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The Women of 12 Years a Slave

Women and Hollywood By Agunda Okeyo | Women and Hollywood October 18, 2013 at 3:00PM

As a child my mother, an anthropologist, informed me that my great uncle's mother disappeared from the shores of Lake Victoria or Nam Lolwe, as we call it, when he was a boy. My great great aunt was likely captured during the thriving East African slave trade.
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Sarah Paulson and Lupita Nyong'o in 12 Years a Slave
Sarah Paulson and Lupita Nyong'o in 12 Years a Slave

As a child my mother, an anthropologist, informed me that my great uncle's mother disappeared from the shores of Lake Victoria or Nam Lolwe, as we call it, when he was a boy. My great great aunt was likely captured during the thriving East African slave trade. It's sorrowful to consider what became of this woman's life and what she must have endured.

For the first time, a slave narrative is the basis of a feature film exploring the cruel institution of African slavery in the Americas. Based on a rich and arresting autobiography by Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen has made a feature by the same name (In 1984, Gordon Parks made a TV movie entitled Solomon Northup's Odyssey). The film explores the harrowing journey of Northup, a free African- American from New York who was lured by two white men to Washington DC with promise of lucrative earnings, only to be drugged and kidnapped. For twelve long years, Northup was subjected to the brutality of chattel slavery in Louisiana, his whereabouts unknown to his wife and children. A gifted carpenter, violinist and narrator, the integrity of Northup's text must be praised. The author is particularly adept at describing the interiority of life as a slave, a life eroded by violence, unrelenting labor and fear.

In the midst of years trying to craft a film on this subject, it was director Steve McQueen's wife Bianca Stigter, a historian and journalist, who brought Northup's book to his attention. Northup's rapt retelling of life in perpetual servitude often includes the lives of the many women he encountered. McQueen honors the author's sensitive account of the peculiar suffering of women in slavery; a life marked by pervasive psychological, sexual and physical suffering. As director, McQueen employs a stark, sepia toned and often voyeuristic visual style that imparts an intimate and complicit engagement with American slavery. In so doing, McQueen partners with Northup (beautifully portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor) in presenting the grave truth of people's lives rather than pontificating about the obvious injustice of the institution.

Adepero Oduye has the challenging task of portraying the woeful life of Eliza, a woman Northup describes at length. Eliza was a free woman, the African American partner of her former master with whom she had one child though she bore another in a previous relationship. After her kidnapping, Eliza was shattered by separation from her two children. Oduye powerfully conveys Eliza's inconsolable sorrow as a woman reduced from family and freedom to isolation and grief.

Another woman brought to life on the screen is Patsey, a young slave woman of unusually enchanting character. Patsey was the most industrious worker on the cotton plantation Northup resided upon for the longest period of his captivity. She illustrates the rare transcendent beauty of a woman resisting though ultimately dragged down by the weight of bonded labor. Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o is expertly cast and channels the tragic heart of the young woman lusted after and terrorized by her master Edwin Epps (an electric Michael Fassbender).

Alfre Woodard plays a small, but meaningful, role as Mistress Shaw, a former slave married to her former master and enjoying liberty among black servants yet free.

Finally, Sarah Paulson provides a brave performance as Mistress Epps, a woman ravaged by jealousy over Epps' sexual and emotional obsession with Patsey. Mistress Epps relates an oft ignored dimension of slavery that white women played a significant role and regularly benefitted from the sadistic institution while being undermined by male authority as primary owners of industry. Inconvenient truth such as in the lives of these women may account for the pervasive mythology of slavery as an archaic and necessary evil in American industrial history—not a perverse human cruelty that has current manifestation and ongoing repercussions.

Undoubtedly, 12 Years a Slave is a film written and directed by men though produced by Dede Gardner, president Plan B Entertainment, who approached McQueen after seeing his film Hunger. Taking a cue from the overt empathy of Solomon Northup, the chief author of this narrative, the film succeeds in eliciting compassion for the many women and men who bore the burden of a life in physical and spiritual chains.

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Agunda Okeyo is a writer, filmmaker and activist born in Nairobi. She has called New York City home for more than 20 years and proudly considers herself a Pan-African New Yorker. She has worked with the Duara Foundation, Demos: A Network for Ideas and Action, National Council for Research on Women and Cultural Survival. In 2014, she plans to publish her first book on the nature of systemic inequality in the United States, primarily critical of formal education. Follow: @AgundaOkeyo

This article is related to: 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen, Sarah Paulson, Adepero Oduye, Alfre Woodard, Lupita Nyong'o


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