12 Years A Slave is a major political and cinematic event, argues Andy Cunningham. It deserves attention from socialists and from all those who fight for a better world.
The latest film from director Steve McQueen follows the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man, carpenter and musician of note who was kidnapped in 1841 aged 32 and sold into slavery in the Southern United States. 12 Years A Slave details Solomon’s experiences: oppression and exploitation under slavery, along with the social and psychological impacts upon him and those around him.
The film is as technically accomplished as McQueen’s previous films: Hunger and the less overtly political Shame. The photography is excellent, the performances are powerful, the atmosphere is tangible. This all gives the film a crucial sense of realism.
There is no dramatic story arc, or laboured character development on show, as you might expect from other popular cinema and television. Instead there is a series of episodes that catalogue the mundane day-to-day brutality of slavery. Solomon’s reaction to his enslavement unites these experiences, and prevents the film from collapsing into documentary. 12 Years A Slave remains faithful to Solomon’s experiences.
Social consequences of slavery
McQueen uses the story as a lens to examine how a society based on slavery affects the people caught within it. Direct physical and mental abuse is still a daily reality for many black people. But there are more subtle consequences, such as the assumption that we are powerless to fight back.
In one scene Solomon (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is partially lynched and left hanging on for his life awaiting the return of his master. Meanwhile the domestic life of the slave settlement goes on around him. One woman brings him water. But no one will cut him down, or get a block for him to stand on — such is their fear.
The white characters in the film do not escape the negative effects of slavery. White overseers are kept ignorant and stupid, delighting in ensuring that black people are held lower than themselves. Solomon is forced to hide the fact that he is an educated man, and when it is revealed the jealousy that it generates nearly gets him killed.
Even Epps, the brutal plantation owner played by Michael Fassbender, loathes himself for his intellectual inadequacy and his loving of a slave. Even the “good” white characters are implicated and complicit in the system.
Contrast with other films about slavery
Django Unchained criticised slavery by showing black and white people fighting against it. 12 Years A Slave in contrast lays out the deep racism that persisted under slavery, rarely spoken about let alone challenged. McQueen’s South is a society in thrall to the violence of slavery, dominated by men like Epps. Neither does McQueen’s film use acts of heroic resistance to sanitise slavery.
12 Years A Slave is the latest in a series of popular films dealing with slavery: Glory, Amistad, Django. It is by far the most radical of them. McQueen has often asked why there are more films about the Holocaust than about slavery. 12 Years A Slave uses technuiqes from Holocaust cinema to throw a light on the origins of modern America.
Unsurprisingly McQueen is already attracting flak. Critics are saying the film is too serious, worthy and political to win a best picture Oscar. Stylish films such as American Hustle are enjoying more awards and acclaim. This establishment unease tells us that 150 years on, the US still can’t cope with the legacy of slavery and the endemic racism that it gave birth to.
Andy Cunningham works at Manchester Met university and is an active trade unionist and socialist.