Twelve Years a Slave: Purgatory and Paradise

Twelve Years a Slave: Purgatory and Paradise

 by

Howard Adelman

Steve McQueen stated that issues of race are not a priority in his work; the horror of hell and the damnation beyond is. In Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon first travelled from the north through the various stages of hell as he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. He now enters purgatory when he is resold to Edwin Epps on a plantation from, but no longer even in, hell. Satan`s fall created hell. But the earth displaced by that fall became purgatory that existed on the other side of the mountain far away from northern eyes. But the main difference between hell and the purgatorial life of field slaves on a cotton plantation is not so much the prevalence of cruel actions as the malicious motives for those actions.

As Steve McQueen said of his film, Shame, “The film is more about what people don’t say rather than what they say. It’s about undercurrents, internalization. People generally say things out loud that are designed to make other people feel comfortable. So it becomes like poker — you have to look for the tell. And you’re relying on the audience to pick up on things that are recognizable but at the same time unfamiliar. “McQueen`s themes have been about the imprisonment and abuse of the body that is being imprisoned, whether in the story of Bobby Sands` hunger strike in Hunger, or the tale of the sexaholic in Shame. To quote McQueen, “man`s body is both his escape hatch and his prison.” The individual body and the body politic as an American gulag become the new setting to explore what happens to a man`s soul, to his spirit or ruah.

I read one review that described Solomon Northup in terms of his humanity, which, in spite of his searing experiences, grows larger as the film progresses. Another film reviewer wrote that Solomon`s saving grace was the dignity with which he endured and observed his own and a nation’s shame. Nonsense! Solomon Northup’s humanity and his dignity are initially sacrificed on a very slight commercial whim and then both are lost gradually and inexorably stage by stage in every scene of the film. This is the film’s real horror that goes much beyond sadistic physical abuse. Slavery demeans not only the white slaveholders but those enslaved as well. Only Solomon’s will to survive and see his wife and children once again sustain him – not his humanity, not his dignity. In fact, at each stage of the drop, another slice of his humanity and his dignity have to be sacrificed in order for him to survive.

Although Solomon Northup continues to balance between fragility and a determination to survive (see McQueen’s 1996 short, Just Above My Head), Solomon had to first surrender his material well-being, his pride in his skills and education, his sense of entitlement because of his northern origins and birth as a free man. Much more is asked of Solomon now that his freedom, pride, dignity and sense of self have seemingly been totally stripped from him. His spirit now has to be crushed. In 1831 in the aftermath of the Nat Turner slave rebellion, southern states passed legislation forbidding the teaching of literacy to Blacks and even forbad them from holding religious services without the presence of a white minister. Ford, the mild-mannered but morally corrupted slave owner in hell, preached to his Black slaves. Epps does so as well. But Epps offers a very different lesson.

Edwin Epps preaches to his slaves from the New Testament, Luke 12:47 in particular: “And the slave who knew his master`s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes.” It helps to know the context. The previous verse, 46, reads: “The master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and assign him a place with the unbelievers.” The verse that follows is also helpful: “The one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.” Solomon is flogged 16 times with a plank early in the movie then he receives another flogging with a rope. But the greatest horror is yet to come when he is not flogged but is forced to flog another slave.

Thus, while Epps is using the Gospel of Luke to justify whipping his slaves – 40, 50, perhaps 150 lashes – the original text stresses how the naïve and innocent, who did not even recognize slavery, is led to commit deeds worthy of a flogging – telling outright lies. The passage refers to the ultimate humiliation, taking up the whip against a fellow slave while receiving relatively few lashes. To repeat, from one who has been given much, much will be required.

However, first purgatory must be established as an integral part of ordinary life. McQueen recreates the work rhythms and routines of a cotton plantation as described so precisely in Northup`s autobiography. Instead of the field slaves located some distance from the manor house, as in Tara, in this movie the intimacy between slaves and master is well established. Slaves and slave owners live cheek by jowl next to one another. However, the slaves remain committed to freedom and sing their songs of desire even as they go about the work pretending not to notice the degradations being meted out against them in beatings, whippings and even lynchings. Solomon eventually joins in to sing “Roll, Jordan, Roll” (the balance to “Run, Nigger, Run” sung by the cruel foreman in Hell) and symbolically accepts that he is a slave in equal status to the others. This is the very title of Eugene Genovese`s great book on slavery with the subtitle of The World the Slaves Made.

