Culture

12 Years a Slave : The Black Experience Today

Article published on Jan. 19, 2014
Article published on Jan. 19, 2014

12 Years a Slave is a film adaptation of the memoires of Solomon Northup, a freeman who was kidknapped and shipped to Indiana to work as a slave on a plantation in 1841. But what does this historical film teach us about our own day and age?

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.

Psychological turmoil

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.