12 Years a Slave and the reparations debate
RECENTLY I had the privilege of watching 12 Years a Slave, an Oscar-nominated film about the horrors of plantation slavery in the United States. It is based on a true story in pre-Civil War America.
Interestingly, although it is about the American experience, the film is actually directed by a black British film director of Grenadian origin, Steve McQueen, and the lead role is played brilliantly by a British actor of Nigerian origin, Chiwetel Ejiofor.
To understand the significance of this new movie it is important to remember that for generations the single most omnipresent representation of slavery in Western popular culture was the iconic 1930s movie Gone With the Wind. It was based on the best-selling book of the same title by Margaret Mitchell, which was itself America's second favourite book of all time (just behind the Bible).
Gone With the Wind was a sensation. It featured one of the film idols of the era, Clark Gable, and made a star of the British actress Vivienne Leigh. They, of course, played slave owners and devout supporters of slavery.
It is still (at modern prices) the most successful film ever at the box office. But in the MGM epic blacks are servile buffoons, white racial superiority is a given, white southern racists are heroic, the Klu Klux Klan is a plucky neighbourhood watch organisation, slavery is essentially a benign institution and all in romantic soft focus. So this is the notion of slavery imprinted on every movie lover's brain.
In Gone With the Wind the audience is invited to identify with the slave owners, who are portrayed as romantic and gallant figures protecting "their way of life" -- buying and selling black people like cattle.
12 Years a Slave could not be more different. It contrives to get the audience to identify with the slave. The black hero, played by the charismatic Chiwetel Ejiofor, starts off as a free man living in upstate New York with a wife, children and a comfortable existence. Then he is kidnapped by slavers and sold on to plantations in the American south.
So the audience shares his horror as he goes from being a human being to a piece of property. And the audience is gradually exposed to the brutalities of slavery. Ultimately some scenes of violence towards the slaves are so cruel that you can hardly look.
But you are left in no doubt that plantation slavery was a blood-soaked enterprise, which brutalised the slave owners as much as it brutalised the slaves. It is the most thoughtful and vivid representation of slavery that I have ever seen.
But 12 Years a Slave is also interesting in the context of the current debate about reparations. Some observers, although supportive in principle, have cautioned about blaming slavery for every problem faced by the modern Caribbean. This is true. Local politicians and political elites should not be allowed to avoid responsibility. Nor should anyone in the region be allowed to think that reparations are an alternative to the Caribbean itself rising to its challenges.
Whether or not the reparations campaign is successful, the Caribbean will still need to work extremely hard, maximise the educational potential of its population; leverage the potential of its diaspora and come together strategically as a region.
But this amazing new movie reminds us of what a profoundly horrific experience plantation slavery was. It may not be responsible for every negative aspect of the modern Caribbean, but it was a both a physically and psychologically scarring experience. We live with its consequences today.
And, if nothing else, if you can get to see 12 Years a Slave, I strongly recommend it.
— Diane Abbott is the British Labour party MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington