12 Years A Slave, wow. My goodness. Sitting on the bus home, feeling like I have been thumped in the guts. I went to see this film alone, as for some reason I didn’t trust myself to react calmly in the company of other similarly emotional friends. I didn’t feel much for most of it. Maybe that’s because I’ve become desensitised to such numbing horrors. Maybe I’ve just read too much about slavery or seen too many movies or heard too many songs. Maybe. Or maybe that’s because I was steeling myself at the beginning of each new scene, fearing the arrival of a uniquely horrific image that would stay with me for years.
Hey, who knows, perhaps it was all of those things. The film would have been far more terrifying had the racists been unknown actors. With so many famous faces, it was easier for me to cling to some semblance of reality, to step beyond the evil. Whenever things became too unsettling, I could tell myself: “these are not racists. Look, that’s Paul Giamatti. That’s Paul Dano. That’s Benedict Cumberbatch. I’ve seen them do interviews. They’re nice people.” I found myself, at some point in the film, counting down the time towards the end. It didn’t feel like going to the cinema so much as making a visit to the surgeon’s table: you knew it was going to hurt, you just didn’t know how much.
Slavery has shaped so much of our modern world, at terrible, terrible cost. And the wounds of what it did and what it is still doing may still be raw, or at the very least still resonant. Looking at those people hacking away at undergrowth, born into ownership, I asked myself the most obvious and the most important question: Why? What possessed people to think themselves superior to the extent that they would stack human beings ceiling high and ship them across seas? What was it? Beyond the rhetoric and the prayer books and the cheque books – why was that moment, that tipping point when members of an entire society, either tacitly or explicitly, gave a collective nod and said, “yes, this is ok?” Why? As simple as that – why? It takes a certain level of hatred to subject one person, or even a few dozen, to consistent hardship; but the enslavement of tens, hundreds of millions, for not decades but entire centuries? What measure of poison must have been in people’s souls?
Off the bus now, walking home, I remember that there was a time when this was all considered absolutely fine: and then I thought that there are, of course, places in this world where human beings are similarly shackled even now, being freely traded so they can provide labour, sex or anything else their owners demand. And I think of how I felt as I watched the closing credits, not moving, partly out of respect for Chiwetel Ejiofor’s outstanding performance, partly out of relief that this film, though harrowing, had not harrowed me as much as I had worried if might. The tears almost ran at one point – I won’t spoil the plot by revealing which – but not quite. As I wandered out into the foyer, I stopped to speak with an elderly black steward, who saw me out with a smile and a slow shake of the head. “Ha”, he said, offering perhaps the most fitting review that 12 Years A Slave will receive, “I don’t like to watch such things.”