12 Years A Slave: A Modern Parable of Our Times?

Golden Globe awards for 12 Years A Slave

As the film 12 Years a Slave is winning international plaudits, breaking box office records and putting the British-born Black Director, Steve McQueen and lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofo, in the frame for a slew of prestigious film awards, the response from David Cameron’s government to these events goes to the heart of the film’s critique about power that is not underpinned by a vision of social and racial justice.

On the same day that the Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey announced that he has met with representatives from the film industry to advocate for colour-blind casting in order to halt the exodus of Black talent to the US, the PM was announcing that he intended to strip ‘welfare handouts from immigrants who cannot speak English’ by cutting interpretation and translation services at Benefits’ offices.

A government truly committed to redressing racial barriers would have attempted to investigate the embedded culture of institutional racism that is leading to the Black exodus across the Atlantic. In effect what David Cameron was saying is that the rights of redress for ethnic minority communities is contingent on an individual’s net worth (or worthlessness) to the economy. The PM’s stance has echoes of the vision contained in McQueen’s film in which people of colour are accorded a status not on the basis of their intrinsic rights as human beings but in terms of their economic value.

In that sense Steve McQueen’s genius lies in creating a story that stands up as a contemporary parable of our time. The relationship of the White slave owners towards their slaves is a leitmotif that weaves the legacy of slavery into the very structures of contemporary society. Despite the protagonist’s myriad accomplishments – his talent for playing the violin; his acumen as a successful New York businessman and his strength of character – ultimately he has little agency as his status as both a freeman and a slave are dependent on the whims of those who have power over him. For all the promises contained in the constitutional declaration that ended slavery – i.e. that All Men are Born Equal – the White political establishment cannot guarantee Solomon’s freedom as long as the structures the political system presides over legitimises the codification of social status on the basis of a person’s colour.

So although the formal trappings of slavery have been abolished and legal protections have been accorded to ethnic minority communities, its systemic and structural legacy can be discerned in the persistence of racism today. For instance the Coalition government’s policy on Race is designed to create a social hierarchy that has legitimised the identification of BME communities as the ‘Other.’ The government’s assault against immigrants in its despicable ‘Go Home’ campaign; the PM’s Munich speech that defines all Muslims as potential extremists; the denial of family life through the imposition of visa restrictions on non-EU spouses; the attempted application of £3000 security bonds for visitors from South Asia, highlights the chasm between the rhetoric of racial equality and the reality of institutional racism.

In a revealing interview to The Guardian, Mcqueen makes no secret of the fact that his experience in London as the child of West Indian immigrant parents, framed his artistic sensibility in the film. He locates the present clearly in the past and expresses his belief that the history of ‘slavery …  is the story of [my] very existence” and it is the historical ‘amnesia’ towards this ‘huge injustice’ that he is seeking to challenge.

This recognition of this essential inter-connectedness between the past and present is hugely important because they offer a path to ‘redemption.’ However if the ‘perpetrators’ are coy about their culpability – in this case the British political establishment, the City of London and the Church of England, who were deeply implicated in slavery – then the process of redistributive justice cannot begin.

In this respect the adage that ‘history is written by the victors’ is keenly observed in McQueen’s film through a series of creative devices: the film counterpoints the silence of the slaves against the omnipresent verbal violence of the slave owners. Likewise the legal contracts drawn up by Solomon’s slave owners, which give them absolute ‘property’ rights over the protagonist, contrast poignantly with Solomon’s failure to communicate his plight to the outside world because he has to fashion his own rudimentary pen and ink to communicate his ‘story.’

The contemporary resonance of McQueen’s vision can be detected in the Education Minister, Michael Gove’s recent proposals to reshape the history curriculum. In attempting to teach about “our island story in all its glory” and in presenting Britain as “a beacon of liberty for others to emulate” he was effectively engaged in an exercise of historical revisionism. If Gove had his way the history books would have made only a passing mention of Britain’s slave and imperial legacy and it certainly would have invisibilised the contribution of Black role models such as Mary Seacole.

Throughout the film I could not help but see mirrors in the life trajectories of Solomon Northrup and the iconic symbol of Britain’s institutional racism – Stephen Lawrence. Although a freeman, the safeguards enshrined in the US constitutional framework could not protect Solomon’s freedom. Likewise the Stephen Lawrence family was denied the right to justice because of the structural and systemic racism within the State’s policing and criminal justice system. Ultimately Solomon’s freedom and the Lawrence family’s right to a public inquiry were granted not because ‘natural’ justice demanded it: it was conditional on the beneficence of the White political establishment and therefore by its very nature arbitrary.

This is clear from the fact is that more than one and a half decades since the murder of Stephen Lawrence, Black and Asian men continue to be subject to relentless stop and searches; Black people continue to be disproportionately incarcerated in British jails; Black men continue to die in custody; and the political establishment continues to conceive laws that terrorise minority communities.

One can argue that this is a narrow interpretation of reality; that there have been decisive leaps in race relations since the Windrush generation and the Asian diaspora landed on Britain’s shores. The response to that really depends on the benchmark that one uses to measure equality. If the colour of your skin continues to be a provocation for racial attacks; if the Far Right has the license to target Muslim and minority communities in the name of free speech; if governments continue to frame policies that stoke up xenophobia and racism  – then racial equality only exists on paper and not as a lived reality.

It is interesting that the screening of the film in the US has led to robust discussions in towns and cities about the legacy of slavery and what it means for America. For all its faults, America has at least partially delivered on its constitutional promise by delivering a Black man to the highest office in the land. Meanwhile Britain has turned the clock backwards as immigration, multi-culturalism and anti-racism have become corrupted and stripped of their vital meaning.

So as Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofo line up as Oscar hopefuls across the Atlantic, what should Cameron’s government do retain its Black talent? A fully funded government grant to produce UK’s own version of 12 Years a Slave may be a start. Or better still the PM may want to look into the mirror of history and discern his own image in the face of his slave trading British ancestors who have bequeathed to him and his wife their wealth and privileged legacy. He may then want to look at Mcqueen and Ejiofo – the children of West Indian and Nigerian and parents – and the 24 of the 65 Olympians who won medals for Britain in 2012 – and recognize that the same immigrants that he is vilifying are those same people who battled against insurmountable odds to produce a generation of talented Black Britons that the PM is claiming as his own.

Ratna LachmanDirector JUST West Yorkshire