Some stories are too important to go untold.
Tonight is the 86th presentation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards, more commonly known as The Oscars.
12 Years a Slave (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/12_Years_a_Slave_(film)) has been nominated for 9 Oscars. I watched the film with a friend. The film upset us both – not just for its gruesome content and what it said – but also for what it didn’t say. So we have tried to describe what we feel about the film and about what was left unsaid. We have written individually and Meredith’s post is first, mine follows.
The biggest mistake one could make when watching 12 Years a Slave is to assume it is set in the past.
The overwhelming sense I got as the end credits rolled in 12 Years a Slave was relief, relief that it was over. Over. Not slavery, but the film itself.
Steve McQueen’s latest release from the director’s chair is a attack on audiences sense of squeamishness in the graphic nature of some of the scenes depicted, but crucially also on their humanity over the brutality on display.
Set in 1841 it tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black American, kidnapped and sold into slavery, and how over the course of 12 years, though a constant physical and mental abuse at the hands of his captors, gradually abandons all hope of freedom and whose spirit is finally broken.
The film conjured in me intense feelings of anger, sadness and shame. A phrase I used to describe my feelings afterwards is that “it made me a shamed to be human” – to be even classed in the same category of being as the ‘slavers’ in the film.
However it would be too easy to classify the captors and brutes in this film as ‘inhuman’, ‘not us’, ‘other’; and in so doing side-step the guilt and responsibility that should come with this association. Sadly this behaviour, hatred, and tendency to do evil is all too common in the makeup of the human condition.
And the uncomfortable truth is that a lot of the scenes and crimes displayed in 12 Years a Slave still occur in the world today. Slavery has not been defeated.
Although the film opens in ‘1841’, the biggest mistake one could make when watching 12 Years a Slave is to assume it is set in the past.
Modern day slavery, aka Human Trafficking, is still alive in the world today. In your country. In your city. And what is compelling were the direct comparisons with elements of the modern day slave trade. Not similes or allusions but one-to-one correlations that show that slavery is continuing today in just the same manner as it did for Solomon and hundreds of thousands of other’s in the 19th century.
I worked previously for Avon and Somerset Police, as an intelligence analyst, were I focused on Human Trafficking research. I had direct insight into the state of modern day slavery in Britain today. I have read the case files, read the names of the victims, seen their pictures. It scared me. It has haunted me. It does mean however that I can say with confidence that many of the methods used by the slavers in 12 Years a Slave are just as those used by traffickers and human Labour exploiters today. And the harm is just as great.
In the film Solomon is hoodwinked into traveling with a band of musicians who promise him fame and good wages; much as today’s hopeful victims are promised stable, legal, work abroad. He is ‘made’ drunk, drugged and kidnapped by his new friends - just as Bradford street children are groomed by abusers. His ‘free-papers’ are taken from him; just as today’s trafficked sex workers have their passports withheld. Transported in cramped wagons or boats; or shipping containers and mini busses, is there really any difference? He is taught to fear all authority, and that the law is against him, removing the will to seek help; just as todays slaves are scared of police and charities’ efforts to help them. And whilst opportunities for physical escape are presented to Solomon every day, he dare not take them for fear of capture, beating, torture, or worse; just like the children in cannabis factory at the end of your road.
It would take only a very small step in imagination, to take the plot of 12 Years a Slave and re-set it in any town or city in the UK in 2014. This film should rightly open many eyes to the horrors of slavery. But do not draw any comfort from thinking it is a documentary into the bad-old-days, and that we live in freer times. Slavery is still with us, we have not defeated it, so we must.
Meredith is a Conservative political researcher and activist living in London, who previously worked as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst, for Avon and Somerset Constabulary.
12 Years a Slave should NOT win best film at the Oscars.
12 Years a Slave is memorable for its brutality, flawed in its message, held together by the phenomenal acting of one man and ignores the plight of present day slaves.
Worst of all – it is deceptive in its (hopefully) unintended message that slavery is a detail of history.
Like Satan’s greatest deceit that he doesn’t exist – anything that doesn’t make people aware that according to the International Labour Organization (ILO, 2012) 20.9 million people are victims of forced labour globally, of which 1.5 million are to be found in the developed economies and European Union only.