Roll Jordan 
Roll, roll Jordan, roll 
I want to go to heaven when I die 
To hear Jordan roll (roll, roll, roll) 

Now brother, you ought to been there 
Yes, my Lord 
A sitting in the kingdom 
To hear Jordan 

Well, roll Jordan, roll (roll Jordan) 
Roll Jordan, roll (roll Jordan, roll Jordan) 
I want to go to heaven when I die 
Roll Jordan, roll 

Well my mother, you ought to been there 
Mother, you ought to been there 
My mother, you ought to been there 
Roll, Jordan roll 

Oh you can see it roll, better roll, better roll (roll Jordan, roll Jordan) 
Roll Jordan, roll (roll Jordan, roll Jordan) 
I want to go to heaven when I die 
Roll Jordan, roll 

Well my mother, you ought to been there (oh yes) 
Mother, you ought to been there 
My mother, you ought to been there 
Roll, Jordan roll 

Oh you can see it roll, better roll, better roll (roll Jordan, roll Jordan) 
Rollover Jordan, roll (roll Jordan, roll Jordan) 
I want to go to heaven when I die 
Roll Jordan, roll 

Well my sister, you ought to been there now 
Sister, you ought to been there 
My sister, you ought to been there 
Roll, Jordan roll 

Well my brother, you ought to been there now 
Brother, you ought to been there 
My brother, you ought to been there 
Roll, Jordan roll 

Further, the character of the Great Satan, Epps, must be established. He is a fire eater and a man filled with lust and wrath, cunning and conniving, and insistent on doing what he wants with what he considers his property. He is also a drunken sot who slips on pig slop and tumbles over his own fences. Like Dante`s Satan, the once most splendid of God`s creatures has fallen so far that he has become a man without an ounce of grace, slobbering and tongue-tied. He is a bully, a rapist but also a very conflicted sadistic soul.

Then there are the seven deadly sins of Purgatory characterized by excessive passion (lust, gluttony and greed), by deficient passion (sloth) and by deformed passion (wrath of a very different order than the simple resentment of Tibault, a wrath that is infused with malice as are envy and pride. Lust is not just the indulgence in sexual intercourse between Solomon and the slave woman lying next to him who seduces him, but it includes Solomon`s lust for freedom. That lust is so strong that Solomon lets his guard down to finally steal paper, make ink and a pen and entrust the letter he writes to Armsby (Garret Dillahunt), an itinerant carpenter working on the plantation.

Unbeknownst to Solomon, Armsby was not motivated by good will towards Solomon but by greed himself, greed to win Epps` favour and gain the opportunity to become an overseer on his plantation. Armsby discloses Solomon`s plan to Epps. Epps threatens to cut Soloman`s throat. Solomon escapes by telling a blatant lie, insisting that Armsby`s tale was a tissue of lies. The treachery is reversed – not by truthfulness or honesty, but by an inverted betrayal that is so bold to be convincing. This is a turning point. Solomon turns on his betrayer and fabricates a story out of whole cloth to show how the one who betrayed him was really out to betray Epps – and Epps believes him. Solomon has given up all claims to justice and truth, to self pride and human decency as, in order to survive, he sacrifices any threads of clinging to his social humanity.

We also have the gluttony of the slave owners with their great displays of food – from which Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) offers crumbs to her slaves. The close-ups of the meager food offering on Solomon`s plate at the beginning of the film, repeated in purgatory, tell a good part of the story. Leonardo Di Caprio’s Calvin Candie, in Quentin Tarantino`s Django Unchained was also a very depraved villain but one with polish and wit, with cruel humour and an aristocratic sense of self. Epps as played so brilliantly by Michael Fassbender is no Candie for he disdains any veneer of civilization and rather makes a mockery of the social graces of high society. With Epps, we are beyond the malicious violence of Tibault and into the twisted malevolent pleasure that the totally unpredictable Epps takes in tormenting his slaves, sometimes indulging them while at other times he wallows in their humiliation, making them dance to southern aristocratic reels in their nighties as if to prove that Negroes in the south lacked any sense of rhythm. Epps is a manic depressive and obsessive madman who can switch in seconds from degrading his slaves to picking up, twirling around and dancing with a young daughter of a slave who is only clothed in a nightdress. Epps is not a real and present danger but an ominous, often silent and unpredictable menace as we in the audience suffer in agony in anticipation of his next atrocity. Surely, he cannot become worse! But we are as deluded as Solomon.

