EXTRACTING LUPITA NYONGO'S CHARACTER (PATSEY) IN 12 YEARS A SLAVE
We are introduced to Patsey in the film along with 8 slaves that have been brought to work on Master Edwin Epps cotton plantation. Patsey is a young 23 year old offspring of a “Guinea nigger” brought over to Cuba in a slave ship. For her foam, the story needs her to beam with unconversant sexuality; a striking black woman. We first see Patsey at the cotton plantation where she is way out in the lead intently picking cotton with ease.
When Patseys’s cotton collection adds up to five hundred and twelve pounds, Master Epps brags, “Yah men folk got no shame lettin' Patsey out pick yah? …” Even when Treach wants to continue to call the sums others have picked, Epps stops him saying he wants to luxuriate on the work Patsey has done, “Damned Queen. Born and bred to the field. A nigger among niggers, and God give 'er to me. A lesson in the rewards of righteous livin'…” This he says while caressing Patsey on the neck, the very first sign of his lusts.
Patsey’s dilemma starts when the slaves are woken up late at night by a drunken Master Epps's forcing them to dance. They do so very wearily such that Epps shouts, “Where's yah merriment? Move yer feet!” As the slaves twirl about, Epps keeps an attentive eye on Patsey. It should be quite clear that his primary motivation for holding dances is so that he may view Patsey twirl about the floor. And what a natural dancer Patsey is. It is as if the music helps her run free to the world only to be caught by the irony of it.
A few moments of Epps's lust on display is all that the Mistress can bear. Jealousy mounting, she snatches up a flask and with all her might she throws it at Patsey hitting her square in the face leaving her bloody and writhing on the floor. The music stops and Mistress Epps barks at Epps to sell the negress. Mistress Epps scratches her face all the more in other scenes.
Solomon Northup has been sent to get Patsey at Master Shaws house where she had taken a sabbatical. Within the conversation Mistress Shaw, looks at Patsey and says, “I knowed what it like to be the object of Massa's predilections and peculiarities. And I knowed they can get expressed with kindness or with violence; a lusty visit in the night, or a visitation from the whip. And with my experience, if I can give comfort, then comfort I give. And you take comfort, Patsey; the Good Lord will manage Epps…” Mistress Shaw wasn’t helping Patsey’s failure with Master Epps. More than anything she meant that Patsey had no choice in Masters creeping – which is ill advice against a backdrop that at least black on black can save each other. But 12years a Slave is based on a true story.
The slaves are asleep. Epps shoves Patsey. It looks as if Epps is shoving a corpse as Patsey does not respond to his calling and remains as still as possible. Epps's frustration mounts until - as the Mistress Shaw had cautioned - he crosses the line from passion to violence. He slaps Patsey to get a response from her in vain. Director Steve McQueen sensualized the scene through the use of time because if it was only for us to register Master Epps lewdness, we didn’t want to go all the way, however much the shots concentrated on the medium close-ups. This is definitely a film with Parental Guide status even when it didn’t look like it.
Patsey wakes up Platt and asks for a request and an act of kindness. Patsey displays a lady's finger ring and says she secreted it from the Mistress. Solomon asks her to return it and Patsey says it’s his. Solomon asks the cause and Patsey says, “All I ask: end my life. Take my body to the margin of the swamp…take me by the throat. Hold me low in the water until I's still'n without life. Bury me in a lonely place of dyin'”. Solomon asks how such despair comes to her. Patsey responds, “How can you not know? I got no comfort in this life. If I can’t buy mercy from yah, I'll beg it”. Solomon tells her to beg others and asks why she would consign him to damnation with such an un-Godly request? Patsey only responds, “There is God here! God is merciful, and He forgives merciful acts. Won't be no hell for you. Do it. Do what I ain't got the strength ta do myself”.
But for Patsey to approach Solomon for such a request shows that she perceives Solomon a good conscience who can level her death to God’s mercies. She is misguided – a sort of escapism. She even uses God to justify her pain and this contradicts the audience affirmation of the only thing she has – God. Her belief in God is not deep-seated as true belief whereas trust in God is tested in persecution. Just as Master Epps uses the bible to justify slavery, Patsey uses God to justify her death and in these they are both ludicrous characters.
At least it becomes clear that Patsey suffers from humiliation from Master Epps and she wants herself dead although if she wanted to, she could just rebel Master Epps’s rape defilements and get herself killed?
I bet it is a question of the character and the true story and not the director. It is extremely ironical that even when there is a plague of cotton worm Patsey still makes three hundred and forty pounds of cotton more. It is funny how she remains straight-headed at work even after wanting to commit suicide from Master Epps ordeals. It's the Sabbath. A drunk Master Epps comes calling Patsey in vain. When Patsey returns Epps scorns her, “…Yah took yerself ta pleasure Shaw…” Patsey admits she went to Master Shaw's plantation and chucks out soap, “I got this from Mistress Shaw. Mistress Epps won't even grant me no soap ta clean with. Stink so much I make myself gag. Five hundred pounds 'a cotton day in, day out. More than any man here. And 'fo that I will be clean; that all I ax. Dis here what I went to Shaw's 'fo”. Epps concludes that she is lying and she responds, “And you blind wit yer ow covetousness. I don't lie, Massa. If you kill me, I'll stick ta that”. Master Epps instructed Solomon to whip Patsey. She was badly whipped by Solomon who could not evade her earlier request of killing her; a dejavu of sorts. She was graphically whipped by Epps too. This scene I believe is what made Lupita Nyong’o playing Patsey win the coveted Oscar award for best supporting actor. It was full of credible emotion displaying the stink in Master Epps house and therefore the stink in the era of American slavery.
The script was written by John Ridley after Solomon’s Northup published a book in 1985.