…the institution of slavery was such a sick situation for women to be in.
An evil woman is easy to understand. Mistress Epps makes clear white women bound in slavery were far more complicated than pure evil. She is in a tumultuous rage.
A white woman’s rage: privileged with no position, positioned with no power, powerful with no promise of independence, fidelity or safety. The white woman could not properly direct her rage at her husband, she could not rail against white male supremacy. She too was in hell and Black enslaved women where the only ones in the chambers bellow her. So she sent her rage down and with her hot hate burned what was left of the bitches. And the black women scorched beyond human recognition were left in pieces scattered and buried somewhere beneath hell. The concept of hell, like slavery, was designed to control and terrorize for eternity.
For most movies I see, I can find a review somewhere that represents my feelings about it.
After spending way too long searching the web for a review of 12 Years A Slave, I couldn’t find anyone who really came close to how I felt though I must say Morgan Freeman’s comments resonated with me the most strongly:
…I don’t particularly want to see it. I don’t want my anger quotient exacerbated, you know? Things are bad enough as they are. I don’t want to keep punching myself in the face with it.
Obviously, I saw the thing so I don’t agree with that part of his statement but the sentiment is one I definitely understand and one that isn’t always stressed enough in the course of raving over the acting, directing, and writing, all of which were excellent: I haven’t left a movie that enraged since I saw Rosewood almost 17 years ago. And up until I saw Rosewood, that was the angriest I’d ever been while leaving a movie.
And honestly, if you don’t leave 12 Years A Slave angry, or maybe even trying to mask your anger under an assortment of other feelings, I’d question whether you have a soul.
I want to say the anger is not a racial thing, that it’s somehow not about me being a black man with a middle class upbringing watching a black middle class man being thrown into the brutality of slavery - that would be a lie. It’s probably directly related to that and the ongoing reality that black males, particularly young ones, similarly live in a society in which their freedom - and far too frequently - their lives can be taken from them at any moment.
I could go on about that, but there was another them that was explored far too rarely in the reviews of this movie that might be even more important than the fact of a movie existing about slavery: the sexist role that the patriarchal system of slavery had in dehumanizing both black and white women.
Michaela angela Davis’ article at Jezebel articulated this as well as I’ve seen it anywhere and it was something that my friend and I discussed at length after the movie (after I spent time yelling about racism over beers): while it’s easy to imagine that all white people were privileged at that time, the reality is that white women were seen as disposable property of white men rendered them no more liberated than anyone else.
Of course, the evolution of feminism over the last century reflects this tension, with black women consciously being left out of early feminist movements to eventually making important contributions that weren’t always acknowledged until well after the fact. But the complex juxtaposition of Patsey and Mistress Epps in this movie was at the forefront in a way that even Rosewood - which had a very, very similar tension - left in the background.
And I think that speaks to what makes this “slave movie” a bit more significant than some of the others we’ve seen as a historical text: this movie didn’t avoid complexity or the pain of chattel slavery so those who consume Hollywood narratives as opiates could go home remaining proud to be Americans where at least they know they’re free. It showed just how damaging slavery was to the psyche of nearly everyone involved with little regard for whatever half-truths we want to tell ourselves about this nation’s founding.
I recall someone writing before the movie was released that this movie would be a good instructional text to use with Django and I see that point. But I’d think it might be equally valuable to put 12 Years A Slave, Rosewood, and Fruitvale Station together around an exploration of what racism is and why it’s such an intractable force in U.S. society.