity has vanished. First is his freedom to move about; he tests his shackles in anger and disbelief. Then, his legal rights, his bourgeois identity, his freedom. The slaver Burch beats it into him, “You’re no free man. And you ain’t from Saratoga. … You’re a runaway nigger from Georgia.” In the morning Burch exchanges Solomon’s shredded and blood soaked shirt, which Anne had made for him, for the slave’s coarse homespun. Finally, from outside that room, a tilt shot up a brick wall ironically ends on an overview of the nation’s capitol in DC.

The dungeon’s space is nightmarish and abstracted. It teaches one lesson, enforced by beating. A number of such darkened spaces are presented throughout the film, in which identity is questioned and in which Solomon has to come to terms with the challenges to who he is/is not and what he might become. I consider them liminal spaces, and they are often exquisitely composed, their beauty balancing and giving some distance from the narrated existential anguish of Solomon struggling to maintain a sense of self.

One of the principle aesthetic strategies McQueen uses in 12 Years a Slave is just this, to use a noticeable, spectacular cinematic move to carry the narrative forward or to draw some social or emotional conclusion. On the one hand, such a visual style is what makes the film an “art film,” adding dignity to the subject matter and perhaps guaranteeing both the work’s longevity and critical success. On the other hand, it also allows the director to address himself in different ways to different audiences, especially to black and white viewers. Since he uses images without exposition to carry much of the narrative, the viewers will fill in much of the “story” with what they already know about slavery, what they assume about people and social life.[13] Many critics have commented on how the film’s cinematography characteristically sets up tableaux, similar to painting. As a director, McQueen also has a reputation for incorporating nudity and images of privation and brutality in a way that might make the audience feel uncomfortable.[14] But the beauty of the visuals, the use of strikingly composed wide shots, long takes that seem to take even extra time, close ups that convey many emotions all at once, and thoughtful ways of placing the characters in social space—all these are not only metonymically appropriate to the narrative moment but are also ways of giving the viewer (and perhaps the director) a sense of control over, a moment for reflecting on, the terrifying historical moment and personal situations that the narrative represents. The film as a whole invites reflection on what might be an appropriate way to represent life under slavery, if it can be represented at all.

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 in the scene 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 this 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] 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 scene depicts layers of dependency and frayed tempers. The slaveowner’s wife as mistress of the plantation household had to live in close contact with the women her husband took sexually. In her relations with her household slaves, affection and hostility mingled; for example, she might commonly slap her domestic servants if she considered them lazy, bumbling, or uppity. This scene makes it clear that Mrs. Epps’ social power derives from her husband. He rebukes her as to her own place in the slave household; the scene makes it very clear that from day to day she has to put up with his profligacy and drinking. Her world is very small, and she has a protected place within it, but only to the degree that she respects its hierarchy.

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. A furious, cursing Epps takes over. 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.

Slave women’s limited agency

To its credit, 12 Years a Slave not only develops Patsey as a victimized slave woman, the film also gives viewers a perspective on slave women’s agency, however limited. For example, sold into slavery in DC along with Solomon is Eliza, the former mistress of a man who deceived her and her two children when she expected to be given their freedom. In New Orleans, Ford buys her but not her children. Once at Ford’s, she will not stop openly weeping for them and thus, as a disturbance, she is sold elsewhere. Although some might hardly call such weeping an expression of agency, for her it is a persistent expression of her identity. When Solomon irritatedly tells her at the slave cabins to stop wailing, she says, “It’s all I have to keep my loss present.” She also presciently warns Solomon not to think of Ford as a “decent” master; if he tells Ford who he really is, Ford will value him no more than “prized livestock.” He ignores what she has to say. In another instance where a slave woman interacts personally with Solomon, in the middle of the night at Epps’ plantation Patsey goes into Solomon’s cabin to wake him and request that he drown her in the bayou since she can only foresee a miserable future with the master and mistress. He refuses, saying such a sin would damn his soul. Yet as events unfold, her request seems more like common sense, and his refusal cowardice.

An even more interesting female figure is the slave Harriet Shaw, mistress of household at the neighboring plantation and a friend of Patsey’s, who seems to have gone to Shaw’s often to visit Harriet on Sundays. Played with wit and geniality by …., Harriet has gained power on the plantation through her ambition and sexuality and can live like a genteel lady. “I knowed what it like to be the object of Massa’s predelictions and peculiarities,” she says looking at Patsey, indicating she understands the kinds of sexual practices slaves have to endure. And finally, one other glimpse into slave sexuality occurs toward the beginning of the film. The film begins with a series of vignettes of Solomon enmeshed in slave life. Here he lies on the floor a darkened cabin sleeping with other slaves. A woman lying next to him looks at him face to face and puts his hand on her breast, then down to her crotch. He touches her without enthusiasm till she comes. She then turns her back to him and cries. He is left in his reveries and we see a shot of him in bed with his wife. The film title comes up.

