Home  Contact Phil


Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


   12 Years a Slave


Directed by Steve McQueen (2013)

A man dangles from the end of a rope after an aborted lynching. He can just about touch the ground if he stretches out his feet, taking enough of the weight of his body to stop him choking to death. This goes on for a long time, the toes of his boots slipping as he tries to get some purchase in the mud.

In the background, not too far away, we see people going about their chores, children playing in the shimmering sunshine. He can't cry out, the noose is too tight. But they see him, and they do nothing. Around this desperate struggle against death life, having no alternative, goes on,.

This is an important moment in 12 Years a Slave, a protracted agony of a moment during which Steve McQueen seems to be quietly asking us what we would do. Perhaps he's asking us what we're doing now.

The dangling man is Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). He shouldn't be here at all. But neither should anyone, really. He's a professional violinist from upstate New York, a dandy who falls for the flattery of a couple of con men who get him drunk and have him kidnapped into southern slavery.

Early on he declares his intention not merely to survive but to live. That's easier said than done, though, and he has to settle for survival mostly, clawing his toes at the dirt.

There's a liberal conceit that asserts that what's ultimately at stake in slavery is the principle of freedom, Solomon's grand notion of 'life'. This film seems to want to affirm this, yet tells us something else.

The first thing that happens to Solomon the slave is that he's robbed of his identity, his past, and given a new name, Platt. This is achieved by violence, a pointed excess of violence as the brutal beating continues even after he's accepted he's no longer who he was.

There are other examples of this excess, expressed in psychological as well as physical cruelty, and it's not just sadism and racism at work, though they help. It's a necessary excess that guarantees the economic model of slavery itself. Fear, helplessness and submission are driven in by the cudgel of a seemingly boundless and irrational cruelty that nevertheless, as much violence does, hides a weakness in the oppressor.

For the slave-owners are few and the slaves are many. Not only that, but when they start work the slaves are handed potential weaponry: machetes, axes, hammers and pointed sticks. Neither are they kept in chains, mostly. That would, after all, hamper productivity. Their manacles, in William Blake's term, are mind-forged, just as they would be for the industrial working class of the north.

Of course, you'd take the latter any day. But we're talking about different aspects of the same system here, a matter that 12 Years a Slave elides by making Solomon so bloody middle class. His New York world has not merely rejected slavery but seems entirely oblivious of the existence of racism and oppression.

There's an odd little pre-kidnap scene in which a visiting slave follows Solomon into a shop where he's buying something without even having to worry about the price. It doesn't register with him at all.

Slavery and freedom, south and north, past and future are discrete states, here. This liberal construction not only banishes slavery from its regime but in turn implies that the north is a land of unalloyed freedom, another country.

Which, in a way, it was. But if history has a use it's in telling us about today, about our own injustices and horrors. History needs to be sprung free from the past to inform and invigorate the present. And, despite its qualities, 12 Years a Slave fails to do that by chaining slavery safely to a time long gone.

January 29, 2014

Back to Reviews



Writing... Journalism... Research... Awards Judging... Pub Business Advice... Pub Crawls
Contact Phil