9 12 Years a Slave and The Birth of a Nation

Two Moments in Representing Race

Julia Lesage

In considering the filmmakers’ political intention, I have no evidence that 12 Years a Slave’s director, Steve McQueen, or screenwriter, John Ridley, thought of The Birth of a Nationwhen developing their film. McQueen did say that he wanted his protagonist to be a freeman who was kidnapped and sold into bondage; as an “outsider,” that man would learn the rules of survival along with the viewers. McQueen and Ridley read about US slavery 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 daily life.[1]

Griffith had based The Birth of a Nationon a sentimental novel, The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon. The novel posits whites and blacks as two unequal species and is highly melodramatic, a kind of anti–Uncle Tom’s Cabin.[2] To a certain degree, the two films’ contrasting literary origins suggest the appropriateness of a very different visual style for each. That is, 12 Years a Slaveuses a realist narrative script and visual style, presenting many details of slave life. In contrast, The Birth of a Nationhas 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”)[3] 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 Griffith’s conservative film, closer to the slave era, cannot face.

Metonymy and Metaphor

Briefly put, 12 Years a Slaverelies on a rhetoric of metonymy to draw meaning from its fictional world, while The Birth of a Nationdelineates its fictional world in the service of a raced and gendered national metaphor. That is, 12 Years a Slavedraws on the conventions of “realist” cinematic narrative.[4] In such a narrative, audience expectations about cohesive and “readable” characters and spaces are adhered to. Also, costume, camera work (for example, long shot, close-up, tracking, shot duration, continuity editing, and mise-en-scène) are 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 on and emphasizing one small embedded detail after another that makes it realistic.[5]

In contrast, and coming at the inception of Hollywood fiction film and shaping it, The Birth of a Nationuses a much more overtly melodramatic structure. It pays little attention to the kinds of structures that later realist 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); and the lives of the working class. Rather, it takes for granted what Deborah Barker has described as the Southern rape complex,[6] 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 regenerating that complex over many years. Because the film excises the structures of slavery and the antebellum mind-set of the 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 notrepresenting something directly—here, by 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, the rape metaphor not only shaped a film narrative but also became what George Lakoff and Mark Johnson would call a “conceptual metaphor”—a common ideological mind-set 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 Slavehas 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 a 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.”[8] 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 versus good.[9]

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

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, New York. Both he and his wife, Anne, work—he as a musician and she as a caterer. 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 Anne Northup looks for a travel bag. A simply-dressed black man enters the store and wonderingly looks around. His unfamiliarity with such a store and its goods seems to mark him as a slave. As the store owner approaches this man to greet him 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,” deliberately addressing only Parker.

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 what 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 by slavers and is about to be shipped South. The film’s early visual track—with its costumes and the characters’ acts of shopping, walking around the city, taking a carriage, and 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 utopian because 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. Students could well trace the film’s presentation of salient differences in economy, law, geography, public and private space, gender relations, and personal and social psychology. In terms of the narrative message, the film’s 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 milieu 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. In particular, Solomon 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. 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 commonly invest a protagonist with such traits.

What is unique about 12 Years a Slave, and I will elaborate on this 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-on 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 store scene described above, for example, first-time viewers of 12 Years a Slave may not attend to the slave owner’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 a Slave’s storyline has a double reversal: the capture and the rescue.[11] The film also contains 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—those of Ford and of Epps. Narratively, each succeeding section of the film has a different style and tone:

  1. New England, also seen in flashback in section 2.
  2. Capture in Washington, DC; boat passage to New Orleans; the slave market.
  3. Ford’s plantation, establishing the plantation household’s mise-en-scène and themes. “The hanged man” scene.
  4. Epps’s plantation, introducing as major characters slave owner Master Epps and slave Patsey. Long, emotionally charged melodrama. Brutal beating of Patsey as film’s climax.
  5. Denouement and falling action. Rescue and return home.


The film has a disjunctive narrative structure. Little dramatic tension is carried over from one episode to another. And Solomon’s 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 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 any plans. They can hardly rely on cause and effect. They know the basic rules of the game—obeying orders, speaking little, 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, elements of Solomon’s identity vanish. First, he has lost his freedom to move about; he tests his shackles in anger and disbelief. Then, his legal rights, his bourgeois identity, his freedom. The dungeon’s space is nightmarish and abstracted. It teaches one lesson, enforced by beating. A number of such darkened spaces, in which identity is questioned, are presented throughout the film. 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 employs in 12 Years a Slave is 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 allows the director to address himself in different ways to different audiences, especially to black and white viewers. Because he uses images without exposition to carry much of the narrative, 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 uncomfortable.[14] But the beauty of the visuals—strikingly composed wide shots, long takes that seem to take extra time, close-ups that convey many emotions all at once, and thoughtful ways of placing the characters in social space—is not only metonymically appropriate but also gives the viewer a sense of control over, a moment for reflecting on, the terrifying historical moment and personal situations that the narrative represents.