God`s wrath is meted out to Epps in the destruction of the cotton crop from cotton worm, but Epps only blames the plague on the shortcomings of his slaves when it is Epps` mistreatment that allows a slave to die while picking the crop. The dead slave`s real sin is one of insufficient passion for life; he simply gives up. But the worst sins of purgatory arise from passions that are now infused with malice, primarily Epps` wrath focused on the obsession of his life, the slave, the beautiful but hapless Patsey who is also the best of his pickers who can collect 500 pounds of cotton a day compared to Solomon`s 138 pounds. When Patsey returns after a short disappearance, Epps` wife completely loses her cool at her husbands obsession; in an earlier scene she three a wine decanter at Patsey. Epps himself, furious at his own need for Patsey, ties her down and even forces Solomon to whip her. As Patsey’s flesh is shredded into raw strips, so is Solomon’s soul. Patsey, like the woman walking the tightrope in McQueen’s short film, Five Easy Pieces, combines extreme vulnerability and impossible strength of character. Patsey is Dante`s Beatrice who allows Solomon to survive in purgatory.

Eventually, Epps has to complete the whipping task himself when Solomon fails to sustain sufficient wrath and self-loathing. Solomon has no more stomach for whipping than he had for picking cotton. The flogging is totally inhumane and we wince as the flesh is torn open and even more when the other slave women try to treat her open wounds. It is by far the most horrific scene in the movie, made much more horrible by the degradation to which Solomon has been reduced in participating in such an evil act just to survive.

Finally, paradise appears on the horizon in the form of Brad Pitt playing Bass, a very different kind of carpenter, a Jesus figure from Canada who is outspokenly anti-slavery. Solomon tells him his story. The film could have frivolously been called “Saved by a Canuck” as Brad Pitt plays the Canadian itinerant anti-slavery carpenter who finally carries Solomon’s message north to report on the whereabouts of Solomon and his illegal capture and confinement. Shortly after, John Waddill arrives with the sheriff and the required legal papers and whisks Solomon away over Epps` futile protests. Solomon is then very quickly redeemed and returns to paradise and his family. But what a paradise!

The trip through purgatory was horrific but richly sensuous, remorseless in the depths of the degradations reached. But paradise turns out to be cold. The family members gather round and, as expected, hug the returned captive. But the members of the family, including his new son-in-law and grandson, are all strangers. Like a returning veteran from the Iraq War, they cannot possibly recognize what Solomon has been through. What a contrast with James Foxx` reunion with his wife at the end of Quentin Tarantino`s Django Unchained.

John Ridley has certainly superbly selected from Solomon Northup’s unbridled and sweeping autobiography, managing to combine a highly structured organization of a descent into hell, a passage through purgatory and a re-entry into paradise while remaining absolutely true to the realism of Solomon`s tale. The film has a brilliant cast beginning with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup. Lupita Nyongò plays Patsey with passionate desperation and Michael Fassbender is suitably vicious as Edwin Epps – all deserving of Oscars as respectively best actor and best supporting actress and actor.  But every single minor character is also perfectly cast and superbly preformed, in the cases of Paul Giamatti portrayal of Freeman and Paul Dano`s performance of Tibault.

Sean Bobbitt`s cinematography is superb, whether photographing ominous cloudy skies or the ripple of the water behind a paddle wheeler, but culminating in the single unbroken shot of Patsey`s beating as the camera circles both Solomon and Patsey, a technique that forces the viewer to share the suffering of both as one whip stroke follows another. Photographing the action from the positional perspective of the characters, particularly Solomon, allows us to share his experience with much greater intensity. It is a camera that refuses to look away.

The music of Hans Zimmer is often very simple but always infused with great emotion; it is sometimes humble, at other times, majestic, but always infused with nobility. The myriad of slave songs reinforce the realism: Alicia Key sings “Queen of the Field. Patsey endures her suffering rto “Driva Man”, ”a sparse, brooding, slow-swinging jazz number” ”about an enslaved person reaching `quittin’ time` while also trying to please the overseer to avoid getting beaten.” Gary Clark Jr. sings “Freight Train”.  

Do NOT miss this movie!

