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Patrick Vernon
'12 Years A Slave': Still fighting for our freedom

DIRECTOR: Steve McQueen (PA)

I HAD the privilege of attending just before Christmas a film preview of 12 Years A Slave organised by Damaris a film education charity. There was a Q&A with the director Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor the leading actor. Both Steve and Chiwetel spoke passionately about the personal impact of making the film and what they would like to see as response to the film from the public. The film is based on the true story of a free black man sold into slavery in 1841 based on the book by Samuel Northrup with the same title.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is living in Saratoga (New York state) with his family where he has a good living as a violinist. He is offered to play in Washington for an out-of-town circus by two young entrepreneurs who subsequently kidnap him before he selling him into slavery.

The film explores the trauma and the psychology of being enslaved as Solomon battles to maintain his sanity and desire for freedom while observing and occasionally supporting other enslaved Africans survival on the various plantations.

His own saving grace is his musical skills in playing the fiddler. However, during the later part of the film he eventually stops playing music as he starts to lose the will to live as the beatings and the mental trauma of preserving his identity becomes unbearable. The memory of his family starts to fade away along with his freedom.

The film finishes with Solomon being reunited with his family but his children are now grown up with their own families. Solomon feels a sense guilt and betrayal in not seeing his family as result of making the decision to travel to Washington 12 years ago.

The film I have to say is one of the best ones in the last 20 years I have seen which captures the experience of enslavement and the physical and mental anguish that our ancestors experienced. However, you do have to wait every 10-15 years where Hollywood and film financiers have the guts to fund such a film.

I know we had Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained back in 2012 but that was more like Pulp Fiction in costume drama with lots of unnecessary violence, minor sadist gratification with slap stick humour thrown in.

This time around Steve McQueen gives a Black British perspective on an African American slave narrative which is articulate, sensitive, thought provoking along with great cinetemography highlighting the contradiction of the beauty of the Louisiana countryside with all its seasons mixed in with the dehumanisation process of enslavement and plantation owners with psychopathic tendencies.

The film highlights three key issues on the black British modern day experience of fighting for emancipation and social justice.

Firstly, films like 12 Yeas A Slave, Mandela, Half of a Yellow Sun and the various US television programmes like Homeland, and The Wire is the coming of age of Black British actors, and film makers. We now have a growing cadre of highly skilled professionals who are now breaking the African American monopoly of Hollywood which is still marginal compared with the mainstream opportunities for white actors and directors. In addition, black British actors are still based in the UK and have to balance home life by criss-crossing the Atlantic on a regular basis for work and recognition in Hollywood.

I guess this is a changing fortune compared with 200 years ago when Phyllis Weatley came to England from America during time of slavery to be the first black woman to have her autobiography published. The likes of Frederick Douglass did a UK speaking tour making the case for abolition of slavery in America. The Fisk Singers performed here to raise money for the first black led university in America. Most recent times we have had the establishment of Black Power Movement, the rise of weaves and various hair products, growth of subsidiary record labels and licensing arrangements in exporting artists and music genres like soul, jazz funk, rap, hip hop, house and garage to the UK market.

Finally, the regular trips by Rev Jesse Jackson Jr extolling the virtues of black leadership and economic boycotts as part of the process of mirroring a UK version of the civil rights movement makes us feel we are still dependent on our US cousins for moral support, creativity and inspiration.

Even when Hollywood films have a black British character they still prefer to use African American actors such as Forest Whittaker like in The Crying Game or Don Cheadle as the east London wide boy in Ocean’s 11 (still can't believe he got away with that awful accent).

The black Atlantic experience (unless you want to include the Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield, Tom Jones, Beatles, David Bowe, Adele or in appropriating various black musical genres) cultural exchange has been dominate one way traffic apart from the rare occasional break through like Joseph Marcell (the butler in The Fresh Prince of Bel -Air), Lennox Lewis, Naomi Campbell, Soul2 Soul, Ainsley Harriot and Leona Lewis.

After films like Notting Hill which made you think black people did not exist in west London (if they did a remake today it might the case with the growing gentrification of the area as you now at least £1m to buy a property) now British film finance is now creating demand for Black British actors in Hollywood.

In 1996, Marianne Jean-Baptiste was the first black British actor to receive an Oscar nomination for her role in Secrets and Lies. Sadly the distributors in the UK did not profile her as part of the film promotion in a similar way like to recent debacle in Italy with Chiwetel Ejiofor being whitewashed from all posters by the distributors.

I predict that in 2014 one of the following will receive an Oscar and or Golden Globe honour: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Idris Elba, Naomi Harris, Steve McQueen and Amma Asante.

The second issue regarding the film 12 Year A Slave is the film again is an African American story which is part of the wider domination of the African diaspora experience internationally.

Hollywood and British finance people either still have no or limited confidence in our narratives and heritage or may be black film makers/screen writers have not put together the right package? Either way this is still not good enough for 2014.

I know in the past the UK Film Council and now BFI have been developing various programmes over the years to provide mentoring/training support and brokerage/networking opportunities in putting together black film-makers and film financiers. Time will tell if this creates a new promotion of films reflecting our hidden histories or reinforencing existing stereotypes.

The crucial point is that we still to need to make more films about our experience of enslavement and emancipation in Africa, Caribbean, South American and the UK. Where are our films on Nanny, Ignatius Sancho, Sam Sharpe, and Queen Nzinga (what happened to the Danny Glover's film Toussaint L'Ouverture)?

There was a large black presence particularly in London during the 17th and 18th century and thus we have many stories and narratives to tell. I am looking forward to see the film Belle by Amma Asante about Dido Elizabeth Belle, who lived with her great-uncle Lord Mansfield at Kenwood House (now a National Trust property) in Hampstead which at least partially addresses this balance.

We are even now still waiting for the major blockbuster film about Mary Seacole who is probably the most mainstream black historical figure you can choose from the 100 Great Black Britons campaign.

This country is still in denial regarding the history and impact of enslavement. This is reflected in no major costume dramas on television or feature films (or even Dr Who) which examines enslavement compared with our Americans cousins. We are still fixated with programmes like Call the Midwife, Downtown Abbey, Brideshead Revisited or Bronte Sisters.

The only exception was in 2007 was the film Amazing Grace about William Wilberforce which again provides a misleading history of the abolition of the slave trade. Maybe we can wait for the remake of Roots again or see the re-runs on one of the satellite platforms.

Although we may have some enlighten individuals in Hollywood, Channel 4 and the BBC that might put some money on the table occasionally for a black film-maker, we still need to provide support in the community for established and up-and-coming film-makers, screen writers, actors/actresses, camera crews if want to tell and share our own stories.

This also means that we need to develop a viable creative economy for the talent that have the ideas, experience and vision. We may not have a mass black consumer market like America but it is important that we should not underestimate the potential global impact of developing and marketing Black British culture and heritage.

A number of us have successfully created products/services in the creative cultural industries promoting black history ranging from book publishers, fine artist, graphic designers, musicians, architects, film makers, software and game makers, fashion designers, jewellery makers, board games and greeting cards manufacturers to an international consumer audience selling via the internet and establishing distribution networks.

The black British experience is something which the world is interested but we need to make these accessible, interesting and produced products/services to a high quality standard. This is one thing we can do in a period of austerity where there is a strong interest in retroism and nostalgia about our historical achievements and struggles.

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