Wesley Morris connecting 12 Years a Slave and Miley Cyrus’s performance
by Mr. Sheehy
The film even permits you to see from 1841 all the way to the last couple months. What it costs to entertain is a central concern of this movie: Early on, we see how much Solomon enjoys performing, for appreciative, predominately white audiences. But over the course of the film he goes from accompanist to accomplice, from pride to disgust, providing musical accompaniment for atrocities, like the impromptu dances that Mr. and Mrs. Epps like so much. One night Epps blows into the slaves’ quarters and rouses them awake. He shepherds them to the big house and commands them to dance in their nightgowns. It’s such sad, uninspired dancing that you don’t know what pleasure either of the Eppses could take from it, beyond the perverse power to demand they dance at all. Mainly, Mrs. Epps sees the evening as an occasion to chuck a whiskey decanter at Patsey’s head.
I watched the joyless look on all those black faces and the amusement on the faces of their white owners, and I thought about last August 25. I thought of the handful of black burlesque dancers who jiggled and bounced in animal costumes for Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards. Cyrus couldn’t have known the uncomfortable history she had reached into, what it means for black people to perform this sexually, this anonymously for a white woman, but there she was traipsing, like Mrs. Epps, among her fine beasts, performing an otherwise good song whose title normally refers to a nonstop party but also encompasses a depressing legacy of ownership: “We Can’t Stop.”