The evening before last, my son, Gabriel, and I went to see Survival, oops!, Gravity in 3D starring Susan Bulloch and George Clooney. If you like high-tech amazing amusement rides that keep you very tense, go see the movie. Enough said! Except, any comparison between Gravity and Twelve Years a Slave as competitors for the Oscar for best picture is ludicrous. 

Twelve Years a Slave

Twelve Years a Slave                                                                                 

by

Howard Adelman

 

Last evening, Nancy and I went to the movies and saw Twelve Years a Slave. I have no intention of giving the story away and depriving you of your enjoyment, even though there is little to “enjoy” in this brilliant, compelling, mesmerizing movie. You will have to take it on trust that there is relatively little plot in any case – just a series of events cascading unremittingly downwards. Appropriately, given the film’s structure, I will use analogy to depict the film, but you may prefer to see the movie first before you read the blog.

Twelve Years a Slave by Steve McQueen is to the American institution of slavery what Schindler’s List by Steven Spielberg (that other Steven) is to the Holocaust. Only Twelve Years a Slave is a better film as terrific as Schindler’s List was as a movie. It is better because it is even more gritty and horrific than Spielberg’s authentic account of the clearing of the Krakow ghetto while also much more profound. The surrounding story of Oscar Schindler was a Hollywood fictional character even if based on a historical one, one so successful that it has largely been adopted by official accounts, including that of Yad Vashem. Oscar Schindler was, in reality, a spy against the Nazis for the Abswehr, a money runner for the Zionists and a philo-semite from youth when his two best friends who lived next door to him were sons of a rabbi. Though in real life also a philanderer and gambler, in the movie he is also portrayed as an opportunistic Nazi who undergoes an epiphany when he sees the girl in the red coat during the clearing of the Krakow ghetto – the only colour scene in the movie before the ending. Oscar Schindler henceforth dedicates himself to saving a small remnant of about 1100 Jews. This Christian overlay of simplistic personal sin and redemption is so typical of Hollywood films on the Holocaust; the film ends not only with Christian redemption but with the redemption of the Jews in the promised land of Israel continuing the link in the imaginary eye of the triumphal creation of Israel with the horror of the Holocaust as its precondition. This contrasts markedly with the role of Christianity in Twelve Years a Slave – but more on this later.

Both movies are about a very tiny minority, Schindler’s List about one relatively small group among an absolute relatively small total who were actually saved from the Holocaust, while Twelve Years a Slave is about an even smaller group of relatively free Blacks captured and sold into slavery and an even much tinier group of Blacks who were restored to their free status. But Schindler’s List focused on seeing the Holocaust through the eyes of a redeemed Christian through whom the redemption of the Jews in general is made possible. Twelve Years a Slave shows slavery as it was perceived, experienced and felt, slavery as it was beaten into the flesh and the mindset of one man, a former free man from Saratoga in New YorkState. Solomon Northup, born free, well educated and relatively prosperous with his own home and thriving musical career as a violinist, is tricked and sold into slavery at a slave sale in New Orleans in Louisiana.

Steve McQueen and Steve Spielberg share another element in common. Spielberg cast Chiwetel Ejiofor in his 1997 critically acclaimed film Amistad. In Twelve Years a Slave, Ejiofor plays the main character (Pratt, née Solomon Northrup) utilizing very few words but a myriad of facial expressions and bodily movements to reveal his character and thoughts. Both films are about non-gratuitous, almost banal, violence and racism. But the differences far outweigh the similarities between the two films, especially the main subject matter of each. Though Schindler’s List is unequivocally a Holocaust film, Twelve Years a Slave is about much more than slavery. It is about the inferno, purgatory and heaven that one man goes through depicted with the poetic imagery of a modern-day Dante.

The film is based on Solomon Northup’s best-selling memoir of his life when he was captured as a free man and sold into slavery in 1841. We know from the title of the film that he will be rescued and redeemed after twelve years of unremitting torture. Solomon, presumably the wise, but actually naïve northern prosperous Black, is, like Dante, in his mid-thirties when he begins his descent. Solomon is like one of those ancient soothsayers with his head screwed on backwards as he wallows in his success and glories in his prosperity just as Job once did. But his face is really “twisted toward his haunches
and (he) found it necessary to walk backward because he could not see ahead.”  The film is a backward path and a downward descent beyond hell into purgatory before Solomon is rescued and restored to paradise.

