The true face of slavery

Shelley Marsden looks at the Oscar-nominated film which brings the horrors of slavery to an audience of millions…

Twelve Years A Slave, the film that’s earned Irish actor Michael Fassbender an Oscar nomination and could make Steve McQueen the first black filmmaker to win best director, has done for slavery on film what Schindler’s List did for the Holocaust.

In other words, never before has slavery – a 246-year scourge – been portrayed so realistically. This is undoubtedly the first ‘Hollywood’ film to portray the slave trade with such integrity and authenticity.

Filmmaker Steve McQueen has said he was compelled to make a “global tale” out of the memoirs of Solomon Northup – a black musician sold into slavery in the US in 1841.

Northup was a free man who lived with his wife and children in New York, working as a skilled carpenter and violinist. Everything changed in 1841, when two circus promoters offered him a top-dollar job, and he left with them for Washington DC. Soon after he got there he was drugged, beaten and sold into slavery. Northup spent the next twelve years of his life in captivity on a Louisiana cotton plantation.

After his rescue (he filed charges against his abductors, who were never persecuted), Northup was reunited with his family and published this vivid and eloquent account of slave life. His book became an instant bestseller, recognised for its unique insight from the pen of a man that has known both freedom and slavery.

The book McQueen’s film was adapted from is no less harrowing. Re-released by Penguin to tie in with the film release, Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup (Penguin Classics, £7.99) is the astounding memoir of Solomon Northup, set in one of the darkest periods of American history.

The official tie-in edition to accompany the film, its forward is by the British artist-turned-director, and outlines his experience of reading the memoir and its importance as a slave narrative.

He says: “It blew [my mind]: the epic range, the details, the adventure, the horror, and the humanity… It felt as important as Anne Frank’s diary… I hope my film can play a part in drawing attention to this important book of courage. Solomon’s bravery and life deserve nothing less.’

Northup explains in his painful memoir: “This is no fiction, no exaggeration. If I have failed in anything, it has been in presenting to the reader too prominently the bright side of the picture. I doubt not hundreds have been as unfortunate as myself; that hundreds of free citizens have been kidnapped and sold into slavery, and are at this moment wearing out their lives on plantations.”

The film adaptation has received acclaim for its directing, acting but also its faithfulness to the book since its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, where it won the People’s Choice Award. Steve McQueen’s foreword for the book

It doesn’t preach to its viewer, but due to its often shocking contents, any decent person watching it knows how wrong it was. What it also reveals in chilling clarity is how masters of the time really did feel their slaves were their ‘property’, to do with as they wish.

In older films American slavery is presented with a sense of old-fashioned romance, the enslaved inevitably overthrowing their cruel masters with bravado. People did escape slavery, but the reality is that most of them didn’t get more than a few miles before they were found by a white man and hung from the nearest tree.

Just as Chiwitel Ejiofor brings a quiet humanity to Northup, Michael Fassbender’s performance as sadistic slave master Edwin Epps is terrifying. He fools you at times with glimmers of humanity and kindness, but his white slave master would unsheathe his dagger and be ready to cut throats just as quickly. Fassbender’s ability to take on such different roles – look just at his roles in McQueen’s movies, as a sex addict in Shame and a hunger-striker in Hunger, make McQueen’s comparison of the 36 year old actor with Brando seem  not an unfair one.

Rape, violence, mental abuse are everyday occurrences under ??, but it is the more subtle scenes of torture that unnerve the most; such as the one where,  after a hard day picking cotton he gets his slaves out of bed and made them all gather for a dance, like a grotesque parody of a white man’s ball, they were like ragdolls.

The scenes of so-called ‘torture porn’ for which McQueen has come in for a degree of criticism (one with the camera excruciatingly close depicts female slave Betsy being sadistically whipped until, her back in shreds. she collapses to the ground) are not gratuitous; they are deeply shocking but prove to illustrate what slaves were subject to daily.

McQueen told Interview magazine last week: “It seemed to me like a kind of an obvious thing to do, to make a film about slavery—just like it’s an obvious thing to make a film about the Second World War or the Holocaust. My grandparents from the West Indies were descendants of slaves. But then, at the same time, there really aren’t too many films about slavery.

“It’s funny because as I was going to make 12 Years a Slave, I bumped into [Quentin] Tarantino, and he was working on Django Unchained at the time, and he said, “I’d hope there could be more than one film about slavery.” It’s interesting because there are a bunch of westerns, a bunch of gangster movies, a bunch of sex or war movies …”

Of course, there have been other films to tackle our shackled past, with varying degrees of success. The aforementioned Django Unchained, with Leo Di Caprio as the slave owner, was well made – an ultra-modern slave narrative with a spaghetti Western sensibility.

But the slavery element to Tarantino’s film, dynamically portrayed, is more of an excuse for his typical splatter violence than an eloquent essay in outrage like McQueen’s film. Twleve Years A Slave is unique in that, for the first time on screen, it walks the viewer through those years and experiences as if you were there at the time. Stylised and highly enjoyable, Tarantino’s film packs a pulpy punch but lacks the sincerity of purpose.

A few years back, you also had Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace (2006) – which stars Twelve Years’ Benedict Cumberbatch in a minor role, before Sherlock brought him worldwide fame). It attempts a realistic portrayal of slavery, with the story of William Wilberforce’s successful fight to abolish slavery in the British Empire.

What it clearly lacks, however, are the stunning production values of Twelve Years A Slave, the money behind it to fully portray the slave trade across the British Empire. The script and direction could have been sharper too, but it gives it a good shot.

For the full article, see this week’s Irish World (issue 25 Jan 2014).

Twelve Years A Slave is in cinemas now.


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