There are more people in slavery today than in the entire 350 year history of the transatlantic slave trade.
12 Years a Slave is raw and apparently “experiential”, according to the Director Steve McQueen in an interview on Radio 4 last week, rather than linear or chronological. It jumps about in time which is confusing and disorientating although to be fair I am one of those weird people who prefers to watch a film “cold” rather than reading its online synopsis first.
12 Years a Slave is an ugly film which is unpleasant to watch but you wouldn’t expect anything less from a film on this topic. It was not a nice evening out. I watched it with, and at the instigation of, a friend who is also interested in the fight against Human trafficking and who has worked with the police on Human Trafficking.
If we hadn’t been interested in the theme we wouldn’t have gone. If it hadn’t been for my interest in the topic, I am not sure I would have stayed to watch the whole thing. It’s the sort of film you would feel guilty for leaving before it ended. Watching it was like a penance. Neither of us would watch it again.
- Entertainment value was 0/10.
- Shock value was 15/10 – even for people acquainted with the subject.
- Educational value – ok if you see this as an historical episode for the history class – but no actual data or message apart from the story of this one man was given.
- Educational value – 0/10 if you are trying to transfer the knowledge that there are 1.5 million individual people who are victims of slavery TODAY – right now, on this day in March 2014 – in the UK and Europe. And another 20 million world wide.
I guess I would be far more sympathetic to the film if the Director had misquoted Stalin “The slavery of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic – and millions are enslaved in the world today!”
But the film didn’t.
The parallels between what happened to Solomon Northup and what happens to other ‘free’ people bought and sold in 2014 now are huge.
- The tricking and deceiving of victims by false promises, “boyfriends”, the use of alcohol, drugs, threats and beatings.
- The quiet complicity of other slaves, staff and spouses and families of masters.
- The way new slaves cling to the word “live”, then compromise with “survive”.
- The inertia and inability of slaves to help each other and to escape and the need for understanding and support from the authorities.
- The fact that having papers endows humanity, nationality, “privilege”. In Africa, not having your “situpa” was a bad place to be for black people – another bad episode in history. However, right now in the UK, human slaves are deprived of their passports and forced to work for little or no money and kept as slaves.
- The wagon that transported the slaves in the film is not substantially different to the containers that slaves are often transported in today – just more visible.
- The fear of authority and the fear to report and the fear to appeal for help are all mirrored in the slaves of 2014.
- The mental imprisonment of the soul and the will of the slave. In the film this was shown by him being allowed to go shopping while so cowed that he didn’t dare to ask for help from a shop keeper. UK police fighting Human Trafficking/Modern Day Slavery tell of how this slavery without physical restraint – this ultimate submission, cowed by fear, exists today.
- Slaves harming other slaves – this is as true today as it was in the past with some slave “managers” being former slaves and some brothels being run by former prostitutes.
- The scary proximity of the slave huts to the main residence in the film. This nearness is also a fact of today. We see (but do not see) these faces of people who belong to other people on the tube. Some of these faces work in fancy houses in London. Some of these faces work in kitchens of restaurants and takeaways just down the road from you and I. Within a mile of most people in metropolitan and suburban Britain there are likely to be victims of trafficking sleeping, surviving and being forced to work in expensive kitchens, prepare food in smily-fronted restaurants, or lie naked on their backs waiting for the next punter to hands over a few crumpled £20 notes. Human meat. Bought, owned, sold and resold – no receipt given. Child trafficking, sexual slavery, trafficking for forced labour and domestic servitude are alive and well. In the United Kingdom. In 2014.
That these facts are still true is a disgrace. It is current and real and must be said again and again.
All of these things could and should have been said in this film. Even with just a short fact sheet at the end. And a call to action. None of them were. That is a tragedy and a missed opportunity. Which is why I do not think this film should get Best Film. Although we are both properly pleased that this British American film has been nominated 9 times.
But Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance should win him Best Actor. I repeat. Nothing should take away from the phenomenal performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor. He brilliantly portrays the anguish felt at the hands of his oppressors and how hope can literally abandon the human spirit with crushing realism. That performance should definitely win him Best Actor.