Each of these incidents is presented without narrative or editorial comment; it is up to the viewer to interpret them. In the first, Eliza acts to her own detriment, and the viewer may agree with Solomon, but it would be hard to deny the accuracy of her perception of him. In the second, Solomon may or may not be justified in telling Patsey he will not drown her, but I can only interpret her look at him after her vicious beating as a wordless rebuttal: “By your refusal to help me, you led me to this.” In the third example, Harriet Shaw is so comfortably placed and well-dressed, and she speaks in such an assured way, a viewer can hardly condemn her for using her sexuality as she does. The placid scene, however, can change at any time since she is still only a slave. And finally the wordless scene of Solomon’s masturbating a woman to climax alludes to one of the great mysteries of slavery, sexuality and sexual choice among the slaves. The written record only gives evidence of slave reticence on the subject, and the kind of situation here that the film invents fills in an historical gap. Although these filmed moments are open to many viewer interpretations, I assign to these four episodes what I interpret as brief glimpses into slave women’s negotiated agency.

What we are left with

Solomon persists in trying to communicate with friends and family in New York. He is almost caught by Epps. Finally he is engaged in a carpentry project with a white laborer from Canada who agrees to contact people outside for him. But that carpenter finishes their task of building a gazebo outside the big house and leaves. No results from the Canadian’s supposed efforts happen. Solomon is in despair. Suddenly, and perhaps many days later, a carriage drives up; the local sheriff asks Solomon a few questions to identify him; and then the Saratoga storeowner, Mr. Parker, comes out of the carriage and embraces Solomon. They drive away, leaving the frustrated Epps and a wailing Patsey in the background. The camera shifts in rack focus from background to foreground and all the people on the Epps plantation are left behind, never to be heard of again.

When I first saw the film, this scene made me so angry I wanted to dismiss the whole film as just Solomon’s (bourgeois) story. “What about Patsey?” as a viewer I demanded to know. However, this scissor-like cutting off of the slave story is appropriate both to Solomon’s autobiography and this film. Both historically and as the film depicts it, there is an abrupt barrier between the ideologies of slavery and bourgeois individualism. From an existential perspective, Simon has lived two different lives in two different worlds. Furthermore the subsequent falling action of the cinematic narrative does not wrap everything up with closure for Solomon or in a happy ending.

As Miriam Petty writes about the film’s conclusion, it “refuses a happy ending”:

“There is more bitter than sweet when Solomon returns home to his family, whom he barely recognizes. He offers them a halting apology, of all things, for his appearance. … Even less triumphant is the written epitaph explaining that Northup’s kidnappers were never punished, and that the date and place of his death, were never recorded. These devices halt any temptation to imagine Northup in the glorious tradition of American exceptionalism.”[21]

What we are left with, in a spectatorial rethinking of the film, is a story of slavery told in the present. In fact, this story has been relatively forgotten or repressed in the popular imagination. In fact, the experience of U.S. slavery, like that of the Holocaust, may be non-communicable, impossible to express visually or verbally, its losses unredeemable. In a certain way as 12 Years a Slave narratives the history of slavery, it also abstracts it. That is, because the director and scriptwriter attended to the historical record, the film delineates important benchmarks defining slave culture, drawing viewers’ attention to slavery’s key structural, social and psychological elements. In addition, the film sets out clear distinctions between capitalist bourgeois culture (the viewers’ culture) and ante-bellum slave culture, which gives the viewer a point of identification and a nuanced way to contrast his/her world and that of the slave.

The use of a fictional narrative, one characterized in many instances by visual advancement without verbal explanation, allows this version of slavery to present a story about what slavery felt like, allowing for viewers’ differing emotional responses and interpretations, especially among white and black viewers. There are layers of meaning at the connotative level of the film, often artfully expressed by the actors in fleeting and mobile facial expressions and in bodily stance, sometime expressed in the script as the slaves’ need to dissemble. In fact, we all know very little about what slaves felt, what meanings they assumed, what conclusions they drew in any given situation. Slave autobiographies, like Simon Northup’s, give us a partial view, but only that.

Furthermore, although a feature film made in the dominant “classical realist” mode will be highly communicable to many viewers, this aesthetic has limits. As Jasmine Nicole Cobb warns, taking an anti-realist position,

12 Years reveals the confining nature of ‘accuracy’ (read as: objective, empirical, realistic, verifiable) as a concern for screen representations of slavery. This value functions to duplicate the nineteenth century context for contemplating slavery and limits our ability to imagine new possibilities derived from slavery as a concluded event.”[22]

Cobb here presents a challenge to realist discourse as profound as other manifestoes that have greatly affected film criticism and practice. I am thinking here especially about Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,”[23] in which a feminist theorizes cinema’s gender representation, and Bertolt Brecht’s “Notes to the Opera Mahagonny,”[24] in which a communist theorizes realist drama’s de-politicizing effect. Film theory in the 1970s and 80s, especially in the United States and Europe, developed a critique about cinematic realism, namely that feature fiction film’s metonymic, cause and effect narrative style constructs a passive spectatorial response. Steve McQueen’s films, including Hunger and Shame, seem to enter this debate in a contrasting way. That is, McQueen narrates in acute metonymic detail his characters’ abjection and immerses us in their bodily states. His films often make audiences uncomfortable at the same time that the themes elicit social and political reflection. In that way, perhaps deliberately on the director’s part, 12 Years a Slave can be seen as entering into the long debate about realism and its political consequences.

