Francois Duhamel / Fox Searchlight
I don't love 12 Years a Slave as much as most, but I'm still taken by it. I want to address one thought I had upon my second viewing.
Near the beginning of the film, Solomon looks astonished as Clemens, another kidnapped African American, is found and freed by a white person. Solomon feels hopelessly alone, perhaps betrayed. This person that has helped him understand and adjust to his shocking situation, is gone, without him. There’s no rationale for feeling betrayed, as there’s nothing Clemens can do to help him, but the sense of betrayal does rest on Solomon’s countenance. As irrational as it may seem, I completely understand that feeling.
This moment makes the ending, when Patsey watches Solomon leave, more tragic than I initially realized. She feels the same hopelessness and betrayal. While we watch Solomon reunite with his family, we feel relief; however there remains an undercurrent of misery as the audience knows Patsey continues to suffer under the whip and unwanted adoration of Epps.
Thus, the film becomes not the single story of Solomon Northup, but the tragedy of the survival. The tragedy of slaves left behind. Every ounce of pain and suffering we experienced with Solomon will continue with Patsey. Her brutal whipping—that had most audience members shaking—was probably not the last. Even worse, Solomon is no longer there to protect her. I wonder if she managed to live. I wonder if Solomon’s departure led her to finally take her own life.