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09 January 2014

12 Years a Slave: A reflection

12 Years a Slave: A reflection

by Rev Israel Olofinjana

12 Years a Slave is a biographical film about a free African American who was abducted and enslaved. The film is an adaptation of the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup.

I was one of the few privileged to watch an advanced screening in London in December followed by a question and answer session with Chiwetel Ejiofor (the lead actor) and Steve McQueen (director).

As the film ended, the auditorium was silent and atmosphere tense. As the lights came up, it was evident that most people had shed a tear or three.

The film shows slavery from two different points of view. The view of the oppressors and the view of the oppressed. The viewer gets a very intense and real understanding of the mental and psychological trauma that slaves endured. Camera angles, cinematography and powerful performances demonstrate the extent of physical, sexual and mental abuse of enslaved women. This is an area that is not often emphasised in slavery discourse and which Steve McQueen' s direction brought to the world's attention.

As an African scholar who has studied and researched into the history and discourse of slavery, I was still stunned and disturbed by some of the abuse suffered by the people enslaved in the film.

I felt anger. Not just about what I was watching or because of my thoughts about what my ancestors would have gone through during the slave trade, but because the legacies of slavery are still very much with us today.

This can be seen in issues of immigration (especially when immigrants are stereotyped as poor and draining the country's resources), neo colonialism and global poverty.

Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave gives us a window into the past to try and understand how enslaved people were treated as objects and not humans. This is important for our collective memory if we are to address the issues in the present.

How do we remember the past? In the context of America, the history and debate about slavery is part of their past, but I am afraid that in the British context, although different, the elephant in the room has not been fully addressed. The question is still to be asked, how did the British Empire, with its colonisation and imperialistic policies, govern its subjects around the world? How is this being taught in our schools today and what versions are we feeding the next generation?

Another angle that the film reveals is the role of Christianity in the slave discourse. This can be seen in the way oppressors used the Bible, out of context, to justify their actions. On the other hand, the oppressed used the same Bible to inspire hope that one day they will be free.

This tension between the Bible used as a tool of oppression as well as source of freedom is very true to the history of the slave trade. This understanding is the reason why black theology takes seriously the experiences of the oppressed and we have a lot to learn from black theologians in regards to black experiences.

Lastly, I am sure that many who watch the film will be angry at the injustice, just as I was. It is interesting that the film is released at the same time as Nelson Mandela's film, The long walk to freedom, which has been made more significant by Mandela's death. The message communicated in Mandela's life is one of forgiveness. But let's not forget that forgiveness and justice go together. 12 years a Slave reminds us that we still need to have some honest conversations.


Damaris have published a range of resources that accompany 12 Years a Slave found at www.damaris.org/12years. A discussion guide is designed to accompany the Thinking Film discussion starter. A Reel to Real video, built around clips from the film and an interview with lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, is available alongside downloadable clips with background information and suggestions, ideal for use in church services.