Thursday 30 January 2014

12 Years A Slave - A story for everyone

I went to see the film 12 Years A Slave yesterday at the cinema.

I rarely go to the cinema and I know I should go more often, but I felt this was a film I really needed to see now rather than wait.

I wasn't disappointed, it's an uncompromising account of the slave trade and the brutality of how human beings can treat one another.

The film tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man and violinist who lived in upstate New York. In 1841 he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South.

11 years, 8 months, and 26 days later he was finally freed. 5 months after his release, he published his book telling his story.

As someone of Afro Caribbean descent the story of slavery is nothing new to me, it's part of who I am. What makes 12 Years A Slave so special is that we rarely see Hollywood films tackle the story of slavery.

Now we have one, directed by a black British director, Steve McQueen with a story told from the perspective of a black protagonist in Solomon Northup.

I've read a few interviews with McQueen where he highlights the lack of films made about slavery compared with the numerous films about the Holocaust.

The Holocaust for all its horrors lasted for 6 years, slavery as an institution lasted 400 years.

Much of the wealth made by Britain, the United States and other Western European powers was built on the back of the slave trade. Slavery isn't just a story for black people whose ancestors were brought to the Americas as slaves. The slave trade is a story for everyone.

I realised this a few years ago, when I read a book called The Sugar Barons.

I wanted to find a book that told my own history of the Caribbean and the slave trade and this book was perfect.

I love history, I have a degree in the subject, but like many black people who have grown up in England I realised it was a story I would need to find out myself.

What was ironic is that I didn't just learn about my own personal history. I learned just as much about Britain and how Britain built its wealth, its naval power and empire through its dominance of the sugar trade in the Caribbean.

This is why the story of slavery is so important for everyone regardless of what colour they are. Slavery explains how the societies we live in today were partly built on the slave trade.

When questioned by the Sunday Times on why film studios have been slow to focus more on slavery. Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays Northup said:

"People have a fear of questioning societies to which they owe their whole system of reality"

He's right. I thought this was a brilliant point. What would Britain and the United States look like today without slavery? We'd all be living in a very different place.

Slavery is an uncomfortable subject for many people to deal with but that doesn't mean we shouldn't tackle it head on.

12 Years A Slave does this and this is why it's such an important film.

Friday 24 January 2014

Channel 4's Benefits Street - What is it trying to say?

Is there a more controversial tv show on at the moment than Channel 4's Benefits Street?

Since the first episode was shown two weeks ago there's been countless media coverage looking at the benefits culture in the UK and the portrayal of poverty by the media.

If you haven't seen the show, the documentary follows the lives of a number of residents living on James Turner Street, in the Winson Green area of Birmingham. Apparently 95% of the residents of James Turner Street rely on state benefits to survive.

The series has a special interest to me being a born and bred Brummie, although I grew up on the other side of the city from where the show is set.

Having a show like Benefits Street is a good thing. It's important to look at and highlight some of the issues faced by those living on low income or surviving almost exclusively on state benefits - the key though is how you tell these stories.

There's a narrative that exists, rightly or wrongly that says most people who claim benefits or who are long term unemployed do so because they have no interest in work, they expect the state to look after them, and they don't deserve any sympathy as they're lazy and feckless.

Programmes like Benefits Street form part of this narrative and are popular, partly because they allow us to look at the poverty of other people's lives and be glad it's not us.

We can also shake our heads, sneer at and generally feel a sense of superiority over those people who are seen as the lowest of the low.

There's even a term for it. It's called 'poverty porn'. It's not a new phenomenon look at the success of the Jeremy Kyle show, which is the king of 'poverty porn' shows.

The first episode of Benefits Street seemed to fit into this description, which probably explains why on social media sites like Twitter there was so much hatred and abuse written about some of the residents featured.

After the first episode, I read in the Birmingham Mail that some residents complained about how they were portrayed. They claimed they were misled by the programme makers who said the show would focus on the community spirit of the street rather than a culture of benefits.

As with all reality tv shows, the programme makers have chosen to feature the most interesting, engaging and outrageous characters available on the street. The people who are going to make the most interesting television.

After the first episode, I wondered whether the aim of the show was to highlight the lives and struggles of others or to entertain the prejudices and preconceptions of some of the viewers?

The programme makers have been working with the residents for over a year and in that time you're only going to get a snapshot of people's lives in four hours of television.

There are 99 houses on the street, different people, from different backgrounds. Many of them do have jobs but they're not necessarily people who have interesting stories to tell.