The first part of the film quickly traduced begins with a prosperous Solomon seen with his wife and two children in Saratoga in New YorkState. Solomon tucks his two children into bed insisting they go to sleep quietly and make no noise, an ironic adumbration of his own future where his own voice had to be shut down lest he give offence to whites after he is sold into slavery. The family owns their own home and Solomon travels extensively on concert tours. He has white friends. He, his wife and children are all well dressed. In one incident at a general store, a black man, who has presumably slipped away from his master, approaches Solomon to speak to him, but Solomon is distracted by his wife’s demand to purchase a new handbag of the latest design and the approaching black man is found by his master before he has a chance to speak. The descent into Hell begins with this most casual sin of indulgence and the “poetic justice” meted out against Solomon. So passes the first sin and the beginning of the descent into hell disguised by the peace and generally non-racist tenor of this superficially idyllic scene.

The animal in Dante’s Commedia first encountered is the black and white leopard, which, for Dante, represented the radical political split between the Black Guelphs (the political papists), in this film, actual Blacks who were to be saved by what the state rights advocates argued was the new imperial president in Washington, and the White Guelphs, in this film, the white southerners who opposed the imperialist or strong federalist claims of Washington. Dante was then the Chief Magistrate of Florence and saw himself as a keeper of the peace by serving as a bridge between two radically divided worlds. What begins in mild material indulgence quickly descends into the other sins of indulgence on the first level of the inferno, before descending further into the hell of violence and malice.

At the upper level of Hell we encounter four other types of self-indulgent sins before we descend lower into the middle reaches of hell where two types of violent sin await Solomon and then, at the base, the two types of malicious sin. In 1841, Northup met Merrill Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Abram Hamilton (Taran Killam) who claim to be entertainers. They offer Solomon a position with a very high pay – one dollar for each day on the road and an extra three dollars for every show he plays – for playing the violin as part of a travelling Circus Company. They meet Solomon in Washington, where the deeds they practiced were not then illegal, and they ply Solomon with both drink and flattery. As a result of his naiveré and lack of sufficient wariness, Solomon ends up drunk and wakes up only to find himself bound in chains in a slave cell in Washington cast into the second circle of the first level of hell and insensibility.

Solomon refuses to believe he has been tricked and betrayed by Brown and Hamilton and insists that his new-found friends were artists, not kidnappers. Solomon is in denial. He threatens his jailers, John Birch (Christopher Berry) and his turnkey, Ebenezer Radburn (Bill Camp), with justice and has no true recognition of the perilous state in which he finds himself. This appeal to and belief justice in the face of blatant evil is the third circle of indulgence expressed by Solomon.

Radburn beats Northup to silence his claim that he is a free man and insists he is a Georgian runaway slave whose name is Pratt. On top of the material indulgence, Solomon’s sense of pride, his belief and faith in justice, he now has to surrender his faith in truth and even his own identity. In the upper level of hell, Solomon is stripped of all he believes in – prosperity, success, self pride, a belief in justice and in truth, and even his own sense of self. Solomon is ready to be transported to middle-Hell.

With other slaves he purchased, Birch ships Solomon by sea to New Orleans to his partner, Theophilus Freeman, played magnificently by Paul Giamatti. En route, it is clear we are in hell as coal is shoveled into the furnaces of the steamer and as we watch the ripples of water left behind and viewed through the repetitive slats of the paddlewheel of the steamer. The circle goes round and round and down and down. In New Orleans, we encounter gratuitous violence, violence rooted in ideology rather than utility, and we are now beyond the level of indulgence. Upon his arrival in the middle level of hell, Solomon watches helplessly as his Virgil, who taught him the ways of survival, how to stay hidden and betray yourself to save yourself, is set free, if not from slavery, at least from the horrors that Solomon will continue to face. Solomon has been cast into his hell by what are otherwise ordinary or even noble beliefs, conceived as indulgences in a country strongly rooted in institutionalized slavery. Solomon now must truly encounter the sins of others.

The first circle of violence is the treatment of the captives as less than human. Freeman tells his buyers that the young boy, whom he ruthlessly separates form his mother, will grow into a fine and strong beast. It is as if he is displaying cattle for sale as he lauds the bodies of the slaves and haggles over the monetary value of each. He will not compromise on a sale in consideration of the feeling of the inconsolable mother, Eliza (Adepero Oduye) who is separated from her two children by the garrulous Freeman who wallows in his own logorrhea.

