My Ideal Slavery Film

‘Films are not necessarily good because black people make them. They are not necessarily ‘right on’ by virtue of the fact that they deal with the black experience.’ Stuart Hall (New Ethnicities) I’ve had some really interesting conversations recently about my blank refusal to see Steve McQueen’s Oscar nominated film, 12 Years a Slave. While I always try to support black British artists, I couldn’t fight the feeling that this film really wasn’t for me. If I were one of those holding the opinion that ‘of course slavery was hideous but can we stop banging on about it now’; I would go get a ticket. And if I were one of Michael Gove’s favoured revisionist historians of the ‘Empire wasn’t all bad – we built roads’ ilk; then I would probably book a private screening. Fortunately, I fall into neither of those categories and I have to admit that I greeted the thought of two hours spent reliving the horrors of slavery in all its unsparing (by all reports) detail with a degree of dismay usually reserved for South Korean cinema. It’s not that I’m squeamish (I am) but I genuinely don’t mind being revolted if I gain something other than the return of my dinner in exchange. But I’m pretty sure that I know slavery was violent, horrific, and dehumanising of both the owned and the owners. I’ve visited slave holding cells in the Caribbean and imagined members of my family imprisoned there, with all the brutality that lay both behind and ahead of them.  I’ve heard descriptions of the fortresses in Ghana and elsewhere, where the slave faeces was so compacted that it formed an organic floor, and the dungeons for the female slaves had stairs leading directly to the governor’s quarters. Trust me, my imaginings of what my ancestors endured have plenty of source material; I’m just not convinced that McQueen had anything substantial to add to the picture. However, he did make an important point about his film: ‘The Second World War lasted five years and there are hundreds and hundreds of films about the Second World War and the Holocaust. Slavery lasted 400 years and there are less than 20. We have to redress that balance and look at that time in history.’[1] While I agree with this, I am also old enough to remember the debut of Alex Haley’s Roots as a child in the seventies, and the incredibly complex mixture of rage and shame that it evoked in my young mind. I do not recall feeling particularly enlightened. And so because the issue of slavery, and Empire, has been chronically ignored in mainstream cinema, it becomes more important that any contemporary film on the topic adds something new to our understanding of ourselves and wider society. It’s simply not enough to dig up past sufferings solely to inform those who may be unaware of them. I know that I’m setting the bar high here, and perhaps unreasonably so, but my ideal slavery film would both implicate current power structures while addressing the personal legacy expressed so poignantly by Hall, who sadly died earlier this month: ‘I am not a liberal Englishman like you. In the back of my head are things that can’t be in the back of your head. That part of me comes from a plantation, when you owned me. I was brought up to understand you… You don’t lose that, it becomes stronger.’ [2] Stuart Hall (1932-2014)

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