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, the sequence 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. 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 until he is exhausted. The overseer of the plantation rides up, sends the slave boss off, and tells Solomon, “Do not leave the plantation or I cannot protect you. Stay here.” As Solomon sits on the unfinished building, shadows lengthen and time passes until 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, pistols drawn, 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 so as to be able to breathe. As time passes, the overseer paces the veranda of the big house, and a bit later Mrs. Ford comes out briefly to look. Solomon stays hanged in this position for a long time. Finally, Master Ford gallops up on horseback and with a machete cuts Solomon down. Next, in the interior of the big house, Solomon lies on the foyer floor with his head on a fancy white pillow. Solomon tells Ford who he really is, and Ford replies, “I cannot hear that.” He explains that he has sold Solomon to a hard master, Epps, since no other slave owner would take this rebellious slave and that Solomon’s 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 has only ambient sound. Sometimes the hanged Solomon is seen with the slave cabins in the background, other times with the big house behind his head. Shadows lengthen between shots. The camera holds on him in a long shot, his toes struggling to gain purchase to let him stand. 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, a long shot shows the hanged man tiny in the background (fig. 9.1). Then there is a return to the narrative action as Ford enters on horseback and cuts Solomon down.


Delineating the plantation household, the panoramic shot shows Solomon as the hanged man with the slave cabins in the background and the slaves going about their daily routines (screen capture by author).
Figure 9.1 Delineating the plantation household, the panoramic shot shows Solomon as the hanged man with the slave cabins in the background and the slaves going about their daily routines (screen capture by author).

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 in which slaves did both field and domestic labor. Because slaves and masters lived in close proximity, labor relations often 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 one another (fig. 9.2).


Figure 9.2 A quarter turn away reveals the master’s house in close proximity to the slave cabins (screen capture by author).

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 hanging scene—the slaves performed a double day’s work, doing the plantation’s maintenance chores and cooking for themselves after a day working under overseers and drivers. Also, as depicted in this sequence, slaves always had to demonstrate that they “knew their place.” Avoiding violence meant reticence, keeping emotion off one’s face, sticking to the 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 $1,200). Portraying a socially dehumanized protagonist, throughout most of 12 Years a Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofer faced the difficult task of creating a character who must suppress both emotion and knowledge from his public face.

The Epps Plantation: Act Three

Solomon’s time under Master Epps constitutes a long sixty-minute section of the film, ending in the climax of Epps (and Solomon) cruelly beating a female slave, Patsey, who suffers under Epps’s rapine lust. This section of the film is more melodramatic than the rest of the film and contains 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 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 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 obsessive attention of the villainous but arrestingly portrayed Epps. In addition, in Solomon’s interactions with Epps, the actors’ bodies 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. 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 that man’s absolute power—how it shapes him and how 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 slave owner’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 (fig. 9.3).


In the weighing shed, Epps’s lust for Patsey is public, not private, and affects everyone in the plantation household (screen capture by author).
Figure 9.3 In the weighing shed, Epps’s lust for Patsey is public, not private, and affects everyone in the plantation household (screen capture by author).

Several sequences portraying Epps’s and his wife’s conflicting relationships with the slave Patsey articulate the particular register of social power enacted intimately within the slave household. For example, one night a drunken Epps comes into the slave quarters holding a lantern. He tells the slaves to come to the big house to dance, and when he stares at Patsey, who seems momentarily lost in the dance, Mrs. Epps sees the lust in her husband’s eyes and throws a heavy decanter at Patsey, hitting the slave square in the face. Patsey falls to the floor. Mrs. Epps then demands that her husband sell this slave and threatens to leave, but he dismisses her and says he’ll keep Patsey rather than her.

The scene depicts layers of dependency and frayed tempers. The slave owner’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’s social power derives from her husband. He rebukes her about her own place in the slave household, and 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.

It’s Sunday, which slaves have off and during which they do chores such as their own laundry. A drunken Epps comes down angrily from the big house searching for Patsey. Patsey explains that she had gone to a neighbor’s to get some soap, which Mrs. Epps had denied her, because picking cotton made her “stink so much” it made her gag. As Epps has Patsey tied to a pole for a beating, we hear Mrs. Epps voice 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 and beats Patsey until he is exhausted.