The first episode had more sensationalist elements to it; such as shoplifter Danny Smith showing viewers how to steal clothes without getting caught, but I think episodes 2 and 3 have had a different tone and feel to them.

In the second show, they featured a Romanian family who were evicted from a house on the street because they couldn't keep up with their rent and bills. There was also a group of Romanian men living in one house who had come to Britain looking for work.

I found this interesting as I don't personally know any Romanians. We hear stories about how thousands of them are coming to the UK to claim benefits, but the lives being shown seemed to suggest that coming to the UK was not the dream they were hoping for.

This week's episode featured the young couple Mark Thomas and Becky Howe both 23, out of work and struggling to bring up their 2 young children.

It showed the difficulties Mark had in trying to find a full time job, something made more difficult when you have little or no qualifications and practically no experience of ever working.

Programmes like Benefits Street raise loads of interesting talking points and issues to debate; but there's a huge amount of responsibility on the producers in terms of how they want to look at and explore these issues.

There is a growing attitude in this country that wants to see and think the worst of those struggling at the bottom of our society.

Programme makers have to be aware of this when they make documentaries like Benefits Street.

There's a delicate balancing act in terms of accurately reporting and documenting people's lives and aspects of our society, but without exploiting people by feeding into the prejudices some people may have about the poor.

Monday 13 January 2014

Pharrell Williams - Happy (Official Music Video)

It's perhaps a sign of how old I'm getting that I only discovered recently that Pharrell's Happy has been No 1 in the charts for the last few weeks.

Where have you been you may ask. Well now that I've heard it I love it!

It sounds like the sort of tune that should be huge during the summer, but in the dark days of early January, I want to hear a tune that puts a smile on my face and this is it.

Thursday 2 January 2014

Happy New Year! Hello 2014

Happy New Year

If you're new to my blog thanks for checking me out. if you're a return visitor, thanks for the love. I hope you'll be sticking with me in 2014.

I'm now entering the 5th year of my career as a blogger. I admit I don't post as often as I used to, it's a case of life getting in the way.

My working life as been far more challenging and demanding in the last year and finding the time and energy to write in the evenings and weekends has been challenging.

In saying that - I'm still a writer and writing is part of who I am so I'll always find time to write a couple of posts each month.

Blogging is a big commitment and my advice to anyone thinking of starting a blog would be to find a subject you're passionate about. Something you what to share with others. This will give you the motivation to write.

Stay committed and don't get disheartened if you're not getting 10,000 hits a week after a month of blogging!

It takes time and effort to build an audience but with good content and using social media to spread the word, people will find you.

So what can we look forward to in 2014? Here's a few thoughts:


Can you believe the General election will be next year? We're moving into the end of the parliamentary cycle, with all parties conscious that what they say and do may impact on the election result.

Will the economy keep improving and will that be enough for the Tories to convince people that they deserve another term. Can the Lib Dems maintain their own levels of support. Or can Ed Milliband finally win over those voters who doubt he is a Prime Minister in waiting?

I have no idea who's likely to win the next election I'm not sure by the end of the year we'll be any closer to knowing.

The end of the UK?

Scottish Referendum this year. I think it will be a close result but I just can't see Scotland voting for full independence.

The United States

Obamacare comes into effect in the US as of yesterday and will extend medical for what's hoped is up to 7 million more people.

This could the defining policy of Obama's presidency. Watching events from my British/European standpoint, Obamacare seems an inherently good idea and I'm baffled by the hostility this legislation generates amongst Republicans an other right wingers.

I hope it's a success if not, the US mid term elections could be pretty brutal for Obama and the Democrats.


Will this conflict ever come to an end?

When the Arab Spring finally spread to Syria, I don't think many people held out much hope that the Assad regime would cling to power for very long.

But here we are 3 years later, with the civil war still going on and no signs of any side taking the upper hand. It's unlikely that the Government will be defeated, so it looks like at some point some sort of peace negotiations will have to take place around the table.

Hopefully that will come sooner rather than later.


A huge year for sport. We've got the Winter Olympics next month in Sochi. I read the other day that this is the most expensive Olympics in history.

President Putin has invested hugely in this project and similar to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it's seems more about Russia reminding the world what a major world power it is.

The sporting event I'm most looking forward to has to be the World Cup in Brazil. Perhaps because it's in Brazil it feels bit more exotic than previous World Cups. I think this summer's tournament could be special.

I'm predicting an all South American Final, the first one since 1950. Brazil v Argentina, I think Argentina could pull off a huge upset.