Tambay. Ms Woo. Sergio. Jana. 

One week and counting since the US theatrical release of Steve
12 Years A Slave and the
wave of shock and awe (from audiences and critics alike) flows on.
 You may
recall the heated responses to a recent interview on S&A12 Minutes w/ Steve McQueen – On ’12
Years A Slave,’ His ‘Brand,’ His ‘Blackness’ & More.’

The questions prevail: on how ‘Blackness’ as a cinematic projection seems
an endlessly conflicting public space; for whom this current revival of
slavery-as-cinema is ultimately intended; which directorial lens to entrust
with negotiating the complexities of depicting Black enslavement and
conversely, the subtext of acceptable Black liberation; why on-screen depictions
of Blackness lean overwhelmingly (and exhaustingly) toward marketable projections
of trauma and woe. 

How Black audiences ‘engage’ remains a polarizingly cyclical debate among
the varied consumers and cultural custodians of ‘Black cinema.’ In the
transcript below, four S&A writers weigh in, in what began as an
intentionally private conversation about… well, the kind of things that when
under ‘the gaze,’ often go unpublished. 

[Editors note: Our collective apologies to those who’ve not yet seen the
films mentioned – this does contain spoilers.]

: In case this hadn’t infiltrated your
cinematic radar…’The Seven Stages of Important Black Film Fatigue’ (

: Hah! I think I did “annoyance, anger,
vulnerability, and acceptance” in the space of 12 hours of watching 12 Years…

JS: How did you conclude on it?

MW:  On the article? I go
through moments of black film fatigue. It’s actually part of the reason I
pulled away from writing for S&A. I actually like watching movies. I needed
to get back to watching movies because they appeal to me, not just because I
feel obliged to see them… only to be sorely disappointed.

I’m not about to see every film that has black people in it
– even if it made it into the BFI LFF (British Film Institute’s London Film
Festival). Films about black urban ‘yoots’…? Pass. Films about urban
gangs…? Pass. Black rom-coms…? Pass. Basically, I’m not about to see a
generic, paint by numbers film that wouldn’t normally appeal to me just because
you’ve populated it with black folks. Inane is inane in any colour.

TAMBAY OBENSON/TO: I’ll admit that the article title and accompanying headline photo,
didn’t win me over. I recall shaking my head and sighing at first glance.

“12 Years A
has inspired so many articles, and I’ve
read a few of them, and think I’m probably fatigued. But I’m sure I can read
one more. Just one though.

I’m already looking to 2014, wondering what the one
contentious “black film” will be. Oh yeah, how could I forget – the
Nina Simone movie with Zoe Saldana. Hah! Although, whatever Spike Lee is
cooking up in “Da Blood Of Jesus,”
I’m almost certain will inspire more than a few debates, based on that title
alone, and his description.

But like Wendy, I actually miss being able to watch films (and
read novels) just for pleasure. Oddly enough, I watch far fewer films these
days than I did before S&A.

JS: So my good people, the (terrifying) consensus I’m coming away with
is that writing about the cinema of Blackness may very well drain you of the will
to watch the cinema of Blackness?

As the newest newbie on the S&A flex, the points are
duly noted.

Yet as weary as weary may be, one solid week after seeing
that McQueen film, the subtext of what it achieved is intensifying with every
recollection. I reckon he may have actually gotten it as right as right can be
in Hollywood.
So Tambay, perhaps forgive him on the ‘time ellipsis’ factor? Alas.

MW: Re 12 Years, like I said
in response to one of your  posts, Jana,
I really think I read too much about the film before seeing it – ALWAYS a bad
move on my part, so don’t know why I did it as I watched some of it knowing
what was coming and thus being somewhat underwhelmed by it all.

What DID get to me was Patsey’s story. Really, people
mentioned how great Lupita was in the role, but I don’t really recall reading
anything that prepared me for the level of intense feeling I had watching her
story unfold. Seriously, the dynamic between men and women in the antebellum
era is always sidelined in favour of the more obvious black and white dynamic.
And the dynamic between black women and white women… well, like I mentioned
before somewhere, I couldn’t help but leave the screening feeling overwhelmed
by the horrific drama that played out between the Epps’ and their slave Patsey.