The lengthy tracking shots in this sequence recompose the scene to delineate the different characters, the slaves in the background as witnesses, the big house, the people’s faces, and 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’s face; then a swish pan to Patsey’s 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 (fig. 9.4). In the next location, the slave cabin, the camera also emphasizes interpersonal emotions and social life, slowly tilting up to frame 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, we see Solomon’s anguish and a tear falling from his eye and down his cheek.[17]


As Epps beats Patsey with uncontrolled rage, the image is organized to comment on relative social power. Mrs. Epps, fully lit, is egging him on to kill Patsey; the slaves stand as mute witnesses in the background with their faces shaded. The next scene takes place in the slave quarters, where lighting and framing reveal the slaves’ personal and communal response (screen capture by author).
Figure 9.4 As Epps beats Patsey with uncontrolled rage, the image is organized to comment on relative social power. Mrs. Epps, fully lit, is egging him on to kill Patsey; the slaves stand as mute witnesses in the background with their faces shaded. The next scene takes place in the slave quarters, where lighting and framing reveal the slaves’ personal and communal response (screen capture by author).

This beating scene is justified by both the plot and the subject matter. It seizes audience attention. It is like a rape scene in that it shows Epps’s sadism proceeding from his obsessive lust, but enacting it to the borderline between life and death. It is also as 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 that is 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 has become part of the iconography of narrative cinema. 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 the 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 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 era extended such a white looking practice to a more general, watchful suspicion of 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 to this point about the social effects of certain ways of representing race in both 12 Years a Slave and, later, The Birth of a Nation.

Slave Women’s Limited Agency

To its credit, 12 Years a Slave not only develops Patsey as a victimized slave woman but also gives viewers a perspective on slave women’s agency, however limited. For example, sold into slavery in Washington, 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 Eliza but not her children. Once at Ford’s, Eliza will not stop openly weeping for her children, and thus, as a disturbance, she is sold elsewhere. Although some might hardly call such weeping an expression of agency, for Eliza it is a persistent expression of her identity. When Solomon irritatedly tells her at the slave cabins to stop wailing, Eliza 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.”

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 Alfre Woodard, 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 predilections 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 with a series of vignettes of Solomon enmeshed in slave life. 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 places his hand on her breast; then moves his hand down to her crotch. He touches her without enthusiasm until she climaxes. 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.

These incidents are presented without narrative or editorial comment; it is up to the viewer to interpret them. In the first example, 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 example, Harriet Shaw is so comfortably placed and well dressed and speaks in such an assured way that 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 contains evidence only of slave reticence on the subject, and the kind of situation here that the film invents fills in a historical gap. Although these filmed moments are open to many viewer interpretations, I assign to these three 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. 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. Solomon is in despair. Suddenly, perhaps many months later, a carriage drives up; the local sheriff asks Solomon a few questions to identify him; and then the Saratoga storeowner, Mr. Parker, steps 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 that I wanted to dismiss the whole film as 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 to both Solomon’s autobiography and this film. From an existential perspective, Solomon 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.[21]

In a certain way as 12 Years a Slave narrates the history of slavery, it also abstracts it. 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 antebellum slave culture, which gives viewers a point of identification and a nuanced way to contrast their 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. Layers of meaning at the connotative level of the film are often artfully expressed by the actors in fleeting and mobile facial expressions and in bodily stance, sometimes expressed in the script as the slaves’ need to dissemble. In fact, we know very little about what slaves felt, what meanings they assumed, and what conclusions they drew in any given situation. Slave autobiographies, like Solomon 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 Nichole Cobb warns, taking an antirealist 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 manifestos 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 depoliticizing effect. Film theory in the 1970s and 1980s, 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 US 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 seems useful pedagogically. I never taught The Birth of a Nation because I was revolted by how the film had been presented to me as a masterpiece of early US 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 that if The Birth of a Nation were taught after the students saw 12 Years a Slave, it would become immediately clear to the class what the early film elides: depicting slavery, explaining the plantation household, and contrasting freed slaves’ and former slave owners’ 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, because 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 US 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 concept would be familiar to The Birth of a Nation’s audience, and 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 The 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.

The Cameron family never lived in a plantation household sustaining most of its needs as a self-sufficient agrarian social unit. In the film this small-town setting seems unremarkable, but such a condensation has a usefulness in letting the film elide the former realities of slavery. The Camerons live in a two-story house in Piedmont, North Carolina, 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 boardinghouse after the Civil War facilitates the plot development as it allows the powerful but ailing US representative, Austin Stoneman, to stay there with his children, Phil and Elsie (Phil and Elsie arranged this move since Phil had fallen in love with Margaret Cameron on a vacation there, and Elsie had already begun a relationship with a wounded Southern officer in a hospital in Washington, DC—namely, Ben Cameron). However, we see none of the labor performed by Cameron women or by former slaves in the boardinghouse; 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 landholdings 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—for example, threat to white women—to a climax that metaphorically represents an invigorated masculinity for white Southern men that depends on the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. In this way, the film is a white fantasy about both gender and race.

