I have been avoiding 12 Years a Slave because I knew it was not going to be an easy watch. I bought DVD from Video Con in F-10 last year while I was in Islamabad on a long holiday. I thought I would watch it given the right mood. But there is no right mood!
The other day I came home from work and it was on Channel 103 on DSTV and I thought, OK, I need to just get this out of the way.
There are not that many Hollywood films or TV series about American slavery that actually depict clearly what slavery on plantations was like. Besides Roots or the more recent Django Unchained, how many cinematic depictions of slavery do we actually have? We have many films that portray so-called race issues but not so many about slavery on plantations. Even if there are more than the ones I mentioned above, I feel as if there are not enough films about slavery that form our popular collective conscience.
Other historical atrocities, like the Jewish Holocaust, have a century of film, art, and drama tributes.
I have often wondered why watching a film like 12 Years a Slave - provided it is well made - makes me so angry, bitterly sad and shocked even before I watched it. I wonder why it touches my very core. I guess it is so because our civilised world has not really addressed the wrongs of colonialism and slavery but has for let's say the holocaust.
Watching 12 Years a Slave was an extremely painful and distressing experience. The film was intense and brutal. Our main character's pain, suffering, humiliation, desolation and degradation was carefully depicted, much of it by silent scenes or very violent moments.
The whipping, beating and dehumanisation of humans by other humans is shocking. Words fail to accurately describe this part of human history. When they showed the ravaged, bloody back of the slave girl after her own fellow slave was forced to whip her, it made me think of Beloved, which has now become engrained in our conscience and imagination, as a symbol of what slavey actually was.
Why is it so important to make yourself watch such difficult films? Since slavery has not been atoned for by most of the civilised world in a very real way, it makes remembrance of this history so very important. We cannot forget that this happened while race issues in America and Europe continue to be seen the way they are. And, we cannot forget that slavery was, as Marx said, primitive accumulation. American and European wealth was built on violent recruitment of free labour. And then on a grander philosophical scale, it is important to know what humans are capable of and to look for the same patterns.
A couple of the striking images from the film are the appearance of civilisation and superiority. The master's wife was an interesting character who would appear now and then to play the role of a jealous wife or politely give instructions to our man to fetch her goods from the shop. At one point we see her peering from the balcony at him hanging from a tree, barely holding on to his life. The other master, one of the few who own our hero, was also a pastor and read out scripture to the slaves, even when one woman was bitterly crying. It made me think of a very refined but savage civilisation, one that justified the subjugation of another human race.
We often use the concept of civilisation to set us apart from what we think is inferior: village versus city, white versus black, West versus East, educated versus illiterate, and modern versus traditional. While civilisation also refers to the beginning of humans settling down, building cities and farming and has a very technical sense, it is usually a judgmental sense of things.
So, that's that, my thoughts after watching 12 Years a Slave.