12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man from New York who was kidnapped into slavery in 1841, during the tumultous years when America struggled to overturn an institution upon which the country can be said to have been built. It is, frankly speaking, an incredible film. It was nominated for a host of awards, and took home what many still regard as the most prestigious prize: the Academy Award for Best Picture. And whilst I did not see enough movies last year to be a fair judge, it probably deserves it. Solomon Northup’s story is perhaps the least embellished ‘true story’ that I have ever seen on film. There was unfortunately one major inaccuracy – unfortunate because it provided one of the most emotional moments on the film, but I doubt that the creative team behind the film intended it. Most of the story is as Northup related in his book, written with the aid of a ghost writer. The horrors that African Americans faced during those years of transition – the heavy whippings that I can’t imagine people today surviving, the sexual, physical and psychological abuse, the denial of these people’s humanity – come through on the screen through the raw emotion of its stars, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o. It is worth watching the film for them alone.
Having seen both critics and audiences celebrate this film, however, I find myself puzzled at the degree of racial discrimination that still exists in America today. 2014 has seen race riots in Ferguson as questions over the death of an African American teenager at the hands of a white police officer remain. I remember when the new first broke back in August: one of the facts that stood out most to me was that whilst Ferguson’s population was about two-thirds black, there were only three or four black police officers to about fifty white ones. Such discrepancies – another is the difference in perceptions over how African Americans are treated in comparison to white people – are indicators of serious, underlying issues that the American people really need to consider.
That’s not to say that other countries are much better: in Australia, for example, most of us do not really understand just how much our policies aimed at ‘integrating Aborigines into our one Australian community’ is based on Western views of what society should be like. We may think that our societies have progressed quite far along the road to true equality between different races, as we think that our societies make opportunities available for those that work hard enough to deserve it. However, studies have found, for example, that it is still considerably easier for people with Anglo-sounding names to find jobs. Anecdotes I’ve heard also suggest that most jobs also go to people who are well connected, for reasons ranging from being able to obtain inside knowledge of what an employer is looking for, to having a referee to whom the people doing the hiring owe a favour. This is just food for thought, but perhaps the greatest obstacle to reaching the ideal of real equality is the belief that we are already there?
p.s. I had also been curious about what eventually happened to Northup – did he successfully return to his previous life? Did he become involved in the abolutionist movement? Apparently, he did, and was even involved in the Underground Railroad. However, as far as historians have been able to tell, his final years have not been documented in the historical record…