That for her whole life, someone like Patsey had the
protection of absolutely nobody just left me feeling gutted. Granted, slavery
wasn’t a picnic for any black person, male or female, but I don’t think I’ve
ever seen it so vividly, unflinchingly and non-melodramatically laid out as
this before. And nobody seemed to make much of it in all the write-ups I read
before seeing the film. How is that?

I’d already read about the most horrifying scenes in the
film, so I was kind of almost numb to them (self defence mechanism kicked in,
maybe) – though the hanging scene still left me more than a little
uncomfortable. However, the most emotionally destroying scene for me is when,
after hugging her goodbye, Platt/Solomon gets on the carriage, turns away from
the plantation and looks ahead to his freedom while, blurred in the receding
background, Patsey collapses – out of grief, shock… That was the
short-breathed snot and tears moment for me. While Solomon was reacquainting
himself with his family, my heart was fractured into tiny pieces for Patsey.

McQueen certainly took it all the way on a level that
doesn’t/won’t get talked about in so many of the glowing reviews.

As Tambay said in a conversation we had before, white guilt
came out in droves for this film. I, however, would love to read a review from
a white feminist. If any of you come across one of those, let me know.

SERGIO MIMS/SM: I still like the
film but I wasn’t blown away by it. It’s not like the greatest thing ever made.
There are some powerful scenes but I find McQueen’s “cool, distant”
approach which worked so well for Shame
and Hunger is not exactly the right
approach for this film. He should have been more “in your face” than
the distant “Hmmm that’s rather interesting” approach. All this talk
about the film being so violent – with the exception of the whipping scene, not
even remotely. I suspect what people are really reacting to is how black people
are treated by white people in the film. As if they’re saying “Oh my we
did THAT? Oh dear That’s not like us.”

Yes Django is far
more violent and its depictions of slavery are way more brutal. Then again 12 Years ain’t no Mandingo for sure.

MS: Sergio, not sure I needed it to
be more “in your face” but I certainly did wonder which bit some
people were walking out from.

I do wonder what white people were expecting from a McQueen
film about slavery.

Like you said, it wasn’t any more violent than Django… it’s just Django was more Hollywood
violence, I guess… so it didn’t seem “real” enough for audiences on
a visceral level.

Guilt vs. denial…discuss.

SM: Denial. I dare say more black people than white people. How many
times I’ve heard someone say that they didn’t want to see 12 Years. “Oh why must there be another slave movie?”
Like how many slave movies have there been compared to how many lame black rom-coms?
No one is complaining about too many rom-coms. Even Morgan Freeman was quoted
recently saying that he didn’t want to see 12
. I was going to post something about it but then figured what’s the
point? The psychological scars are still too deep.

JS: So it seems the trouble with
slavery as a marketable cinematic genre (whether approached by black or white
male writer/ director) would appear to be the deliberate gender bias; which
with very few notable exceptions (Gerima’s Sankofa/
Demme/Winfrey’s Beloved), has
necessarily been told and sold to audiences principally as a discourse on
masculinity that strategically negates the unnerving intensities of sexual
tortures which principally befell enslaved black women?

Ms Woo, everything you said about Patsey is my heightened
cause to appreciate writer John Ridley and McQueen’s endeavour in 12 Years. Yes, it is the narrative of
Solomon, but that it was woven so intrinsically into the psychological trauma
of Patsey and by contrast Alfre Woodard’s ‘Mistress Shaw’- that to me was the
point of this conflicting viewing experience.

Been trying to sum up McQueen’s mission here- or rather the
mission he won’t speak of to press, for obvious fear of being ‘relegated’ to
that precariously inescapable category of ‘Black artist.’ Tricky mission to
find words for that don’t pander to the ‘White gaze’ but in many ways I reckon
McQueen just offered up a palatably corrective lesson to the canon of White
film making. This canon of Whiteness and its audience (both Black and White)
still aren’t yet quite ready to reconcile the narrative of  a slave named Patsey as a solo endeavour from
the centralised battleground of cinematic masculinity – ergo the audience
abandonment of Toni & Oprah’s Beloved?
(And I’m still trying to find words for that rejection too).

