Existing Within Pain’s Gaze: Black Women and Suffering on Screen

Lupita Nyong'o in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Twentieth Century Fox

A bloody mist filled the screen as a whip lashed Patsey’s back. It’s 12 Years a Slave’s most gut-wrenching moment and I remember it vividly — you could hear a pin drop in the theatre. I’m not someone who can go to a theatre and get so enraptured in a film that everything else falls away. I’m a people-watcher to my core, always peeking around to see what else is going on. Who’s going to spill their M&M’s the minute they sit down? Who can’t find their pre-selected seats? Who’s going to realise they’re in the wrong theatre after the previews finally end? When the film rolls, I’ll take a glimpse at other filmgoers to see if I can key into their reactions at a movie’s most critical points. More often than not, it all goes by without much fanfare. Occasionally though, a sequence like Patsey’s levels the entire audience.

I saw 12 Years a Slave twice in theatres. The first time, I was with a friend. The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free Black man living in the north who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south in 1841. It’s a harrowing account of a stolen personhood, a life taken in a way most will never fathom. Yet, my primary memory of the film revolves around Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), an enslaved chocolate-skinned girl who regularly picks double her share of cotton while enduring her master’s sexual abuse under his wife’s envious gaze. The effervescence she dares to show despite the daily cruelties she endures still plays in my mind’s eye. When I sat next to my mother at a second viewing, the same eerie stillness blanketed the theatre. That time, though, I looked harder at my fellow patrons, searching their faces for the same conflict I’d been feeling at that moment. 12 Years a Slave is not Patsey’s story; as so often happens, she was a supporting character tasked with providing a source of comfort and support for a black man when society failed him. But the plight of Patsey was overwhelming, the brutality of her lashing demanded that the audience bear witness to her pain. The stark silence of the moment has haunted me in the years since. After leaving the theatre that evening, I asked myself, “is that the level of barbarism Black women must endure to be seen?” 

Patsey pops into my mind quite often. I wonder what became of her life; did she ever get to know some semblance of peace? Unfortunately, there are no confirmed accounts of what became of her after Northup was freed. She’s just another Black girl whose pain was swallowed in the waves of history.

Written history doubles a highlight reel for white men. From Christopher Columbus discovering a continent already inhabited by generations of families, to Ponce de Leon enslaving native Tainos in his effort to colonise their homeland, the textbooks that act as the foundation of our education only paint the rosiest views of our oppressors. We’re led to believe that without the pain they inflict on the people who serve as footnotes in their stories, society as we know it may not exist.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong'o in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Twentieth Century Fox

Take James Marion Sims for example. He’s widely considered the father of modern gynaecology and his resume backs up that claim; the 19th century physician developed many techniques and tools that are still industry standards today. He pioneered those medical breakthroughs by operating on enslaved Black women without anaesthesia, because he believed Black women did not feel pain in the same way white women did. Of the several who found themselves on Sims’ operating table multiple times, we only know the names of three: Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy. Historians and medical professionals alike have chalked up Sims’ experiments to conventions of the time, but it’s difficult to reconcile that a doctor with the foresight and innovation to conceive ideas that have impacted medicine well beyond his own existence couldn’t muster the courage or empathy to see his test subjects as women fully capable of pain.

It’s hard to pinpoint where the myth of the strong Black woman began. This magical being that can withstand both physical and emotional pain to extraordinary degrees doesn’t have a defined historical narrative but as society has progressed, the stigma has persisted. In 2019, the Centres for Disease Control reported that Black women were four to five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women typically because medical personnel failed to adequately recognise and diagnose contributing factors that can result in death for their Black patients. But what is it about standard iterations of pain that are not applicable to Black women? Women like Kira Dixon Johnson reported their pain and complications, but were ignored until it was too late. It may not be fair to attribute a deficiency of societal empathy towards black women entirely to media and film, but the absence of accurate, nuanced portrayals only supports a disingenuous and dangerous stereotype. 

In 2019’s Ma, Sue Ann Ellington (Octavia Spencer) sees her pain take the form of emotional trauma. The horror film places a middle-aged Sue Ann at its centre as she takes an unusual interest in a group of teenagers. She buys the minors alcohol, allows them a hideout in her basement, and tells them to refer to her as “Ma,” the only thing she seeks in return is their acceptance. These kids aren’t random, though; they’re the children of her former high school classmates. Sue Ann’s intentions are purely sinister and she’s targeted the youngsters in a revenge plot against their parents for a bullying incident that happened decades earlier. Her actions in the present revolve around this past humiliation which the movie only hints at for much of it’s ninety nine minute runtime. Instead, the plot expends much of its effort ruminating on the progression of Sue Ann’s deranged behaviour. As she takes her full form as the captivating sociopath turned jester for the viewers’ amusement, her backstory doesn’t get the full weight it deserves. The prank in question is revealed in a flashback: Ben, the object of a teenaged Sue Ann’s affections, convinces her to perform oral sex on him in a closet. Once the act is completed and she leaves the darkened room, she realises another boy has taken Ben’s place.

