With the claims about ‘modern slavery’ that have been widely discussed in the UK in recent months, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave - which tells the story of a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the antebellum American South – has been hailed as a film that chimes, chillingly, with our own times.
This sentiment has been put about, not least, by McQueen himself. In one interview last year, he reflected: ‘There’s more slaves now then there were in 1853 when the story ends. So 160 years later, we’re still in the same situation.’ Meanwhile, other commentators have seen in the plight of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), whose eponymous memoir the film is based on, a reflection of the US industrial-prison complex, which continually ‘enslaves’ black Americans to this day.
However, while the myriad economic and geopolitical impacts of that most shameful period in human history aren’t to be underestimated, the idea that nineteenth-century American slavery serves as a drag-and-drop framework through which we can easily comprehend our current predicament is ludicrous. If this film and the reception it’s had illuminates anything about today, it is modern society’s increasing impulse to impose the age-old models of good and evil, that we see as crystallised in the atrocities of the past, to give meaning to these strange and confusing times.
As Mick Hume has pointed out previously on spiked, in a time when society lacks a clear moral consensus, the spectre of slavery has become a fable that we use to give meaning to the events of today. This is something that became all too apparent last November, when the discovery of a weird cult in south London was quickly blown up to be proof of the chattel that still lurked behind the netted curtains of modern Britain. (See The half-truths and wild claims of the Brixton slave story by Brendan O’Neill.)
Of course, ‘it’s so relevant to today’ is the sort of press-junket platitude that gets thrown at historical films so often it’s almost lost all meaning: a vaguely pithy remark spouted by eager film hacks to flatter a director, which directors all too often indulge. However, in this case, it only does a disservice to what is a truly staggering work that explores the unique conditions of American slavery in a way no other film on the subject has yet managed.