I will now turn from metonymy in cinematic racial representation to consider metaphor and to look back at a U.S film that used metaphor in a devastatingly effective way.

The Birth of a Nation: an introduction

To teach The Birth of a Nation after 12 Years a Slave might be useful pedagogically. I myself never taught The Birth of a Nation since I was revolted by how the film had been presented to me as a masterpiece of early U.S. feature fiction film. In addition, as a teacher I found daunting the idea of holding the students’ attention, disgusting them with obligatory viewing of a racist film, and taking them step by step through the necessary background information. If I wanted to teach an exemplar of Griffith melodrama I taught Broken Blossoms or Way Down East.[25] But now it seems to me that if The Birth of a Nation were taught after the students saw 12 Years a Slave, it would become immediately clear to them what the early film elides: depicting slavery, explaining the plantation household, or contrasting freed slaves’ and former slaveowners’ daily routines.

Historically speaking, during the Reconstruction era, a plantation economy continued to underpin life in the agrarian South, and Southern states’ enactment of Black Codes and Jim Crow laws put the freed slaves back into farm labor under old-style authoritarian control. Not defined as such in the film, the “birth of the nation” that the title refers to is the Southern elite’s continued reliance on Jim Crow disenfranchisement of freed black men. In particular, the film script builds tension by presenting a version of Reconstruction history that fears out-of-control blacks will take over streets, public spaces, and legal institutions. What is accurate is that both cinematically and historically, the Ku Klux Klan used lynching and the threat of violence to teach freed men their “place,” and the film contributed to that.

Also noticeable to today’s students would be The Birth of a Nation’s strange use of sexuality since the plot construction relies so much on rape threats to white women. For anyone who considers slavery’s recent legacy at the time the film was made, such a misplaced emphasis indicates that the film’s narrative is a projective fantasy, covering over the systemic function of rape within slavery and the role that free access to slave women played in white slaveholding men’s definition of their own sexuality.

What may be less obvious is that by having all its main characters live in town, in contrast to residing on a rural plantation, the film is already using an idea of home that has permeated U.S. urban society from the capitalist North. Nineteenth-century bourgeois capitalist ideology postulated the home as a space apart from paid labor, with separate spheres designated for women and men. A cult of true womanhood euphemistically was held out as the ideal for those now decisively relegated to the domestic sphere. This would be a concept familiar to Birth of a Nation’s projected audience, one they would have taken for granted. In addition, many members of that audience would have accepted as a narrative trope an idea concomitant with the notion of separate spheres for men and women—the fragility of white girls and women and the danger awaiting them outside the circle of marriage and the family. This assumption naturalizes the film’s rape threat narrative, rendering it “unremarkable.” For many of Birth of a Nation’s early viewers, protecting white women and girls was a plausible way to organize social life and a plausible way to organize a film.

That the Camerons never lived in a plantation household, sustaining most of its needs as a self-sufficient agrarian social unit, would also have been unremarkable, but such a condensation has a usefulness in letting the film elide the former realities of slavery. As depicted in the film, Piedmont NC is a small town, with the Camerons living in a two-story house on the main street, facing a narrow front yard and a waist-high white picket fence bordering the sidewalk that’s right next to the street. Much of the action in the second half of the film, narrativizing a mythic version of Reconstruction, takes place in front of this house on that sidewalk and street, in scenes that illustrate the progressively distressing social changes impacting the Camerons’ lives. The house’s conversion into a “boarding house” after the Civil War facilitates the plot development as it allows the powerful but ailing U.S. Representative, Austin Stoneman, to stay there along with his children, Phil Stoneman and his sister, Elsie. (Phil and Elsie arranged this move since he had fallen in love with Margaret Cameron on a vacation there, and Elsie had already begun a relationship with a wounded Southern officer in an hospital in Washington DC—namely, Ben Cameron.) However, we see none of the Cameron women’s or former slaves’ labor that goes on in the boarding house, nor is there reference to the larger economic underpinnings of the Reconstruction South, still based on a plantation economy, nor what happened to the Cameron plantation or the land holdings of their peers .

In sum, The Birth of a Nation’s narrative elides reference to the social, psychological, and economic structures previously dominant in the antebellum slaveholding plantation household. Instead the film uses this house in town as a visual prop in a fantasy drama with clear spatial parameters—the “good” Cameron house faces black disorder in the streets. The script’s narrative excision—not developing its white characters as members of a previous slaveholding class—facilitates audiences’ receiving the film metaphorically, as a fantasy that transforms remembrance. The film’s trajectory connects older emotional structures characteristic of melodrama—e.g, threat to white women—to a climax that metaphorically represents an invigorated masculinity for white southern men, one that depends upon the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. In this way, the film is a white fantasy both about gender and about race.

Struggles in the streets

Three moments from the film will indicate how Birth of a Nation develops a subplot of a black threat on Main Street to delineate social relations and “explain,” through visuals why the South needs the Klan.