Struggles in the Streets

Three moments from the film demonstrate how The 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 comes down the sidewalk and pushes them back (fig. 9.5). The soldiers’ leader tells Ben to give way; Flora cowers next to her 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” (fig. 9.6). As Lynch walks away, Ben grips his cane like a sword in suppressed fury (fig. 9.7).


The US militia takes over the sidewalks of Piedmont, pushing away the Camerons in front of their own house (screen capture by author).
Figure 9.5 The US militia takes over the sidewalks of Piedmont, pushing away the Camerons in front of their own house (screen capture by author).
Figure 9.6 Silas Lynch remonstrates: “This sidewalk belongs to us as much as it does to you, ‘Colonel’ Cameron” (screen capture by author).
Ben clutches his cane. He’s the emasculated man who cannot defend his family and their right to public space (screen capture by author).
Figure 9.7 Ben clutches his cane. He’s the emasculated man who cannot defend his family and their right to public space (screen capture by author).

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 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 street. Here, in the postelection sequence, black soldiers march down the street toward the camera, with only black citizens cheering from the sides.

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. These incidents are crosscut against images of white families sitting in fear indoors, some looking out of 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 enacts Griffith’s fantasy about Reconstruction power relations, emphasizing a fear of blacks and especially mulattoes and “race mixing.” Griffith 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 effrontery 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 because the action and mise-en-scène postulate systemic electoral abuse. Here, prominent armed black soldiers implement the electoral fraud. In addition to the film’s depicting the US 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, explicitly address 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 The Birth of a Nation as the biggest threat to whites after Emancipation, then black suffrage surely is the next. This scene naturalizes and authorizes a later incident in the film that looks forward to the Jim Crow South. Toward the end of the film, the Klan members 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 film’s visual emphasis on street life—especially the scenes of white disenfranchisement and of an armed black population rioting—legitimizes the actions of the newly organized Klan. In turn, the Klan not only disarms the black men but restores the hierarchy of commonly accepted public behavior, including black 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 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 that all the film’s white female protagonists face, especially Flora and Margaret Cameron and Elsie Stoneman (fig. 9.8). Early in the course of the Civil War, as it is depicted in the film, Northern black troops 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 her 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 stream. Gus proposes marriage, and, frightened, Flora runs through the woods, chased by Gus, and she jumps off a cliff. As Ben Cameron holds Flora’s limp body, she tells him Gus did it, and she 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 metaphoric depiction of the “Southern rape complex. As he breaks down the door of the besieged cabin, a soldier grabs Margaret Cameron while her father pulls her away (screen capture by author).
Figure 9.8 The metaphoric depiction of the “Southern rape complex. As he breaks down the door of the besieged cabin, a soldier grabs Margaret Cameron while her father pulls her away (screen capture by author).

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 crosscutting to tie together numerous narrative strands that will ultimately intersect, concluding with the Klan’s rescue of Margaret and Elsie and the Klan’s restoration of 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.

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 (fig. 9.9). In an extraordinary shot of that inner room, Dr. Cameron holds a pistol above the fainted Margaret’s head, and the Union veteran holds his rifle butt ready to smash in Cameron’s daughter’s and wife’s heads. It’s made explicit that the men will fight to the death but will first kill the women and the 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]

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 as an isolated pattern of men with rifles circling a cabin. Then the cabin is filmed from inside, in a crowded, claustrophobic mise-en-scène 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 stripped-down filmic geography turns the cabin metaphorically into something else as well—visually and narratively it is like a besieged vagina, with father and lover ready to kill their beloved rather than let her be raped.


Phil Stoneman barricades the door with his body and Dr. Cameron saves his last shot to kill his daughter rather than let her be raped. Visually and narratively, the cabin is a visual metaphor for the besieged white vagina (screen capture by author).
Figure 9.9 Phil Stoneman barricades the door with his body and Dr. Cameron saves his last shot to kill his daughter rather than let her be raped. Visually and narratively, the cabin is a visual metaphor for the besieged white vagina (screen capture by author).

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 to displace and not acknowledge 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, and 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 rehabituating themselves to very new structures of desire.

At the same time, the film also rearticulates 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 that it makes abuse of black women just disappear.

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.

