“12 Years a Slave isn’t just a film about slavery in America. It is a film about unjust violence, about people controlling other people through fear and brutality. And that is not history.”
It has been one of those weeks. Every now and then, my thoughts spiral out of control and end up at some challenging destinations. This week, disillusionment with humanity was stopover number one. What better way to culminate a week of anxiety about the state of humanity than with a trip to the cinema to see 12 Years a Slave?
The film, set in 1841, follows Solomon Northup, a free black man living a relatively wealthy life in the state of New York. Married with two children, Solomon is a well-educated, talented violinist and loving family man. Then one day he falls into business with the wrong men, is illegally captured, put on a boat to New Orleans and sold into slavery. For twelve years he struggles to survive in brutal environments, controlled by violence and confined by fear.
To say this film is difficult to watch is an understatement.
I’ve just got back from the movies and I’m struggling to make sense of what I just saw. Intellectually, I understand. Although horrifying, I can see the circumstances in which slavery can exist. I can see how humanity got to that dark place. But I couldn’t watch that film with an objective sense of intellectualism. From start to finish the movie struck me right beneath the ribs. It is the most brutal, confronting, honest film I have ever seen – and it made me realise what a crock of shite so many movies are. How they gloss over the truth and carefully paint a picture of altered reality, of easily digestible nonsense. How they show us what we want to see, stories we are happy to accept.
No one wants to see an attempted lynching. No one wants to see rape. No one wants to see a naked woman whipped within an inch of her life.
But 12 Years a Slave doesn’t gloss over these harrowing scenes. It lingers on them. Sometimes I cover my eyes in films to avoid seeing gore or violence, but often it is in a superficial way – as in, I’d rather not see this but I’ll be fine if I do. With 12 Years a Slave it was different. I felt fear. I felt fear because, despite being set in 1841, the brutality of this film did not in any way feel historical. Unlike other films on a similar topic, I didn’t watch it with any sense of relief that ‘this no longer happens’.
Slavery itself may have been abolished in the United States, but the violence – the rape, the murder, the racial prejudice – has simply changed narratives. It still happens, every single day, somewhere in the world. As I type, there are people inflicting pain and suffering on others for their own personal gain. 12 Years a Slave isn’t just a film about slavery in America. It is a film about unjust violence, about people controlling other people through fear and brutality. And that is not history.
As I struggled to watch the scene in which Patsey, a young woman born into slavery without a family or any hope of escape, is raped, I found myself wishing we could categorise the violence associated with slavery to the past. It would be so much easier to file it away as ‘done, mistake learned from, no longer an issue’. But this film is a bleak reminder that we cannot afford to move on just yet. As I watched this scene, I felt fear – I felt fear that this could happen to me. Not in the same circumstance, no. But violence, that could happen to anyone. Rape? No woman is ever completely safe from the possibility.
Yet this is not a truth that is easy to accept. And I understand why. No one wants to admit how precarious life is, how everything could fall apart at any given moment. We all have to find a way to live, to do the best we can in an uncertain environment. Yet sometimes I fear our preference for a convenient ‘truth’ means we will never actually make progress. This question of ‘authenticity’ has been troubling me all week, and watching 12 Years a Slave only heightened my anxiety about the – sometimes dangerous – power of storytelling.
Edwin Epps, the slave master who raped Patsey, justified his actions by telling himself the same story over and over again: “A man is free to do as he pleases with his property.” Religion, too, played a big part in the slave master’s righteousness. Although this justification visibly went against his natural instincts – and probably forever ruined him as a person – his belief in his own superiority was so strong he could not even entertain ideas to the contrary. He let the story he wanted to believe win, and reality was buried deep under alcohol and anger.
I know this may seem like a tenuous link to make, but how many of us hide from reality on a daily basis? How many of us escape from truths we don’t want to accept, preferring to tell ourselves a more convenient story?
Earlier this week I felt disillusioned with just about everything, but mostly about money. It all started when I was preparing an SEO report for work. I had a lot of data in front of me and thought, hmm, I can probably manipulate this information to support my pre-established recommendations for the website in question. And then, it suddenly struck me how meaningless it seemed – taking a set of numbers and bending them to my will. What I really wanted to know was the truth – was the SEO strategy working, or wasn’t it?
But the more I thought about it, the more I realised – that is exactly what many companies do, all day every day. They put hours of time, thousands of dollars, into creating carefully constructed images that support their business goals. The ‘truth’ doesn’t always come into the question. When there is money to be made, you bend the truth to suit whatever will get you the highest return on profit.
And slavery, once upon a time, was a very lucrative investment.
This, I’m told, is business. But if big business – and money – underpins the world as we know it, then is authenticity a pipe dream? Will we ever escape the cycle of corruption and greed?
I walked out of 12 Years a Slave in tears, feeling numb with grief and shock. How can people be so cruel? What drives someone to that level of violence and brutality? What sort of situation leads someone to believe in something as awful as slavery?
When I said earlier that I couldn’t make sense of what I just saw, I realise now I meant I couldn’t find an alternative truth to the bleak reality 12 Years a Slave presented. There is no way to paint the film in a prettier light, to find the silver lining, to justify the violence. And that left me feeling hopeless and scared. But at the same time, it brought a certain sense of clarity. It took me out of a comfortable, convenient truth and placed me into an authentic one. It reminded me to look past the smoke and mirrors and to search for the important stories, not the easy ones.
12 Years a Slave is not a history film. It is relevant today, and I hope people will realise the problems it portrays are far from over, as without acknowledging this difficult truth, how will humanity ever stop repeating the same mistakes?