Stoneman has sent his protégé, the mulatto Silas Lynch, South to organize freed slaves and get out their vote. Lynch makes his headquarters in Piedmont. At one point, as Ben and young sister Flora Cameron come out of their house to go out on the street, a group of black soldiers come down the sidewalk and push them back. The soldiers’ leader tells Ben to give way; Flora cowers next to her older brother. Silas Lynch then joins them at the gate to the Cameron house; he is well-dressed in a top coat and hat, better dressed than Ben. Visually threatening, the soldiers and Lynch are all bigger than Ben, and they crowd him back toward the house. From his side of the fence, Lynch remonstrates, “This sidewalk belongs to us as much as it does to you, ‘Colonel’ Cameron.” As Lynch walks away, Ben grips his cane like a sword in suppressed fury.

Later, on election day, all the black men who step up to the ballot box are allowed to vote, while the leading white men of the city are disenfranchised. Armed black soldiers supervise the proceedings. Near the ballot box are placards that we have also seen blacks holding at other times; these signs proclaim: “Equal rights, equal politics, and equal marriage” and “Forty acres and a mule for every colored citizen.” Several sequences later, black voters celebrating their electoral victory are depicted in a shot that is visually the reverse of an earlier one of the Confederate soldiers from Piedmont leaving their families and riding off to war. There the soldiers had ridden through the streets, away from the camera, cheered on by crowds of black and white townspeople lining the sides of the street. Here, in the post-election sequence, black soldiers march down the street toward the camera, with only black citizens cheering from the sides.

And finally, toward the end of the film, the black townspeople, dressed in finery, crowd together on the main street, filling it up, including the sidewalks. General rioting breaks out among them. A white man is pushed to the ground and beaten by a black soldier with a rifle butt. Another man, made to ride on a rail, is pushed up and down by the crowd, as is a white man who was tarred and feathered. In another shot, soldiers in the crowd assault a young black woman. Shots of these incidents are crosscut against images of white families sitting in fear indoors, some looking out their windows to the street below. It is into this melee that the Klan rides, guns blazing as in a Western. The mob, including the soldiers, quickly turns and flees.

The way of filming social space here delivers a message about Reconstruction power relations, or rather about the fantasy that Griffith and his source, Thomas Dixon, create. One of the chief elements in that fantasy is an assumption that blacks and whites belong to two separate species and that no kind of uplift, through education or evolution, can legitimately join the species together as equals. In his novel, The Clansman, Dixon first draws on the authority of Abraham Lincoln to postulate the need for species-heirerarchy, and then he elaborates on this argument by means of long social and political discussions between the courting lovers, Ben Cameron and Elsie Stoneman, and also between U.S. Congressman Austin Stoneman and his Piedmont host, Dr. Cameron. In The Clansman, Lincoln is shown as advocating exiling freedmen to the tropics, giving them the assistance and education they need to advance to the level of the white race, but Dr. Cameron argues at even greater length that blacks cannot advance to be full and equal citizens because he (pseudo-scientifically) sees them as a degenerate race, “half child, half animal.” Perhaps out of fear of losing a Northern audience, such an attitude is not articulated verbally as a philosophy in Birth of a Nation. Rather the film conveys the same ideas by assigning villainy to blacks and especially to mulattos, with an open fear of “race-mixing.” And it grotesquely choreographs Piedmont’s social geography to threaten chaos when and if blacks overtly assert themselves as equal to whites in public space.

Thus, in the first sequence described above, not only is Ben Cameron pushed off the sidewalk in front of his own house, a black soldier and a mulatto politician remonstrate with him face-to-face and eye-to-eye, standing up to him as an equal. To understand the degree of affrontery to the white Southern gentleman, one only has to recall the mores of the antebellum South, demanding that a slave “shrink” when addressing whites. In this scene, body position, mode of address, and way of looking are all challenges deliberately launched at Ben Cameron.[26]

The ballot-box sequence makes the affront even more obvious since the action and mise-en-scene postulate systemic electoral abuse. Here, prominent armed black soldiers implement the electoral fraud. In addition to the film’s depicting the U.S. Army’s military occupation of the South, the placards posted in this scene, as well as other references in the film to the Freedman’s Bureau and the Union League, address themselves explicitly to the politics of The Birth of a Nation’s Southern viewers; the terms point concretely to heavily contested aspects of and political organizing around Reconstruction. If rape threat (discussed in detail later) is postulated by Birth of a Nation as one of the biggest threats to whites after Emancipation, then black suffrage surely is the next. This scene naturalizes and authorizes a later incident in the film, one that looks forward to the Jim Crow South. Toward the end of the film, the Klan line up and face the small houses in the black section of Piedmont. It is another election day and the masked, armed riders intimidate all the black men emerging from their homes, keeping these newly freed men from going downtown to the polls. The visual emphasis placed on street life in the film, especially the scenes of white disenfranchisement and of an armed black population rioting, legitimize the actions of the newly organized Klan. In turn, the Klan not only disarm the black men but restore the hierarchy of commonly accepted behavior in public, including blacks’ deference to the white elite.

Such scenes mark the film as a projective fantasy. The film references little about a slaveholding South, and certainly almost none of the social and political process of Reconstruction. Rather, these scenes in public space trace the outlines of a fearful fantasy: “What now will the former slaves want to do to us—stand shoulder to shoulder with us and speak to us as equals, drive us from our streets and our civic life, mock us, take over our institutions, marry our daughters?” Much of this fantasy derives from inversion, fear of former slaves’ vengeance; thus, the above shot of a tarred and feathered white man implies, “They will do to us what we do to them.” What gives this projective fantasy even greater emotional force in the film is the way it is tied to a sexual one, namely that white women must be protected against the threat of black-on-white rape.

