Is 12 Years A Slave relevant in Obama’s America?

Since its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, has been making headlines and gaining praise from critics and audiences alike for its uncompromising depiction of the horrors of slavery in pre civil war America. This month, it has scooped 7 Golden Globe nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor in a drama, best supporting actor, best supporting actress and best original score. It’s the first black film to attain such illustrious recognition.

12 Years A Slave, which tells the true story of a free black man, Solomon Northup, kidnapped in 1841 in Washington and sold into slavery in New Orleans, is easily the most hard-hitting portrayal of this dark chapter in American history since the 1977 TV blockbuster “Roots”. Other acclaimed movies have visited the subject, such as Amistad, Beloved and Glory, but gained little attention in the box office and quickly sank into the abyss of oblivion. However, last year’s Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s blend of spaghetti Western and Blaxploitation, which exposed the masochistic brutality of slave masters and the suffering they inflicted on their subjects, was a box office hit and a critics darling.

When I met him in Toronto, McQueen told me that his film was different. “It’s basically non-fiction, a firsthand account of slavery,” he said. “The specification of what happened, the location, all those people in that movie actually existed. I think that is the thing we haven’t seen on the big screen and that’s what I wanted to emphasise, the reality of the unfortunate situation of slavery.”

The British black director wanted his movie to be for slavery films what Schindler’s List was for Holocaust movies, hence he didn’t spare us slavery’s intermittent and incidental horrors. Through the eyes of Northup we witness black people being sold in a slave market like cattle, children raptured from their wailing mothers and callous plantation owners whipping, rapping and hanging their slaves arbitrarily and sometimes for sheer pleasure. McQueen’s relentless portrayal of physical and psychological suffering and his lingering on scenes of torture is so painful and uncomfortable to watch that it eggs you to leap out of the comfort of your seat to redress the injustice unfolding before your eyes.

Although proving effective in shocking audiences, the extreme violence depicted in the movie has also stirred controversy. Some African American critics, such as Armond White, have dismissed the the film as an exercise in “torture porn,” suggesting that this kind of victimology is unsuited for the contemporary needs of black communities. Others have retorted that the legacy of slavery, which was driven by racism, continued to resonate in American society, evidenced by the the fact that the African-American incarceration rate is six times the national average to this day and the unemployment rate for blacks is double that of whites.

Indeed, the racism that stripped Northup of freedom and plunged him into slavery 150 years ago is echoed in contemporary movie Fruitvale Station, in which an unarmed 21-year-old black man, Oscar Grant, is fatally shot by a white police officer in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day of 2009. None of Northup’s kidnappers were prosecuted, in spite of the compelling evidence against them. Grant’s killer, on the other hand, was sentenced to only 2 years in prison. Evidently, little has changed in the US judicial system since the bleak days of slavery, in spite of the election of a black president.

12 Years A Slave is not merely a history lesson; it’s a stark reminder that the racism that justified slavery 150 years ago is still lurking in the American society and must be confronted in order to pave a better future for humanity. “I think it takes time for people to heal and get a chance to reconcile with their past,” McQueen said. “I think it [the movie] galvanised a lot of people to want to engage with slavery.”

The film has no doubt revived and stirred debates about the issue of slavery that had been pushed aside by the media and Hollywood. Its critical and commercial success is a testament to audiences’ healthy appetite for exploring and understating the past, no matter how grim and hideous it was.