I keep vacillating between writing a ten thousand word review of this movie or just cutting right to the relevant scenes. Its hard for me to succinctly put into words what 12 Years a Slave is as far a movie goes. Is it entertainment, I don’t think so. It's more of a historical recreation of the terrible institution of slavery that this country was partly founded on. There are many scenes of brutality in this movie, some might say they are gratuitous because they linger on these depictions, making the viewer unable to escape the inhumanity of the action. Reading about families being torn apart, about whippings, about rape, about lynchings, about the total exploitation and degradation of a human being is not as impactful as witnessing it brilliantly portrayed on the movie screen. These scenes of brutality are inescapable because they are an inescapable part of our history.
What I didn’t expect out of this movie was a compelling and interesting depiction of the female orgasm. In one of the first scenes in the movie, the film’s main character Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is laying on the floor of a crowded slave quarters. He is trying to sleep after a long day of work. He turns over to see a woman staring at him intensely. This woman has a look of wild desire in her eyes. They begin to kiss (I could be wrong about this but I think they did do some kissing). They then stop kissing and the woman takes Solomon's hand and places it down, off screen, apparently on her genitals. They stare at each other as she works his hand around off screen. After maybe 30 seconds she has an orgasm. While it can’t be definitively confirmed, it did seem like she was moving his hand in a circular motion, as if she were stimulating the clitoris. I did not get the impression that he was entering her with his fingers, especially since it didn’t seem like she removed any clothes. The physical action that led up to this orgasm was clearly something that could realistically lead to orgasm. After the orgasm she turns over and starts sobbing.
I was really pleased by this depiction. When she gave him the look, Solomon didn’t jump on top of her and ravish her. Through this whole scene Solomon remains unmoved by her desires, he finds no joy in the action but participates out of a sense of duty to another slave’s necessary human urges. You could say that maybe the hand job was all Solomon could manage, being that he missed his wife and was tired from a long day at work, but I don’t think so. I think the filmmakers are looking at this woman and her desire as an undeniable part of her being. She has no freedom and this orgasm is one of the only joys she can have in life. She does turn over and begin to sob right afterwards and I think this is equally interesting because there are many ways to interpret this. Is she sobbing because Solomon can’t give her any more than that? If intercourse is commonly seen as the highest form of sex then maybe it's supposed to show that all Solomon did was get her hot and bothered and then slam on the brakes. That could have been the intention but it doesn’t seem fitting.
I think there are many reasons she cries afterward. The slave society was very religious, a fact they effectively established in the movie. This slave (we never learn her name) might have felt incredibly guilty about having an orgasm or even wanting to have an orgasm because of this religious world that she lived in. However the impression I got from this scene is that she is a person who has needs and that this little moment of pleasure might be the only moment in the whole day that she has for herself. She sobs because she desires the touch of a man who cannot love her and only participates because he knows she needs this release. She sobs because the moment is so fleeting and so over once its done. I give the filmmakers much credit for showing this woman’s humanity through her orgasm. It is depicted accurately and as a real thing that is necessary for her life.
There was also a much more difficult scene in this movie that involved rape, and clearly this wasn't an orgasmic or pleasurable sexual experience for the female, so there is no SSL review of it to be made. I will only say that this rough penetration is properly seen as a type of torture as bad as being whipped nearly to death.The absolute horror that this woman had to live through in this movie is unthinkable, and the reality of her experience lingered with me after watching this movie. This movie is difficult to watch, but you should watch it.