Rape threat

Much of the narrative tension in The Birth of a Nation derives from the threat of rape which each of its white female protagonists face, especially Flora and Margaret Cameron and Elsie Stoneman. Early in the course of the Civil War, as it is depicted in the film, Northern black troupes ransack the Cameron house while the family seeks shelter in a root cellar below the kitchen; in that scene the young Flora Cameron, held by older sister Margaret, laughs hysterically, almost giving the family away. Later, in a major plot development, a black soldier in Piedmont, Gus, stalks and meets up with Flora as she goes to get water from a woodland streams. Gus proposes marriage and, frightened, she runs through the woods, chased by him, and jumps off a cliff. As Ben Cameron holds her limp body, she tells him Gus did it and dies in Ben’s arms. Thus, avenging Flora’s death was one of the first acts of the newly organized Klan, who lynched Gus and dropped his body in front of Silas Lynch’s house.

The sexual threat to Elsie Stoneman is depicted in a more detailed and prolonged way and plays a major role in building the narrative tension leading to the climax. At this point in the film, Griffith uses cross-cutting to tie together numerous narrative strands that will ultimately intersect, concluding with the Klan’s rescue of Margaret and Elsie and its restoring the family’s personal safety and the town’s social order. The Cameron family and Phil Stoneman had fled to a cabin in a country meadow, with Dr. Cameron escaping imprisonment. In town, Elsie goes to Silas Lynch to ask for help. He proposes to her and then, with her entrapped, he tells his henchmen to quickly prepare for a forced marriage. Elsie tries ineffectively to escape, faints, is placed in a chair, awakens and breaks a window, screams outside for help, and then is tied back to the chair and gagged. At the same time, the Klan gathers in large numbers to ride to Piedmont to wrest control from the armed black soldiers. Spies from town tell them of Elsie’s predicament, so they ride to her rescue, too.

And finally, in the farm cabin in a meadow where the Camerons have taken refuge with some Union veterans, they and some faithful servants fend off a massive attack by black soldiers. As the soldiers try to come in through the windows and beat down the cabin door, the families retreat to the back room. That room’s doors are battered and a soldier grabs Margaret. Dr. Cameron pulls her away as Phil Stoneman barricades the door with his body. In an extraordinary shot of that inner room, we are shown Dr. Cameron holding a pistol above the fainted Margaret’s head and the Union veteran holding his rifle butt ready to smash in his little girl and wife’s heads. It’s made explicit that the men will fight to the death but will first kill the women and girl to save them from rape. This scene is presented as a tableau vivante, a frozen moment of suspense crowded with detail. Such a rape threat moment in film functions in this way:

“There is .. a disruption of temporality and the time sense. Directorially, the scene isolates the rhythmic pulsations of the threat’s narrative moment… The formal treatment breaks up the sensual moment into its parts. The whole sequence functions like the fort/da where the future is made present in the anticipation of punishment and loss. Repetition and a kind of slowing down freeze, for a moment, the syntagmatic rush of the narrative.”[27]

Here, the location of the cabin is so free of other social context that the attack on it seems to occur less as a planned military action and more like an isolated pattern of men with rifles circling a cabin. Then the cabin is filmed from inside in a crowded, claustrophobic mise-en-scene as it is being pierced by rifles, bodies, hands, and arms. In other words, just as the rape motif functions metaphorically in the film as a whole, here the very stripped-down filmic geography turns the cabin metaphorically into something else as well—visually and narratively it’s like a besieged vagina, with father and lover ready to kill their beloved rather than let her be raped.

Returning to the larger metaphoric connotations of the rape threat moment, we can fruitfully ask why it functions so predominantly as the emotional force for the film. It has a larger cultural function beyond its importance to this one script. As Deborah Barker describes it, such a scenario of black men raping white women exemplifies a “Southern rape complex.” She describes the myth in this way:

“The Southern rape complex has been one of the most devastating and far-reaching ‘stories’ to come out of the South. In the ‘southern rape complex,’ which assumes a black male rapist and white female victim, the victim is transformed into a symbol of a threatened white Southern culture while the black male symbolizes the threat. Rape, in the cinematic Southern context, carries with it a dramatic resonance associated with Southern history and issues of war, Reconstruction, and racial conflict, and has taken on almost mythic proportions in its justification of violence against black men. Not only is the logic of the southern rape complex integrally linked to the lynching of innocent black men, its distorting lens has also made white female sexuality socially unacceptable and rendered sexual violence against black women socially invisible.”[28]

I would add another level to Barker’s description. On a deeper psychic level, the metaphor allows viewers not to acknowledge, to displace, a key cultural and psychological adjustment imposed on whites, especially the former slaveholding class, after Emancipation—that is, the need to redefine both white male sexuality and [white] womanhood. In the antebellum South, both culturally and individually, white male sexuality included sanctioned, continual, sometimes violent access to slave women’s and girls’ bodies, since slaves were legally chattel and not persons with bodily integrity or rights. A slaveholder had both a libidinous and economic investment in raping female slaves since any children born of rape among his slaves would become his chattel as well. Indeed, the slaveholder sometimes regarded inseminating slave women as a form of animal husbandry.[29]

In its inversion of slaveholding sexuality, then, it is no wonder that the Southern rape complex places such an emphasis on the evils of miscegenation.[30] In The Birth of a Nation, all sexual aggressors are black men, so that the script represses recent history and also any internal struggle white viewers may have with re-habituating themselves to very new structures of desire.

At the same time, the film also re-articulates a reduced concept of desirable womanhood distant from the multifaceted role of the white mistress of a plantation household. Posited in the characterizations of Elsie, Margaret and Flora is a more Victorian kind of womanhood, one suitable to the (originally Northern) notion of separate spheres, that of the white, virginal, ethereal girl-woman, the angel of the hearth. Public space and the world of men are dangerous to this kind of woman. Like the freed slave in The Birth of a Nation, she has to be taught her place, dependent on the white man who will protect and rescue her. Her future is to bear his children and devote herself to them, and to create for him a well-run and loving refuge for him to escape to when he comes home from work. Buttressing such a vision of (bourgeois white) women’s “place” is the metaphoric function of rape threat for the white women in the film. In addition, such a rape threat fantasy inverts and displaces so much of the psychic residue from slavery, it makes abuse of black women just disappear.

Finally, it is important to note how the film develops the story of Ben Cameron’s recuperation of some of his lost masculinity following the South’s loss of the war. In another moment similar to the one where he and Flora are jostled off the sidewalk by black troops, he encounters the future rapist Gus staring at the Cameron house. He emphatically orders Gus to keep away from there, and once again, Lynch remonstrates about blacks’ rights in public space, at which Ben turns and walks angrily back toward his house.

Finally, after Flora’s death, Ben sits by the side of the river, the camera angling down on him as a small figure in despair. He had been organizing white men in the community, but now he has the inspiration to form the groups of costumed, masked riders that would be the Klan. To avenge Flora’s death, the Klan lynches Gus. Later scenes establish the Klan as men of action mostly by depicting them on horseback, moving together as a mass group at great speed, and using pistols to effect rescue and justice.

After the Klan captures Silas Lynch, who was trying to abduct Elsie, they might lynch him too. However, the film’s seeming re-establishing of virility for Ben and his white peers comes at a cost; it requires masquerade and the regular performance of violence and intimidation to keep black men in their place. And it requires a view of white womanhood as sexually pure.

Thus the whole film traces through its fantasy substructure the fragile masculinity of the former slave owners, in a storyline that masks these men’s desperate grasp at personal and social potency. The Southern rape myth, re-establishing a frail white virility, itself has had a viciously powerful legacy. Robyn Wiegman summarizes its historical efficacy in the way that it underpins lynching:

“Through the lynching scenario, ‘blackness’ is cast as a subversive (and most often sexual) threat, an incontrovertible chaos whose challenge to the economic and social coherency can be psychologically, if not wholly politically, averted by corporeal abjection and death. That lynching becomes during Reconstruction and its aftermath an increasingly routine response to black attempts at education, personal and communal government, suffrage, and other indicators of cultural inclusion and equality attests to its powerful disciplinary function.”[31] (p. 455)

Conclusion: thinking about history through these two films

In historical fictions, certain moments in the past are designated by the author as significant and then narrated and re-told with a contemporary audience/readership in mind. In historical fiction film, the script, locations, acting, anecdotes, and soundscapes “speak” to the current era’s audience and filmmaker’s historical milieu. Media culture in general attaches reduced, stereotyped, meanings to race, gender, and social space, but some films have particular value as they try to delineate these contentious aspects of society through historical representation. In particular, historical fictions can illustrate for viewers precedents for current social problems and attitudes or usefully demarcate past social and economic structures that have left a formative trace in the present.

In that context, films about slavery and its aftermath have a special usefulness in the United States today, since the media and politicians generally avoid institutional analysis and historical reference when faced with outrageous incidents of interpersonal racial violence. Institutionally-based, racially-inflected injustice within the United States includes poor people’s disenfranchisement, their lack of educational and employment opportunity, legal hostility to immigrants, inordinate imprisonment of people of color, and the legal murder of peaceful black men on the street. For those who want to take action around these issues, the two films I have analyzed here can help us better understand the history and economic/social/legal structures underlying our political moment, inform what actions we might take, and trace what has shaped the resistance that we will likely encounter when trying to make social change.

