Jon Swaine, Telegraph (London), November 9, 2013
The film 12 Years A Slave, the extraordinary story of a free man torn from his family in New York in 1841 and enslaved in the antebellum South — which is out now in the US and released in Britain in January — is even being tipped to become the first film by a black director to win the Oscar for best picture at the Academy Awards in March.
Somewhat lost among the rapturous acclaim, however, has been the fact that it took a pair of Britons finally to bring this comprehensive take on America’s scarred heritage to the country’s silver screens.
In doing so, Steve McQueen, the filmmaker, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, his leading man, have shed light on unresolved tensions in a nation where African-Americans remain disproportionately poor, badly educated and locked behind bars, even as they are led by their first black president.
While the brutal injustice the film depicts is a cause for shame, it is “an even bigger disgrace that it takes a British director to stare the issue in its face”, according to Peter Debruge, of Variety magazine, one of the few American critics to note this tension at the heart of the production.
The film is adapted from the memoir of Solomon Northup, a black labourer and violinist living in New York in the mid-19th century. By 1841, Northup, born a free man after his father was emancipated in the will of his late owner, was living comfortably with his wife, Anne, and their three young children.
A bogus offer of lucrative work drew him to Washington DC, where he was drugged, kidnapped and locked away in a building near the US Capitol, before being shipped to Louisiana and sold for $1,000 to a plantation owner played by Benedict Cumberbatch — another Briton.
Accused of lying and instructed to keep quiet whenever he protested with details of his true identity, Northup was renamed Platt, and put to back-breaking work in swampish heat with other slaves, who were among the millions of Africans taken from their countries and shipped to the New World.
A dispute led to Northup’s being sold on to Edwin Epps, a “repulsive and coarse” cotton-planter portrayed by Michael Fassbender, who sadistically whipped his slaves “just for the pleasure of hearing them screech and scream, as the great welts were planted on their backs,” Northup recalled in his book.
McQueen’s depictions of Epps’s beatings, more explicit than in any past Hollywood portrayal of slavery, are so excruciating that some American cinema-goers have walked out of screenings, unable to keep watching as Fassbender’s bloody whip continues cracking into torn black flesh.
“It is intense and it is raw, yet it is also beautifully human,” said Dr Kellie Carter Jackson, a fellow at Harvard University’s Department of African and African American Studies, who teaches a course on slavery in film. “I have yet to see another movie tackle slavery so well.”
While Northup’s explosive account of his enslavement caused a sensation on its publication after he was freed in 1853, his book fell into relative obscurity for more than 100 years, before being rediscovered and republished by two Louisiana academics amid the civil-rights battles of the Sixties. But then it disappeared again.
Bianca Stigter, a historian and mother of McQueen’s daughter, chanced upon the book as the couple searched for the right story of slavery to adapt for film.
“I could not believe that I had never heard of this book,” McQueen writes in the foreword to a new edition. “It felt as important as Anne Frank’s diary, only published nearly a hundred years before.”
While the story of the Holocaust’s most famous victim has been used to educate millions of American children about the evils inflicted in Europe in the Forties, few would know about the ordeal of this 33-year-old caught up in their country’s own moral outrage a century earlier. “In America, looking at bad guys generally as Nazis is OK,” McQueen said earlier this year. “But when you’re talking about home, you really don’t want to be perceived as bad.”
Two of the biggest Hollywood attempts to deal with the subject — Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) and Lincoln (2012) — notably focused on the legal and political efforts by heroic white figures to save black slaves from their plight.
Even Roots, the landmark history by Alex Haley adapted for a hammy 12-hour US television mini-series in the Seventies, balked at showing quite the sort of merciless and sexual violence that is visited on their slaves by Fassbender’s Epps and his wife, Mary, played by Sarah Paulson.
Of course, the British Empire played a leading role in the business of humans-as-livestock. McQueen, whose parents came to England from Grenada and Trinidad, stresses that he owes his existence to ancestors who survived enslavement by British colonists. Ejiofor’s forebears in the Nigerian Ibo tribe were among those plundered for the trade. Both point out they are members of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora that was blighted by this enterprise.
Yet McQueen, a Turner Prize-winning CBE, and Ejiofor, a Dulwich- and Lamda-educated Royal Shakespeare Company actor, also look back at the era as members of the establishment of a country that outlawed the practice decades before Northup’s ordeal, and whose own shores were largely untainted by the shameful practices carried out in its name — an advantage unavailable to American filmmakers.
“America is yet to produce a film like this,” said Dr Roderick Harrison, a sociologist specialising in race at Howard University. “Americans have a great deal of difficulty because of their intimate proximity with slavery. Its true horrors have often been denied.”
Despite the re-election last year of President Barack Obama reinforcing the view among some Europeans that racial tensions are practically a thing of America’s past, sharper and more painful disparities persist between white and African-American communities, whose roots reach back to slaves freed after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.
While white workers earn on average 30 per cent more than blacks, white American families have an average household wealth ($110,729 or £68,912) that is 22 times greater than that of the average black family ($4,995 or £3,109) — a gap that almost doubled during the last recession.
The gap between the proportion of white and black Americans earning university degrees is almost twice as large as it was in 1962, and while black people make up about 30 per cent of Americans, they account for 60 per cent of the country’s prison population.
“One of the biggest fallacies of the Obama presidency is that he has ushered in a post-racial society in which racism and discrimination are no longer problems,” said Dr Carter Jackson. “In fact, the systemic racism that is built in to the system and is very difficult to put your finger on or digest — that goes on.”
“This is a long history of inhumanity that still has reverberations today,” said Prof Brenda Stevenson, who teaches Afro-American history at the University of California. “This history does not just disappear. It stains the nation. It takes a long while to clean up, and it hasn’t been cleaned up yet.”
Resentment often runs high. As a Sunday Telegraph writer watched 12 Years A Slave at a cinema in a predominantly black neighbourhood in Brooklyn last week, an African-American teenage girl in the row behind leaned in and whispered to her friend: “Doesn’t it make you hate white people?”
Some critics have even accused McQueen of pulling his punches to save the blushes of white audiences and awards judges, by basing his film on a man who was previously free and eventually escapes his slavery, rather than one of the millions who were born and died indentured.
Freely admitting to emphasising the film’s redemptive quality to boost ticket sales, Nancy Utley, the co-president of its distributor, Fox Searchlight, told an interviewer: “We always wanted people to know that it’s 12 Years a Slave, not One Million Years a Slave.”
In any case, McQueen claims that “things have changed” enough in America for his film. “People are ready to have that dialogue, looking at themselves similar to the way Germans have looked at themselves,” he said.
None the less, according to Brad Pitt, one of McQueen’s co-producers, “it is strange that it took a Brit” to help them do so.