12 Years a Slave is the most powerful film about slavery in existence. It should serve as a sharp wake up call for those who don't know much about American slavery, but also to those who deny the truth about the violence of an inherently cruel and abhorrent system. It should be shown to those who work in plantations, the men and women I met on my trip to the Deep South, who ignored the sufferings of the enslaved and refused to speak about it. It should shame and embarrass those historic sites who refuse to confront history. In short, it should be compulsory viewing for all.
12 Years a Slave focuses on the true story of Soloman Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped from the North and sold into slavery. Soloman was passed from plantation to plantation in Louisiana, and after twelve years he was finally reunited with his family in New York. In 1853, he wrote a narrative of his experiences and lectured on the horrors of slavery, as well as aiding fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad. Northup tried to bring his kidnappers to justice, but as a black man, he could not testify against a white man in court. His jailers walked free. Strangely, the circumstances of Soloman's death are unknown.
I've been waiting to see this film for a long time, and it was worth the wait. Finally, this film, more than any other, portrays slavery for how it was - in all its horrific barbarity. It encapsulates so many themes - how African Americans were seen and treated; the patriarchal system present on the plantations and the hypocrisy of America as a free nation. One scene depicts a slave's separation from her children, and the response to this from Benedict Cumberbatch's wife sums up this hypocrisy: "no matter, you will soon forget your children." The film powerfully illustrates that to men and women of the plantations, slaves were property.
It's pretty accurate, and at times the violence is horrifying. In one scene, Soloman is strung up by the neck with his feet barely touching the ground and left there for hours, suspended, while plantation life goes on around him. In another scene, Michael Fassbender's cruel master Edwin Epps forces Soloman to beat his favourite slave Patsey, and the audience is left to watch her face contorted in pain while her back is literally torn to shreds. Despite this, the film is still a 15. I was surprised by this, and after all the hype I was expecting there to be more violence. I still stand by the belief that it is the best film about slavery, but all things considered, director Steve McQueen could have shown much more violence.
The film teaches us a lot about American slavery, but British audiences should not see this as a purely American phenomenon. Britain played an essential role in the slave trade and we had our own plantations in the Caribbean and parts of the American South. We profited from slave-grown goods like sugar and working men in Manchester and other parts of the North used slave-grown cotton in factories. Slave ships were outfitted in Liverpool and cities like Bristol, Hull, London and Glasgow were partly built on the profits of slavery. This film should serve as a reminder that this history is very much part of our own 'Island story', one that politicians refuse to accept - instead of focusing on this role, Prime Minister David Cameron is quick to accept our part in abolition. Africans and Black Britons deserve their story told, right up to the Civil Rights Movement in Britain.
So, go and see this film and remember Soloman's story. But, perhaps more importantly, remember this: Soloman was able to leave slavery behind him, but thousands were not so lucky. The scene that will stick with me is Soloman riding away to freedom in a cart, with Patsey and other unknown slaves, left behind.
Have a read through this New York Times article focusing on Chiwetel Ejiofor's amazing performance. As Steve McQueen points out, Ejiofor acts with his eyes, and his portrayal of Solomon is quiet, understated, and altogether perfect.