For example, 12 Years a Slave speaks to certain aspects of African American lives in our own times. The protagonist, an entrepreneurial individualist, enjoys the life of a free man with his family in the North, yet he is kidnapped and loses his identity when forced into the life of a slave. Impermanence and uncertainty have been introduced forever into his life. Back in the North, he cannot legally testify against his enslavers, finding he has no safety under the law. As Valerie Smith puts it, the film represents the “fragility of black freedom.” Smith sums up the film’s historical address to U.S. viewers today:

“Northup’s twitching foot calls to mind as well Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Jonathan Ferrell, and the hosts of other African Americans, largely invisible in the media, gunned down each year and whose shooters (whether law enforcement officers or civilians) go unpunished. How fragile indeed is black life in the Age of Obama.”[31b]

In contrast, because of its historical address and overt racism, The Birth of a Nation may seem to have fewer messages for activists today. But, in fact, it does teach an important structure underlying racist laws: the goal of white elites to control public space and the use of disenfranchisement in that process. It also shows how violence functions as a disciplinary admonition for both people of color and white women, especially in terms of “knowing their place.” In addition, if viewers are taught to look for this, The Birth of a Nation provides much information about “marking”—how characterization, body type, costume, and physical range of action connote much of the film’s message about race—and thus delineates a precedent for what Cobb refers to as the discriminatory marking of blackness today.

Film critics and often media scholars also often point out what a film does not show. Sometimes they do so in service of ideological analysis, other times to indicate how audience expectations and taste have variously shaped media production from one era to another. Also, media teachers, especially in writing assignments, often encourage students to further analyze one aspect of a film and to do so via social history, personal narrative, audience interviews, fan discourse, politically oriented analysis, etc. As a result, the students also bring to the fore what the film does not show, and they fruitfully trace the implications of missing content.

If I were to prioritize one thing missing from 12 Years a Slave and The Birth of a Nation that has great implications for viewers today, I would teach alongside these films material about the rise of the prison industrial complex in Reconstruction and how the privatized incarceration industry continues in modern form slave practices today.

The historical tie between the U.S. prison system and slavery has been traced by Angela Davis, who throughout her intellectual career has written about and worked as an activist against the prison industrial complex, which she sees as a continuation of slavery by other means. In our own times, prisons inordinately warehouse people of color and the prison population has grown to well over two million in the United States. From this perspective, 12 Years a Slave’s story of Solomon Northup’s loss of identity, impounded slave labor, and immersion in a culture of violence where every aspect of his daily life is controlled is also the story of contemporary imprisonment. Furthermore, Davis’s analysis of the origins of modern U.S. penal institutions in the Reconstruction South directly augments a reading of The Birth of a Nation, since her analysis lends new meaning into to film’s depiction of out-of-control freedmen taking control of the town’s streets and their violent containment by the Klan. Davis summarizes this history as follows:

“In the immediate aftermath of slavery, the southern states hastened to develop a criminal justice system that could legally restrict the possibilities of freedom for newly released slaves. Black people became the prime targets of a developing convict lease system….Thus, vagrancy was coded as a black crime, one punishable by incarceration and forced labor, sometimes on the very plantations that previously had thrived on slave labor.”[32]

Whipping was common punishment on chain gangs, and these “leased” convicts could be worked to death. This was unlike the plantation owner’s slave management where, because of his capital investment, he needed to keep his labor force healthy enough to work. Furthermore black convicts built the infrastructure for rising Southern industrialization, often laboring on railroad gangs or in mines. In this way, Davis’s writing ties together both films discussed here, tracing the economic and legal bases for controlling freedmen, which The Birth of a Nation elides, and the dehumanizing slave-like conditions in prisons today, implying a contemporary extension of Solomon’s experience in 12 Years a Slave.

Because of the hegemony of bourgeois liberalism, it is often difficult for audience to think systematically about our country’s institutions and economic/political structures, and the ordinary script pattern of feature films, focusing on an individual in conflict or facing adversity, also discourages such thought. These two films, however, have much to teach about what is usually hidden from view.


1. Published originally in "The Birth of a Nation: The Cinematic Past in the Present," ed. Michael T. Martin (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 2019). This essay developed out of a paper at the conference, “From Cinematic Past to Fast Forward Present: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation—A Centennial Symposium,” Nov. 12-13, 2015, Indiana University. I was on a panel, Birth of a Nation: Cinematic Iterations in the Present.

I want to acknowledg the wonderful work of Michael Martin is putting on this conference and publishing this work. A crucial film in media history and black activism is very hard to show because of its racism. The conference on the film inspired me to think of ways to make it more approachable.

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2. Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave, as told to and edited by David Wilson, Auburn NY: Derby and Miller, 1853.

3. Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2001.

4. I will describe the Southern rape complex in more detail later when analyzing The Birth of a Nation. See Deborah E. Barker, Reconstructing Violence: The Southern Rape Complex in Film and Literature, Baton Rouge: Louisana State University Press, 2005. Also dealing with the topic of the Southern rape complex extensively is Diane Sommerville’s Rape and Race in the Nineteenth Century South (Durham: UNC Press, 2004), especially useful is Sommerville’s appendix: “Rape, Race, and Rhetoric: The Rape Myth in Historical Perspective,” pp. 223-261.

5. David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristen Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, London: Routledge, 1985.

6. See my essay, “S/Z and Rules of the Game,” for a more detailed analysis of this process, drawing upon the work of Roland Barthes. Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 55 (2013). http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc55.2013/LesageRulesOfGame/index.htm . Original publication, nos. 12-13 (winter 1976-77) pp. 45-51.

7. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. The film’s plotline also illustrates Mary Douglas’ argument in Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge, 1896) that societies that want to control social hierarchies and boundaries often do so through metaphors of sexual threat.

