You cannot walk out of this movie unscathed. The utter brutality of slavery in the American south in the 1840s is physically and emotionally painful to watch. Even if you flinch as I did and close your eyes to it, your ears are assaulted over and over by the lash of the whip lacerating human flesh.
But it is important to watch. “12 Years a Slave” surfaces truths that we prefer to suppress by treating slavery in America as an historical aberration. What will matter in the weeks ahead with the general release of this movie - based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana in 1841 - is the dialogue it opens up about the seemingly bottomless capacity of human beings to inflict systematic and calculated violence on others for personal gain.
It is a truth we must discuss, Vera Williams, a fifth-generation descendant of Northup said at a showing of the movie on Monday night in Washington D.C., the city where Solomon Northup, an accomplished musician, lost his freedom.
The holocaust, Rwanda and Bosnia are our contemporary tropes for systematic violence and collective inaction. But these were acts of genocide motivated by a desire to completely wipe out a people who were viewed as an existential threat to identity.
Slavery is different. While we seem able to confront something so preposterous as total annihilation, we seem less willing to confront patterns of violence that are less obvious, driven by dominance and economic exploitation, linked to an affirming of one’s identity through the exertion of raw power for personal profit.
This is where the movie by British artist and director Steve McQueen and due for general release in movie theatres in the United States on Oct. 18 resonates today and forbids us from looking at slavery as an historical anomaly.
Slavery in America had at its base economic exploitation in the cotton fields, sugar cane and tobacco plantations, intersecting with an individual lust for power and a theology of white supremacy that permitted dehumanisation of a people to serve a financial end.
A similar mechanism operates in continuing the arc of slavery into modern times and similar tools of physical and psychological destruction are used today to subjugate its victims, said Bradley Myles, executive director of Polaris Project, a leader in the global fight against human trafficking and slavery.
The family living in the affluent suburbs of Washington D.C. who starved a woman domestic in slave-like conditions in their home is part of that continuum, Myles said after the movie showing. So, too, is the woman who pulled up her shirt in Myles’ office to show the welts ribboned across her back from where her pimp beat her with a white plastic coat-hanger, a mesh of scars no different from those inflicted on the slaves with whips and paddle boards.
Modern-day slavery is driven by greed and the ruthless exercise of power to obtain it, just as it was in the 19th century, and it depends upon casting women, or other ethnic groups or races as sub-human. Its victims today are bonded labourers from Bangladesh and Nepal building skyscrapers in the Gulf, or children crawling underground to hack gems from a rockface in Tanzania, and women and children trafficked onto the streets by gangs to sell their bodies for sex.
They are less visible than the four million slaves who worked mostly in the cotton fields and sugar plantations of the American south. But the estimated 21 million modern-day slaves are no less a scar on our conscience. “12 Years a Slave” should contribute to a more honest discussion about race in America and stir a global discussion on a contemporary shame.