On ‘guilt vs denial’ – well it’s a delicate pact. And thus
far, if McQueen’s glowing reception illuminates anything, it is that the pact
continues to be best negotiated (by men) when the sexual assault of Black women
by White men isn’t too implicitly central to the marketing plan.

SM: Well you see that’s the thing.
I guess I’m in the minority but I felt that Patsey wasn’t given enough
dimension for me. I wanted to know more about her, who the person was instead
of basically being a subject of dehumanization. We learned all about Northup’s
background but nothing about her.

JS:…exactly Sergio. Yet even with
that limited exposition, McQueen’s perspective still goes further than any
previous Hollywood slavery epic had dared to probe…and all without ever
expressly having to declare that 12 Years
A Slave
is in fact a film about the abject sufferings and non-emancipation
of a Black woman named Patsey.

MS: Jana, I guess one step at a time. Let’s be honest,
Demme’s/Morrison’s Beloved is just
too weird to contemplate for most. The return of the child who had its brains
bashed against a rock in order to escape slavery…? Um… not one to be washed
down with a large diet coke and popcorn combo, really is it? – Unless it was
done as comedy. Actually, if it had been sold as a horror story, Beloved would have probably been much
better received, even with slavery as a backdrop.

 Also, the horrors of slavery
being escaped (especially in the film, if I recall) weren’t exactly made
graphically obvious, which just makes the action of killing one’s child in such
a manner seem a bit like overkill (I’m still amazed that there are people who
think slavery can’t have been all that bad – hence the reaction to McQueen’s
film, I guess).

So yeah, I’m amazed that I wasn’t prepared for Patsey’s
story despite all I read about the film before hand, and even more surprised
(or p*ssed off) that nobody actually did much to warn me about how traumatising
I might find it. Then again, beyond praising their performances, I guess
Paulson, Woodard and Nyong’o’s roles weren’t really examined much by most
reviewers. Now, as then, women (regardless of colour) were really just props
and prizes in the infernal d*ck-swinging competition.

So yeah, for McQueen to have slipped Patsey’s story in
there (don’t know how well highlighted it was in the book)… with such blatant
and horrifying impact, was both a shock and and pleasant (well, uncomfortably
welcome, as opposed to pleasant) surprise. So kudos for him.

I hear they pretty much stuck to the narrative of the book
(obviously they must have left some things out) so I’m guessing he could only
give us as much as they knew about Patsey. Solomon started off free and
returned, thankfully, to that state (albeit scarred for the rest of his life).

Patsey, however… Well, I’m guessing her tale would be
called “My Whole Life a Slave” assuming that she was born into
slavery, of course. In one scene, Epps/Fassbender has this beautiful little
dark-skinned slave girl that he carries around and treats like a precious doll
– much hugging, hand holding, stroking, carrying… promising treats of candy.
I’d imagine that, at its best, that was Patsey’s childhood. For a child like
that, the best they could have hoped for was to end up like Mistress Shaw
(Woodard’s character). At worst… we get Patsey’s life. On a good day she has
a spare moment to make corn dolls like a care-free child. On a bad day, she
gets raped by her master and then gets a decanter thrown at her head while
forced to dance for his midnight

McQueen gave me more than enough to glean Patsey’s life and
background. Really, what more could he have said that wasn’t already implied,
without veering from the source?

And yes, Sergio. I’m sick to death of people who don’t want
to see yet another film about slavery… I’m in no doubt that some of these
same people actually ran to be first in the queue to see Django… Because it was a about a black man killing white people!

So…The Help: too
subservient and about a bunch of women. The
: too
subservient. Django: black superhero
who, for most of the film, actually plays second fiddle to the white character
who kills the superhero’s nemesis… thereby making the second highest profile
negro in the film his main target of revenge). 12 Years: ANOTHER slave movie?!!