8. Roland Barthes, “The Reality Effect,” The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. 141-148.

9. John L. Fell, Film and the Narrative Tradition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

10. I am indebted to my argument in this essay about historical difference between regional concepts of the self in the United States to the writings of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, in particular Fox-Genovese’s Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 1988).

11. Captivity narratives were a common genre in the 18th and 19th centuries, written usually by white colonists captured by indigenous natives. Typically the captive would write about his/her captors as crude and alien.

12. Sam Worley, “Solomon Northup and the Sly Philosophy of the Slave Pen,” Callaloo, vol. 20, no. 91 (1997) 243-259. Here, p. 246.

13. Terri Francis writes of the complexities of spectatorship for Black independent cinema. See Terri Simone Francis, “Flickers of the Spirit: ‘Black Independent Film,’ Reflexive Reception, and a Blues Cinema Sublime, “Black Camera, vol. 1, no. 2 (Summer 2010), pp. 7-24.

14. McQueen’s previous films Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011) have many moments which provoke audience anxiety and discomfort.

15. The Internet Movie Data Base indicates that the film won 233 critical awards and 305 nominations. In 2013, it won Oscars for best motion picture, best adapted screenplay, best supporting actress—Lupita Nyong’o, best actor, and best supporting actor—Michael Fassbender. In addition, it won best costume design—Patricia Norris. http://www.imdb.com/

16. Henry Louis Gates Jr. “Steve McQueen and Henrey Louis Gates Jr. Talk 12 Years a Slave,” three-part interview, Dec. 24, 25, 26, 2013. http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2013/12/_12_years_a_slave

17. McQueen talks about Ejiofor’s spontaneous crying in this scene to Dan P. Lee, “Where It Hurts: Steve McQueen on Why 12 Years a Slave Isn’t Just About Slavery,” Vulture, Dec. 8, 2013. Visited Feb. 17, 2016. http://www.vulture.com/2013/12/steve-mcqueen-talks-12-years-a-slave.html

18. Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, trans. James Strachey, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1960 (1916), p. 163.

19. Julia Lesage, “The Rape Threat Scene in Narrative Cinema,” paper given at the Society for Cinema Studies Conference, New Orleans, 1993. http://pages.uoregon.edu/jlesage/Juliafolder/RAPETHREAT.HTML
Lesage, “Torture documentaries,” Jump Cut, no. 51 (2009), http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc51.2009/TortureDocumentaries/

20. Jasmine Nichole Cobb, “Directed by Himself: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave,” American Literary History, vol. 26, no. 2, p. 343.

21. Miriam Petty, “Refusing the Happy Ending: 12 Years a Slave. The Huffington Post, Oct. 21, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/miriam-petty/refusing-the-12-years-a-slave_b_4869602.html (last consulted Feb. 14, 2016)

22. Jasmine Nichole Cobb, “Directed by Himself: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave,” American Literary History, vol. 26, no. 2, 2014. p. 341.

23. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen, vol. 16, no, 3, 1975, pp. 6-18.

24. Bertolt Brecht, “Notes to the Opera Mahagonny (1930),” trans. John Willett as “The Modern Theater is the Epic Theater” in Brecht on Theater, ed. Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 33-42.

25. Julia Lesage, “Broken Blossoms: Artful Racism, Artful Rape,” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 21 (1986); updated in 2014 http://www.ejumpcut.org/currentissue/lesageBknBlossoms/

26. In the Jim Crow South a black man acting as a white man’s equal would be punished. Martin Luther King developed a strategy of passive resistance partially in acknowledgement of this pattern.

27. Julia Lesage, “The Rape Threat Scene in Narrative Cinema,” paper given at the Society for Cinema Studies Conference, New Orleans, 1993. http://pages.uoregon.edu/jlesage/Juliafolder/RAPETHREAT.HTML

28. Deborah E. Barker, “Moonshine and Magnolias: The Story of Temple Drake and The Birth of a Nation,” Faulkner Journal, vol. 22, nos. 1-2 (Fall 2006/Spring 2007), p. 142.

29. In a panel discussion on C-Span 2 about Katherine Franke’s book Wedlocked, legal scholar Patricia J. Williams said this kind of rape was the story of her slave ancestors, who were bred to be fair-skinned house slaves. http://www.c-span.org/video/?400857-1/book-discussion-wedlocked

30. In response to systemic abuses of rape and fragmenting of families, after Emancipation one of the legal rights most frequently claimed by freed slaves was marriage, a public assertion of both marital and parental rights. Katherine Franke in Wedlocked: The Perils of Marriage Equality (New York: NYU Press, 2015) has studied marriages in the postbellum South as a parallel to gay marriages today. She finds that in addition to its many legal advantages, the state marriage contract imposes strict gender constrictions on marginalized communities that formerly have had many innovative, unlegislated ways to arrange sexual and familial households and affective bonds.

31. Robyn Wiegman, “The Anatomy of Lynching,” Journal of the History of Sexuality
vol. 3, no. 3, Special Issue: African American Culture and Sexuality (Jan., 1993), pp. 445-467.

31b. Valerie Smith,"Black Life in the Balance: 12 Years a Slave," American Literary History, vol. 26, no. 3 (2004), 365.

32. Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003, p. 29.