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.

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