We experience a twofold violence, violation of the individuals treated as mere meat and violation of any human relationships. But that violence will bear little resemblance to the third and bottom circle of hell when Solomon is confronted, not with simple greed and inhumanity, but with actual malice. The malice stands in stark contrast with William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), the “good slave owner” who purchases Solomon and Eliza. Ford ineffectually tried to convince Freeman to at least keep the girl with her mother, but to no avail. Though a good and sincere man, he is still a slave owner, but also a moral coward as Eliza points out to Solomon. Ford’s wife is less sensitive; she tells the grieving and inconsolable Eliza who will not be comforted that she will soon forget her children.

Solomon’s intelligence and creativity flourish under Ford and he successfully suggests tying the cleared logs to together to ship them down river to the saw mill or market. John M. Tibault, in an outstanding performance by Paul Dano, oversees the work of Ford’s slaves picking cotton to the tune of Tibault singing “Run Nigger Run”, ironically, originally a Negro folk song cheering slave flight and warning that time is running out, but sung as a demeaning song about Blacks who steal crops and run from the “pattarolls”.

Oh run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Nigger run nigger flew

Nigger tore his shirt in two

Run run the patty roller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Nigger run, run so fast

Stoved his head in a hornets nest

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Nigger run through the field

Black slick coal and barley heel

Run nigger run the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Some folks say a nigger won’t steal

I caught three in my corn field

One has a bushel

And one has a peck

One had a rope and it was hung around his neck

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Oh nigger run and nigger flew

Why in the devil can’t a white man chew

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Hey Mr. Patty roller don’t catch me

Catch that nigger behind that tree

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Nigger run, run so fast

Stoved his head in a hornets nest

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away 

Nigger run, run so fast

Nigger, he got away at last

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

However, for an unexplained reason, Ford gets into financial difficulties and has to sell some slaves to settle his debts to Tibaut. But Ford continues to hold a chattel mortgage on Solomon for the unpaid part of the sale. Tibault is the exemplification of malice driving violence. He resents Solomon’s smarts. Tibault challenges Solomon’s uses of nails provided by Ford’s overseer, Chapin. Chapin intervenes and Solomon speaks up, asserting that Tibault wanted to beat him for using the nails that Chapin provided. When Chapin challenges Tibault, asking what’s wrong with the nails, Tibault does not reply but stares malevolently at Solomon. Chapin walks away with Tibault evidently trying to quiet Tibault’s furious resentment at being upstaged and put in his place by a black slave.

In a subsequent confrontation, Tibault attacks Solomon for a second time when he arrives with two others (Cook and Ramsey) on horseback with whips and a rope. Thibault attempts to hang Solomon, but Ford’s overseer, Chapin, intervenes, and reminds Tibault that he has a debt to Ford, secured by a chattel mortgage on Solomon, so hurting or killing Solomon would in law be an attack on Ford’s property. Chapin also threatens Thibault’s two companions and they ride off. Tibault sneaks off in shame. However, Chapin does not cut Solomon down even though Solomon’s toes barely touch the ground. After a number of hours, Ford comes to the rescue and releases Solomon from his noose.

Why did Chapin allow Solomon to continue to hang just after having rescued him? The implied answer is that Chapin’s malice is even worse and a different order of sin than Thibault’s overt hatred and resentment even as he appears as a rescuer. For at least Tibault’s malice was worn on his sleeve, whereas Chapin’s resentment goes much deeper and his violence is more indirect and cloaked in protectionism and the rule of law. 

When we reach the bottom of hell, the movie’s real horrors are just about to really begin. For we now transition from hell to purgatory when Solomon transits through a short period clearing land of cane, trees and undergrowth to prepare the land for planting cotton before title to himself as a chattel is sold to the venomous Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender who starred in McQuuen’s two previous feature films – Hunger about the 1981 northern Irish hunger strike and Shame about a sexaholic) on a cotton plantation where slavery is pure torture but where repression is finally linked to desire and not just survival, to eros, admittedly a perverted eros in the various forms of lust, gluttony and greed, sloth and malicious love mixing wrath, envy and pride as Patsey, played in an Oscar winning performance by Lupita Nyong’o, becomes the object of Epp’s passion and wrath, his pride and disdain, as he whips Patsey in the most horrendous scene of the movie as black skin is torn open by the lashes to reveal the pink and blood soaked  bloody flesh beneath.

 

Tomorrow; Purgatory and Paradise