Octavia Spencer in Ma (2019)

What the film frames as a prank gone a little too far is in actuality a sexual assault that’s witnessed and mocked by dozens of Sue Ann’s predominantly white peers. While her trauma morphed into mental instability, there’s no attempt to recount the immediate aftermath of her assault or anything that followed in the thirty-odd years that lapsed between the assault and where the movie picks up. It’s clear that Sue Ann’s warped quest for revenge is rooted in her inability to get justice; after all, she is a victim. Yet her victimhood — along with her mental health — are never given serious consideration.

The racial imbalances at play throughout Ma are mostly muted. In an interview with Vulture’s Angelica Jade Bastién, producer Jason Blum (who is white) appeared clueless at the suggestion that there were parallels between the plot and the mammy archetype. “This is the first time I heard anyone mention it,” he claimed. “But clearly it’s not something we thought about […] I think it’s limiting and I really don’t believe in the notion that if you have African-Americans in a movie it has to be about race in some way. I think Ma is not race.” This ignorance rebranded as colour-blindness underscores the general nescience of white America regarding the hypersexuality and exploitation that Black girls and women face regularly. Ultimately, Ma serves as a reminder that invisible wounds are just as debilitating as those in clear view.

The mishandling of Black women isn’t confined to the white gaze. The Lena Waithe-penned, Melina Matsoukas-directed Queen & Slim was heralded as a film for Black people by Black people ahead of its own release in 2019. The movie was positioned to be a showcase of the type of representation that could reset the tables in Hollywood. Instead, the film reinforced the very clichés it was supposed to conquer.

From the moment we meet the titular Queen, she’s cold and untrusting. During her first date with Slim in the film’s opening scene, she’s downright dismissive of him — even positing that the modest restaurant he’s chosen for their rendezvous is all he can afford. A repressed, angry Black woman placing herself on a pedestal at the expense of a meek, hard-working Black man is a stale set-up seen in many films; the likes of Hav Plenty and Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls employed similar plot devices and the outcome is always telegraphed: the Black woman must be humbled in order to grow. In lieu of self-reflective character development, Queen is subjected to a series of physical transgressions, the first of which is a gunshot wound she sustains in the police confrontation that kicks the film into high gear. Outside of this initial scene, the gunshot is all but forgotten after she hastily dresses it in the back of a pickup truck.  

The 'Queen & Slim' Cast Watched Sandra Bland's Traffic ...

As the pair evolve into bonafide fugitives, Queen reluctantly cuts her hair to better disguise herself. She slips into a revealing dress to signal that she’s more willing to open up to Slim. Later in the film, they have to jump out of a second-story window to evade an enclosing SWAT team. Slim is hesitant, but Queen does her best to coach him through it. Bend your knees when you hit the ground and roll, she says. He can’t muster the courage so she goes first but when she hits the ground, something goes wrong. The impact is so violent that it pops her shoulder out of socket. Finally, propelled by her cries of agony, Slim jumps and perfectly executes the landing as she instructed him. 

Although Slim is just as much a fugitive as she is, he’s no worse for the wear; he’s free of bullet wounds or dislocated joints. It all comes to a head in the couple’s final scene: as the cops close in and the end is apparent, she turns to Slim. “Can I be your legacy?” she asks. Her question echoes an earlier conversation they’d had, where he laments that his life will never amount to anything outside of the legacy of his bloodline. He turns to her, more committed and convincing than he’d ever been, “you already are.” The words barely escape his lips as a bullet pierces her heart. She’s dead before she hits the ground, not even granted the dignity of being able to receive his reciprocation of love.

Queen’s demise echoes that of her predecessors; Sue Ann is engulfed in flames next to her once tormentor, Patsey collapses to the ground in a heap as Northup rides off towards freedom. These characters succumb to the pain that we demand of them but as the credits roll and their stories end, we still lack the honesty needed to confront what it means to suffer as a black woman. We’re a stream away from Wanda Sykes joking that her doctor only saw fit to prescribe ibuprofen following her double mastectomy. A scroll through social media shows many mocking Megan Thee Stallion’s shooting instead of addressing it as the act of domestic violence it was. No matter the medium, the pain Black women feel is still relegated to plot points and punchlines, and spectators remain eager to consume them.

by Robin Jennings

Robin Jennings is a writer based in Northern New Jersey. When she’s not rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer or listening to true crime podcasts, she writes about TV, film, music, and pop culture. Her work has appeared in Bright Wall/Dark Room, gal-dem and The Rumpus.  Find her on Twitter at @are_jay73.

1 reply »

  1. This is such an engrossing, detailed essay and I have to say you are accurate on all points as discerning viewers notice these peddling of stereotypes. The woman of colour often dies in an ensemble cast, as I’ve noticed. So yes, there are imbalances despite the huge strides.

    Liked by 1 person

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