After Flora’s death, Ben sits by 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 Ku Klux 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 reestablishment 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, reestablishing 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]

Conclusion: Thinking about History through These Two Films

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 in 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 analyzed in this chapter can help us better understand the history and economic, social, and 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 US 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.”[32]

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 via social history, personal narrative, audience interviews, fan discourse, politically oriented analysis, and so on. 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.[33]

The historical tie between the US 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 US penal institutions in the Reconstruction South directly augments a reading of The Birth of a Nation, because her analysis lends new meaning to the film’s depiction of out-of-control freedmen taking control of the town’s streets and their violent containment by the Ku Klux 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.”[34]

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 audiences to think systematically about US 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.


Julia Lesage is Professor Emerita of English at the University of Oregon. She is Founder and Editor with Chuck Kleinhans and John Hess of Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media (www.ejumpcut.org).

  1. Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave, as told to and edited by David Wilson (Auburn, NY: Derby and Miller, 1853).
  2. Linda Williams, Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O. J. Simpson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).
  3. I describe the Southern rape complex in more detail later in this chapter in the analysis of The Birth of a Nation. See Deborah E. Barker, Reconstructing Violence: The Southern Rape Complex in Film and Literature (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005). Also dealing with the topic of the Southern rape complex extensively is Diane Sommerville, Rape and Race in the Nineteenth Century South (Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2004). Especially useful is Sommerville’s appendix: “Rape, Race, and Rhetoric: The Rape Myth in Historical Perspective,” 223–261.
  4. See David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristen Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (London: Routledge, 1985).
  5. For a more detailed analysis of this process that draws on the work of Roland Barthes, see my essay: Julia Lesage, “S/Z and Rules of the Game,” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 55 (2013), https://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc55.2013/LesageRulesOfGame/index.html. Originally published in Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 12–13 (Winter 1976–1977): 45–51.
  6. Barker, Reconstructing Violence.
  7. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). The film’s plotline also illustrates Mary Douglas’s 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,” in 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. For my argument in this essay about historical difference between regional concepts of the self in the United States, I am indebted 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 eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, written usually by white colonists captured by indigenous natives. Typically the captive would write about his or her captors as crude and alien.
  12. Sam Worley, “Solomon Northup and the Sly Philosophy of the Slave Pen,” Callaloo 20, no. 91 (1997): 243–259, at 246.
  13. On 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 1, no. 2 (Summer 2010): 7–24.
  14. McQueen’s previous films Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011) contain many moments that provoke audience anxiety and discomfort.
  15. The Internet Movie Database 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, best supporting actor (Michael Fassbender), and best costume design (Patricia Norris); http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2024544/awards?ref_=tt_awd.
  16. Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Steve McQueen and Henry Louis Gates Jr. Talk 12 Years a Slave,” three-part interview, The Root, December 24–26, 2013, https://www.theroot.com/steve-mcqueen-and-henry-louis-gates-jr-talk-12-years-a-1790899438.
  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, December 8, 2013, 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, 1960), 163.
  19. Julia Lesage, “The Rape Threat Scene in Narrative Cinema” (paper presented at the Society for Cinema Studies Conference, New Orleans, 1993), http://pages.uoregon.edu/jlesage/Juliafolder/RAPETHREAT.HTML. Julia 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 26, no. 2 (Summer 2014): 339–346, at 343.
  21. Miriam Petty, “Refusing the Happy Ending: 12 Years a Slave,” Huffington Post, October 21, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/miriam-petty/refusing-the-12-years-a-slave_b_4869602.html.
  22. Cobb, “Directed by Himself,” 341.
  23. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 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. John 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. 26 (1981): 51–55, updated in 2014, www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC26folder/BrokenBlossoms.html.
  26. In the Jim Crow South, a black man acting as a white man’s equal would be punished. Martin Luther King Jr. developed a strategy of passive resistance partially in acknowledgement of this pattern.
  27. Lesage, “The Rape Threat Scene.”
  28. Deborah E. Barker, “Moonshine and Magnolias: The Story of Temple Drake and The Birth of a Nation,” Faulkner Journal 22, no. 1–2 (Fall 2006/Spring 2007): 142.
  29. In a November 18, 2015, 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: New York University Press, 2015), discusses 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,” in “African American Culture and Sexuality,” special issue, Journal of the History of Sexuality 3, no. 3 (January 1993): 445–467.
  32. Valerie Smith, “Black Life in the Balance: 12 Years a Slave,” American Literary History 26, no. 2 (2014): 365.
  33. This essay was written before Ava DuVernay released her powerful documentary 13th, about black incarceration, on Netflix. I do not have the space to analyze that film here but note that her analysis parallels that of Angela Davis, cited here.
  34. Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003), 29.