Watching 12 Years A Slave In London

Last Sunday, I saw 12 Years A Slave. It’s an incredibly powerful film that, like all the best films, owes a large part of its impact to its visual effect. Much has been written about two key particularly shocking scenes: the first being where central character Solomon Northup is left hanging while plantation life continues around him, and the second the brutal whipping of fellow slave Patsy, made more horrifying by the fact that Solomon is compelled by his master to inflict this punishment on her.

I also found myself troubled by the film’s lush, swampy landscapes, unmistakeable to anyone who’s ever been to Louisiana. I found their beauty and familiarity added to the film’s disconcerting effect by acting as a reminder of the links between the society portrayed in the film and our own – slavery might have been abolished, but its effects continue to be felt in ongoing racism, race-related violence and in other ways, in Louisiana and elsewhere.

More positively, the scene where Solomon and other slaves encounter a group of Native Americans was a reminder of the connections and fellowship between these two groups honoured in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indian tradition.

Because the city has changed so much since the mid-nineteenth century when the film is set, the scenes of the film in New Orleans don’t provide as immediate a connection to Louisiana today. But traces of the events shown in 12 Years A Slave are visible in the city – the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel is built on the site of the slave market shown in the film and is reportedly deeply haunted.

Over by St. Augustine Church in Treme, there’s the well-known Tomb of the Unknown Slave (pictured) dedicated to “the memory of the nameless, faceless, turfless Africans who met an untimely death in Faubourg Treme” and intended to also “honor all slaves buried throughout the United States”.

It’s important to remember that the southern United States was by no means the only region of the world deeply implicated in the crime of slavery. As an exceptional permanent exhibition “London, Sugar & Slavery” at London’s Museum in Docklands (the city’s former port area and now part of its financial district) makes explicit, significant parts of the city’s current prosperity and its physical environment were built from the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

That slavery was an international business, in which London was involved as well as New Orleans, can perhaps be seen as echoed in the making of 12 Years A Slave. The film’s construction involved a British director with Caribbean heritage, a British leading actor with Nigerian heritage, a Kenyan leading actor now living in America, Americans of many races, and others of many different ethnicities and nationalities. Coming together to construct something as powerful as this film is a fitting response to slavery’s legacy.

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