JS: My dear Ms Woo…everything you
said above. Yes. Precisely. Thank you.  

Now in the interests of serving cinematic vocation, lest not we
collectively archive this conversation and submit it to the S&A universe?
It would seem to be the right thing to do. And I’ve not read any roundtable
postmortem on this film yet (with the exception of that pre-release NY Times
discussion with Nelson George).

So what say you, folks? Publish this no-holds barred,
bullsh*t-free dissection of McQueen’s grand opus in ‘The Year Of The Slavery
Film’ (as one writer at The Daily Beast declared it at the dawn of the season)?

Methinks it’d at least make for a worthy gesture of ‘Important
Black Film Fatigue’ alleviation.

MW: Ooh, Jana…Then again…It might need to be edited a bit?

TO: Hah! “With editing” they say. Come on guys! No filter,
as the youth say these days. But seriously, I think I gave the impression that
I DID NOT like the film, which isn’t true. It’s just not the film I expected to
see, given how much I’d read and heard about how incredible and affecting it
was. I don’t think Steve McQueen could make a bad film even if he wanted to.
But I just think that, as what you guys seem to be confirming for me, it’s being
graded on a curve. A mainstream film about slavery actually dared to show
“truth” about slavery without any sensationalizing or trivializing of
the subject? Stop the presses! The fact that this is only now just happening in
2013 (the TV miniseries “Roots”
aside, although that was 40 years ago or so), says a lot. And I just don’t
think that praise for any film at this point, should include consideration for
being “the first to dare…” I’m just looking at it as I would any
other film. I know, I know, some would argue that it’s just not “any other

And I did have a lot more questions for McQueen. We just
got stuck on the “time” issue during the convo, and whatever tension
there was just seemed to spill over into the next 2 questions.

I read the book and the script before seeing the film, so
maybe that was also of some influence when I did eventually see it. And yes, in
response to whether the film matches the book, it does for the most part. We
don’t really get Patsey’s full background story. I think we’re just to fill in
the blanks. But keep in mind that, this is after all, Solomon’s story. At
least, it’s supposed to be. We see and hear everything through him, so he acts
like a griot in some way. And, to be frank, he’s not the most interesting
character in the book, and the film as well. I left the theater really curious
about Patsey’s story. Like what happened before Solomon entered her life, and
what happened after he left. A film about Patsey would likely be even more
brutal to watch. But I love how we are allowed to see a single moment of what
seems like a rare peace and even joy for her, when she’s sitting in the grass,
creating little doll-like figures (as I recall). I’d also like to see a film
telling Ms Shaw’s story (Alfre Woodard). I’d like to see the journey that
eventually ended up creating the character we see in the film. Even Epps’ story
could be interesting. We get glimpses of these lives that leave one wanting to
know more about them. But there’s only so much that can be packed into 2 1/2 hours.
And – something I’ve said previously – I hope this isn’t the end to slave
movies, and is instead the beginning of a “new wave” that uncovers as
many other stories as possible.

At the end of the novel, Solomon himself said that (I’m
paraphrasing) his story is just one of many, and the suffering he endured in
captivity was tame compared to others he’d witnessed (and not witnessed). So
even he was aware, at the time, that there are indeed so many more stories to
tell, and he’s lucky to have not only regained his freedom and reunite with his
family, he’s also lucky he was actually able to live to tell his story and see
it published.

But I’m ok with publishing this, unless Sergio has any

MW: On the surface, Mistress Shaw’s story seemed like the only
possible happy ending for a black female slave. However, looking at Adepero
Oduye’s character (Eliza), I think she found “favour” with her
master, and even had a child for him, and yet didn’t escape the auction block
(along with both her children) once he died.

So I wonder if Mistress Shaw was emancipated/free. If not,
then I guess her fate was really just as frail as any other slave in the
southern colonies, and hanging on the thread of her master’s whim or life-span.

Yep, there are certainly many more slave stories that could
be told. Woe betide the one(s) who set out to tell the tales though…