by Dr. Alvin Burstein
Aristotle taught that the power of epic tragedy lies in its ability to stir the audience to pity and fear—catharsis. The emotional impact of 12 Years a Slave earned it three Academy Awards, a Golden Globe Award and British Film Academy kudos. Watching it I felt more than fear. I felt horror. Yes, and pity.
And yet, and yet.
The story is that of Solomon Northrup, an African American man born free in New York State who, in 1841, is kidnapped and sold into slavery. It describes his scarifying experiences over the more than a decade in the cotton fields and mansions of south Louisiana, confined, beaten, lynched, and betrayed, all the while clinging to the flickering, fading hope of returning to his wife and two children and to his life as a free person.
During the opening credits an announcement that what follows is “based on a true story” scrolls across the screen. The unfolding story limns the evil of slavery, and its power to inflict agony and corrupt the spirit. But the characters in this drama verge on caricatures, seeming almost two-dimensional.
Consider the portrayals of Northrup, and Patsey, a young woman slave. They have an extraordinarily complicated and intense relationship. They are physically intimate and close enough that she pleads with him to kill her as an escape from the abuse and exploitation that dominate her life. Northrup not only refuses to help her die but is bullied by his master into mercilessly whipping her. Their relationship is fraught.
When Northrup is rescued by a friend from New York who had learned about his situation, Patsey bewails her desertion.
Northrup returns to New York, weeping at being reunited with his wife and two children and meeting his namesake, a new grandchild.
A happy ending.
But I found myself wondering how Northrup remembered Patsey. How her feelings about him, about how all of his experiences of being a slave for twelve years had marked and changed him. Had he to deal with survivor’s guilt? Did he feel shame at being an instrument of the sadistic erotism of the master that made him participate in Patsey’s beating?
Exploring these dynamisms, looking more deeply into Patsey, and, for that matter, into the dark and twisted ambivalence of Patsey’s master, would have transformed a deeply moving film into great art.
[Dr. Alvin Burstein is Professor Emeritus, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and currently serves on the faculty of the New Orleans-Birmingham Psychoanalytic Center where he moderates their Film & Discussion Series.]