There is a point in the recent box office sensation, 12 Years A Slave when Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup fixes his eyes upon the camera – in this moment the film breaks down the fourth wall, ignores the golden rule of cinema and lets us, the audience, know that the burden of memory lies with us.
First and foremost, if you have not yet seen 12 Years A Slave, then do; it is a brilliant film that provides a remarkable insight into the life of a man that earned the right to be remembered – under McQueen’s direction, the film has been made into a biographical masterpiece that embraces the grotesque and gritty whilst also allowing room for moments of tenderness and beauty. But what I would argue as well is that in 12 Years A Slave, McQueen adds to an already burgeoning selection of films, books and songs that serve only to accentuate, proliferate and stretch further modern society’s relationship with racial harmony.
The Slave Trade was, undoubtedly and insurmountably, terrible – I will not for a second devalue, or indeed understate, the heinous nature of the acts committed during its course. What happened should not have happened – it is as simple as that. Indeed, the fact that slavery still occurs to this day is the very fact that I want to address in this article.
…a biographical masterpiece that embraces the grotesque and gritty…
My main issue with 12 Years A Slave, though, is that in it, McQueen has focused, whether directly or not, on a script that makes all white people seem inherently bad. We all feel pain as Solomon loses his freedom, despair as he is stripped of his dignity – but most importantly you feel hate, hate for Benedict Cumberbatch who is too cowardly to help, hate for Michael Fassbender as he drives a young woman to desperation, and hate for the white man who enslaved the black population. The fact that today people across the world, both black and white, are taken into and remain in slavery never crosses your mind. The fact that very often it was chiefs in Africa that sold members of their own race and had them shipped across the Atlantic is glossed over. The fact that slavery is not constrained simply to race does not factor into McQueen’s imagining of Solomon’s life.
I have never been involved in the slave trade. I have never known anyone that has been. As far as I know no member of my family, no matter how far back, has been. But there is something in this kind of film – when feeble looking white characters sing racist songs and throw around derogatory terms – that makes me feel like I should apologise for the things that happened. The fact that I find myself as unrelated to the slave masters as any black member of society seems unimportant when there is propaganda like McQueen’s up on the screen.
…makes me feel like I should apologise for the things that happened…
Maybe you don’t see what I mean? No doubt, as a black viewer of the film, you will have felt empathy, sympathy for Solomon, you would have felt a relationship with his suffering – by extension would you not also feel a hate for his oppressors? As I have already said, there is my problem. The film, as is inherent to its subject, separates us by race and assigns us roles that neither party wants.
It is estimated that today there are an estimated 29 million people in slavery across the globe – the nature of the enslavement is not dictated by race or creed, but by opportunity; modern slave traders do not work based on the appearance of their victims, they work based on the expenses, income and profits that the person in question is likely to bring in. It was the same during the slave trade – that one of the first Americans to actually own a slave was a black man named Anthony Johnson is not widely known – he did not buy slaves because they were black, he bought them because in their purchase there was the means for personal financial gain.
…there are an estimated 29 million people in slavery…
So perhaps here we reach my main point – 12 Years A Slave enforces certain stereotypes that have become attached to the modern understanding of the slave trade, and through this the idea of slavery based on racism is propagated. Again I will say, it is not my intention to devalue, undermine or negate the suffering that was caused through the slave trade – rather it is my intention to address it in a manner that considers the way that society looks at this part of history. At school I remember being taught about it, and even then I remember feeling a great burden of guilt – a twinge in my stomach that made me think that I had some sort of duty to repair the damage done by those men and women all of those years ago, all because the British Empire is recognised as the primary cog in the slave trade. But I am not a part of that Empire, and that Empire was not a wholly white population.
Between the 14 and 1800s an approximate 12 million slaves were taken into slavery. Very often sold by chiefs or members of their own race, the slaves were taken to forts held by European companies and from there were transported across the Atlantic; upon arrival these men, women and children were sold on to whoever had the money to purchase them, both white and black. That the slave trade was a travesty is in no doubt – that it relied upon situation is without question – but the racism that seems inherent to it is surely questionable? If slave traders could buy white Europeans cheaper than black Africans then wouldn’t they? If they could take British people and sell them to Africans then wouldn’t they? And who is to say that if certain situations had of been different we would not now be living in a world wherein the white rather than black population were found in films like 12 Years A Slave?
…men, women and children were sold on to whoever had the money to purchase them…
We cannot ignore the fact that during the 300 to 400 years of the Atlantic slave trade the majority of those sold were black, but what I believe we must also remember is that the events that took place were led by human and not white greed – gain at the expense of others is common to all people and perhaps it is worth remembering that, whilst they propagate and focus singularly on the mistreatment of black populations by white populations, films like 12 Years A Slave do very little to improve relationships between people of different races. In fact I would argue that in almost every case these films cut ties and burn bridges across gaps that might otherwise be nullified by a society that accepts that the burden of memory lies on every one of our shoulders – regardless of situation, race or culture.
‘In my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery.’ – Solomon Northup on his first owner, William Ford in his autobiography, 12 Years A Slave.