Sunday, 12 January 2014

The year of the slave?

Slavery’s all the rage these days, it seems.

Twelve Years a Slave may not be the best film I’ve seen for a while. It’s a little short on moral nuance, for instance, the closest it gets to one being the Southern planter who shows some liking for the main character before selling him, supposedly for his own good, to a sadist. And some of the loving portrayal of whippings (with long shots of gaping welts on victims’ backs) will provide many a thrill to the sado-masochists out there.

Even so, in what it shows of the sheer inhumanity of slavery as an institution, it tells a gruesome tale effectively. It taught me little I didn
t already know about slavery, but by portraying it so vividly, it brought more palpably home what it must have been like to be a thinking, suffering human being and to know that one had no rights of any kind against the authority behind the suffering. 

A self-evident proposition that all men are created equal?
A scene when an overseer decides to carry out a whipping because he has some flimsy objection to the way the slave has undertaken a carpentry task, put me in mind of the scene in Schindler’s List in which a young Jewish architect is shot dead for the offence of pointing out that the SS is building a hut incorrectly.

The scale of the Holocaust was different, and a shooting a more extreme reaction than a whipping, but I was left feeling that indeed the American South’s ‘peculiar institution’ had a great deal in common with the mentality of the Nazis. Which is far from surprising: they had in common the belief that an entire class of humanity was sub-human.

Another lesson that I’d already learned but which was made more compelling by its depiction on screen, was that this behaviour occurred in a nation founded on the proposition that all men were created equal. Jefferson may not have had to force Sally Hemings into bed with him, but she was fifteen and by today’s standards, the actions of the author of the Declaration of Independence were just as culpable as those of the rapist in Twelve Years a Slave.

Just in case we in the old world, however, become too complacent about our supposed moral superiority over the US, next year will see the launching of Belle. It tells the story of a young slave who gained her freedom in Britain in the late eighteenth century. What will emerge is the complicity of the great slaving powers in the crimes shown in Twelve Years a Slave. Every time I visit Liverpool or Bristol, cities that I love, I remember that their past fortune was founded on slavery; Nantes is one of the most pleasant cities in France, one where the extreme right-wing National Front gets its lowest votes, but it too made its money from transporting Africans to the Americas.

So it may be that slavery is a theme that’s emerging more strongly into our consciousness than it has in recent years. Which is perhaps just as well, since it was only last November that we saw the release of two women from thirty years of slavery in London. And just the day before yesterday, a woman in Birmingham was charged with enslaving four men for a year.

Timely, those films. It seems we still haven
t finished exorcising the demon of slavery from our cultures.

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