There are only two scenes in the entirety of 12 Years a Slave for which we leave Solomon’s perspective—one immediately after the first count of how much cotton each slave picked, when we see Patsey making cornhusk dolls while Solomon is beaten (58:14), and the second during her rape (1:13:00). Solomon is “present” for both these scenes, being beaten in the background in the first one and awake inside during the second, but there is no way that he could have actually witnessed these events as we see them. These scenes are particularly interesting in the context of bell hook’s chapter on black female spectatorship, since the only two deviations from Solomon’s point of view are for Patsey’s sake, and very distinctly involve “women’s” issues, the domestic and sexual assault.
The rape scene especially made me question why it was necessary to show Patsey’s torment in detail, when it is not directly part of Solomon’s experience. To be clear, I am not questioning the scene’s necessity because it was graphic—graphic scenes certainly have a place and a purpose in a film of this nature. I am questioning why this particular trauma, which Solomon did not witness first-hand, was necessary in a film intended to be shot from Solomon’s perspective (and based on a first-hand account which by necessity could not deviate from his perspective in such a way) and what purpose the scene serves, intentionally or unintentionally. We certainly already had the impression that Patsey was being sexually abused prior to that scene, and we could have heard about the rape second-hand, or focused on watching Solomon while he listened to it, if he could hear them outside. But instead we deviated from our protagonist to witness a graphic and brutal rape, even pausing a moment to focus on Patsey after Epps has left her alone. I think this raises fascinating questions about where we are intended to place ourselves as viewers, and what power Solomon has to gaze in the film—and if Patsey has any power to gaze back.
If we are intended to identify with Solomon, and taking into account his feelings of personal responsibility for Patsey after refusing to assist her suicide, this could read as one of many rape scenes where we are intended to feel almost more or at least equal sympathy for Solomon as Patsey, a man forced to silently witness the sexual abuse of a woman for whom he is responsible. We see these scenes in many different forms of media, incredibly problematic in their suggestion that men’s suffering trumps that of the women being abused. This is in line with, I believe, hooks’ writing on the phallogocentric gaze of black men, which replicates racism even as it tries to rebel against it—but also privileges black men with the ability to gaze, which is withheld from or complicated for black women (683). I wonder how we are meant to feel for Patsey, then. Is she only the object of Solomon’s gaze? Do we only feel Solomon’s responsibility for her and nothing else? Do we only sympathize with her as far as Solomon does, as he refuses to assist her suicide, is forced to beat her, listens to (or is at least aware of) her rape, and is forced to leave her behind? Or are we allowed to identify with her as a character in her own right, which seems only fair if we deviate from Solomon’s perspective for her sake? In other words, do these scenes of deviation actually work towards understanding of or identification with Patsey, because we are given scenes of her independent from Solomon, or do they only work towards increasing sympathy/empathy for Solomon? If we side with the latter, what does it mean that the purpose of Patsey’s rape, as one of only two scenes that separate us from Solomon, only serves to increase our connection to Solomon?
Also of note is the moment in which Solomon makes direct eye contact with the camera (1:59:35). It is interesting because it is a moment where we lose the narrative temporarily. We aren’t sure where exactly he is in time or space, and because it is a transition we lose any markers for how much time has passed. Are we invited to see this as a “look back,” as per hooks’ act of resistance (682)? If Solomon is looking at us, is he resisting our gaze as viewers? His eyes fix on the camera almost incidentally, after staring off in several other directions first, and his expression is, in my opinion, one of desperation. Clearly, breaking the fourth wall is purposeful, but the nature of the scene suggests a sort of helplessness or hopelessness in his gaze. Can an act of resistance be hopeless?