ESSENTIAL viewing for contemporary peace: 12 Years A Slave

There’s a good reason this film won Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 86th Academy Awards, as well as the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Lupita Nyong’o, and a Best Actor nomination for Chiwetel Ejiofor:

 

12 Years A Slave is a devastating portrayal of the story of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), an adaptation of his 1853 memoir ‘Twelve Years a Slave’.  Northup was a New York State-born free African American man, an accomplished violinist and farmer, a husband and father, who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery.

Other cast members include Adepero Oduye, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Liza J. Bennett, Brad Pitt, and Paul Dano. This motion picture was directed by the brilliant Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) from an adapted screenplay written with John Ridley, and shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt – who worked with McQueen on Hunger and Shame. It was produced by Plan B, Brad Pitt’s production company.

*****

I cannot quite put into words the power of this movie. The story will stay with me forever. So I will just say this: 12 Years A Slave is not merely an historical picture. It is much more than a biographical drama, more than a faithful adaptation of an autobiographical novel. And it is much, much more than an unflinching look at one of the ugliest manifestations of human evil in known history.

Yes, this film is all of those things, and for this I feel grateful to all who made it a reality. But let us not make the mistake of resting in the anaesthetising assumption that that warped consciousness – such that would lead a human to think it not only okay, but justifiable, to torture, own, or exploit another being – is essentially dead in the developed world. It is not.

I see this film as having contemporary parallels. For 12 Years A Slave highlights one of the most disturbing and insidious aspects of the human mind – the ability to desensitise ourselves from the suffering of others, in favour of our own comfort, pleasure, wealth, aesthetic preferences.

Perhaps unintentionally, the film is rich in metaphors for the justifications we in the modern, supposedly “enlightened” and civilised world make for purchasing products, supporting governments, hoarding wealth or simply turning away from the suffering of others, in favour of base and corrupt self-interest.

One such example: A slave owners wife, Mrs Ford, who is disturbed by the anguished wailing of a Mother (who happens to be a slave, Eliza) for her children, a young boy and little girl, taken from her and sold to other slave owners. “I cannot have that kind of depression about”, she whispers. The grieving Mother is removed, permanently.

Out of sight, out of mind… the oppressor’s comfort is conserved. The victim’s pain and vocal suffering was disturbing the comfortable, civilised peace. The victim’s pain – not the evil, vile acts that caused her pain – was seen as the problem.  (Mrs Ford had earlier, for a brief moment, entertained sympathy for Eliza’s plight, before telling Eliza it would be okay, as she would soon forget her children).

So then. What is evil?

Evil is not just abject cruelty and extreme violence. It has been said that evil thrives when good men do nothing. Evil also thrives when those perpetrating and supporting evil indirectly, fail to see – or wilfully refuse to see – how their actions (or inactions) are part of that evil.

When we allow our governments to torture, mistreat, imprison. When we punish people for fighting for their freedom. When we simply turn away from the suffering of others. We are Mrs Ford. We are the person who claims to be compassionate, to be good, whilst simultaneously supporting systems literally sanctioning the harm of others.

When you see this film – and you must – think about the hidden cruelty and inhumanity built into our global economic system today. Think about how we tell people fighting to merely be free that they should be less “angry”, and consider them less worthy of sympathy when they have the audacity to show the desperate emotions that come with the struggle to survive.

Think about how easily and happily we remain ignorant of the suffering that may have gone into almost everything we consume. Slavery is not dead, and nor is the moral blindness that enabled it. It is incumbent upon everyone who truly believes in freedom – and I hope that you do, as I do – to open our eyes.

.

“The last word: everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live. This is the most important legacy of Solomon Northup. I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery. And the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today.” – Steve McQueen, Director, 12 Years A Slave.

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