Watching ’12 Years a Slave’

12-Years-a-Slave-Shot-2The watcher sees the film begin with a failed act of writing. All through the film, there are attempts at writing; attempts at getting letters out. Words are vital in the film.

Texts from the Bible are read by a benevolent slave-owner as a black woman howls in desperation. The watcher has seen her separated from her children at a slave auction. The slave-owner’s wife, a white woman in full Sunday best, says she cannot abide such depression. The black woman is dragged away.

The watcher senses that these scenes of normalised and ideologically-ratified acts of brutality are among the best in the film.

They add to the sustained sense of the normalisation of slavery, well pictured in the scene of the man keeping himself alive by tip-tapping his toes in the mud, as he hangs by the neck from the bough of a tree in a beautiful pastoral setting.


His fellow slaves come out of their shacks and go about a range of small domestic tasks. They are blinded by the terrifying awfulness in front of them. By its normality. A white overseer, a pistol on his hip, stands on the verandah of the plantation house and scowls. A young black woman, frightened yet brave, comes to the hanging man and gives him a drink of water. The slave owner’s wife watches from the house. She does not read the Bible to the hanging man.

The watcher has an acute sense of the powerlessness of the slaves and of their learned helplessness. Their victimhood. It will take more than a century for Martin Luther King, Malcolm X or Angela Davis to arrive.

When Obama was elected president, a prisoner said “one black man in the White House doesn’t make up for one million black men in the Big House.”

The watcher sees that the hanging man is not an agent of his own emancipation. The hanging man is brutalised, duped, beaten, traduced. He survives by keeping his head down. The systemic overwhelm that is the slave economy is such that an individual, even an articulate and educated one such as the hanging man, can do nothing but acquiesce and collude in his own debasement. This is authentically shown.

The watcher wonders if this harsh lesson is the kernel of the film and wonders what hope do the film-makers offer us.

Two nights later, the traffickers turned up at Abdu’s house. They dragged him from his bed by his hair, took him out into the street, and hacked his body to pieces with an axe as he howled.

“The traffickers told his wife they would kill us too,” Adul says. But the villagers refused to be cowed. They set up a neighbourhood watch scheme, to track the traffickers: “We work as a watchdog at night. Who is trafficking? How many girls are being taken? As soon as something is spotted, we are alerted.”

The watcher sees one scene of genuine dramatic conflict. It occurs between the brutal slave owner and the travelling Canadian wood worker. Something of a protagonist-antagonist tension is present as two white men foreshadow the great cataclysm of war that will come to the region in the 1860s, a war ostensibly about freedom, but actually about re-structuring a major economy.

Salvation, as a manifestation of power, is in the hands of the whites. The watcher sees the Canadian wood-worker get a letter through. The watcher sees a shop-keeper friend take the hanging man away from slavery in a scene that is brisk and deflating.

The hanging man returns to his home, where his family welcome him in an emotional final scene. Their dress and furnishings give the watcher the impression that the hanging man’s absence has not badly affected them materially.

The watcher knows that trafficking and slavery are as normal in the world today as they were in Georgia in the 1850s.

In the US, the average age of trafficked girls is 12–14 years but growing younger, and boys are 11-13 yrs. (US Health and Human Services)
An estimated 300,000 American youths are at risk of commercial sexual exploitation. (FBI)

The watcher reads the end notes on the screen, which detail the failed efforts of the hanging man to get justice in the courts. The watcher wonders might this have made a more telling film.

The watcher leaves the cinema wondering if Django Unchained, while totally inauthentic, might be a better – more stirring? – film about slavery and emancipation.

Progressive art can assist people to learn not only about the objective forces at work in the society in which they live, but also about the intense social character of their interior lives. Ultimately, it can propel people toward social emancipation.

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