At The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky writes that unlike Django Unchained and Glory, 12 Years a Slave shows how some male slaves survived by using their brains, not just their brawn. Berlatsky also suggests that because the movie didn't feature a combative male main character, the female characters developed in a substantive and authentic way.
If we were working with the logic of Glory or Django, Northup would have to regain his manhood by standing up to his attackers and besting them in combat. That's not what happens here, though. Instead, Northup tries various ways to deal with the system. At first, he uses his education and skills to help his (very) relatively humane owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), with various engineering projects. Then, when he is harassed and attacked by Ford's overseer, he fights back, in a scene reminiscent of Frederick Douglass's autobiography, whipping the man who had intended to whip him. Where Douglass triumphed, though, Northup just ends up sold to a true sadist. As another slave, Eliza (Adepero Oduye), tells Northup, you can compromise yourself as you will, give the slave-owners your skills or your body. It doesn't matter. You're still a slave.
Eliza's speech has no parallels in Glory or Django, because when masculinity is the story, women are pushed to the sidelines. In Django, the main romance of the film is between Django and his white buddy; the second is between Django and the evil slave Stephen—and lagging far behind in third is the relationship between Django and his wife, who functions more as a prize than as a person. For its part, Glory barely has a female speaking role; like Django, all its energy goes into inter- and intra-racial male bonding.
12 Years a Slave though, doesn't present masculinity as a solution to slavery, and as a result it's able to think about and care about women as people rather than as accessories or MacGuffins. Other than Northup, in fact, the most vivid slave characters are female. There's Eliza, who is utterly devastated by the loss of her children. And there's Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), a phenomenal worker in the cotton fields who Northup's second sadistic owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), takes as his mistress. Patsey is raped by Epps, loathed by his jealous wife, and systematically abused, beaten, and tortured by both. In a terrifying scene, she wakes Northup up and begs him to take her to the marsh and drown her. "Do what I ain't got the strength to do myself," she pleads. "God is merciful and forgives merciful acts."
Read Noah Berlatsky's entire piece at The Atlantic.
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