In response to a question posed at a recent Q+A about whether the black experience today in the UK is bad, Steve McQueen replied, ‘What is bad? I know my experience…’ My own response is that gauging the black experience by the disproportionate number of blacks institutionalised under the mental health act in the UK is one way. 12 Years A Slave portrays the life of Solomon Northup, an educated black man trying to fit into a white supremacist system without cracking up. Black people living in the UK today are still navigating their identities and are still having to deal with state institutions easily categorising them as 'mad' or 'bad' without any consideration for the cultural and mental challenges presented by their backgrounds.
From the opening sequences of 12 Years A Slave we come to understand the mental strain on a black person trying to cope with severe forms of inequality after a traumatic experience. There is an abstract scene where a light-skinned black woman is being masturbated by a stiff Solomon Northup, the lead character, played by Chiwetel Ejifor. His mental state is far removed from his physical presence and you gather from his flashbacks about his wife that he is in psychological turmoil having recently been separated from his family.
That sequence creeps off screen and you are left anticipating. Then it comes. An overwhelming moment in the first third is when you, the viewer digest what it’s like for Northup to be taken back to his family’s enslaved position - his devastation at finding himself in an unknown and disastrous place with chained uneducated ‘plebs’. Some of the black middle classes living in the UK today are still grappling with this type of mental landscape. Starting over again. The negative treatment based on skin colour that started during slavery is still around. Right now we’re navigating racist labour practices. The statistics of those who have lost their jobs since the crash shows an uneven number of blacks fell from the middle rung (below the glass ceiling) and ended up without work. In 2012, more than half of young black men were unemployed which is twice the national average.
Still in the first third, Northup is now a slave on route to eager plantation owners in New Orleans. His cell mate, Clemens, played by Chris Chalk, is reclaimed by his master. While Northup shouts out to him crying for help, he acts deaf and jumps off the ship to liberty, 'never to look back'. This sequence wrenched my heart out and reduced me to tears. For a moment I was transported from 19th century America into the stark reality of what blacks today are still suffering – a lack of trust for each other and self-hatred due to corrupt perceptions and our global position at the bucket rung of the ladder. All this in spite of simultaneous growth of the working classes in parts of Africa, the Caribbean, USA and here in the UK.
So what am I doing back here? A point of identification for mixed audiences, director and characters is where we unknowingly agree to embark on a back-to-the-future truth and reconciliation mission.
Dark and deeply twisted interactions
The film unravels the psychological and physical distress that lies just behind the grand façade of self- indulgent pleasure at the cost of human suffering, which was characteristic of that period. The story of this man who was born free and educated while others knew only of slave labouring underscores the complexity of the slavery experience. The story represents the dark and deeply twisted personal interactions between slavers and slaves (the haves and have-nots).
I initially drew parallels between these and present day bankers, manipulating human trafficking prices on the stock exchange. However 12 Years A Slave is not concerned with the economics of the matter. The portrait of Northup’s life focuses on the inhumane ‘revaluing’ of yesteryear’s African person who was shipped across the Atlantic in containers, considered nothing more than highly valued ‘worthless’ beasts fit for wonton abuse.
"a fox trot that creates a visceral conjunction"
The narrative reviews the pathway between blackness and the place one holds in society today. It considers how frustration at being ‘a nobody’ leads to generations barely surviving with deep-rooted emotional and psychological pains. One example is the storyline where dark skinned mother, Eliza, played by Adepero Oduye, separated from her mixed race child, is sold to a slaver on a different plantation. The mother never stops wailing throughout the film. She thought submitting to the desires of overseers would earn her the common decency of keeping her child.
McQueen dances wildly between the audio and the visual, a fox trot that creates a visceral conjunction between sanity and discord. At all times the onus is on you to work out Northup’s ability to cope mentally and his drive to liberate himself.
It’s hard to look back. It’s too painful. Now you see Patsey shouting and this time it’s Northup that never looks back as he gains his freedom after 12 years of slavery. We seem to understand why he doesn’t look back and why he won’t save Patsey. Perhaps it’s because we too know what it's like to be treated unfairly and have someone sectioned due to mental ill health. We fear the worst, which is emblematic of the film’s subtle balance between empathy and dislocation, between hope and hardship.