Bafta and Oscar nominated “12 years and Slave” has been a hit at the world box office, grossing over £100,000,000. This is surprising for a film now famous for its no polished, roses and daisies approach to the issue of American slavery. Yet British director Steve McQueen has masterfully delivered a film that finally addresses a period of history America would rather sweep under the lush carpet of The American dream. So can 12 years a slave be considered the landmark film of the century?
We’ve come a long way in cinema. Far away are the days when black characters would be the screeching, devious naïve characters – humorously portrayed for their white counterparts to be highlighted as sane intellectuals. For those of you who have seen timeless classic “Gone with the Wind” (1939), one nowadays can’t help cringing at the scenes where African Americans get their time to shine. Before the delivery of Melanie’s baby, hysterical slave Prissy childishly screeches at Scarlett O’Hara admitting her dishonesty, lack of capabilities and lulls around singing during an emergency, ending in a fierce slap from her heroin mistress. Butterfly McQueen’s character epitomises the simplicity and unpleasantness that audiences viewed African Americans, the true make up of third class citizens.
But what now?
Now Hollywood seems to be giving these historically important characters a story and voice. As has been frequently said, there were 400 years of slavery and less than 20 films have been made on the subject. How can we ignore such a major part of world history and not portray it as accurately as its victims – and descendants – deserve?
“Django Unchained” (2012) made the central character, a black slave, the ultimate hero. Gun slinging, bloody explosions and rides off into the sunset equated to QuentinTarantino’s slave-western epic. And while it was a great film, it was a great cartoon. Now cinema required an honest drama. Adapted from Solomon Northup’s memoir (1853) based events after his abduction came “12 Years a Slave”. It’s unprecedented how it deals with slavery; a completely honest, harrowing and moving picture featuring stunning performances of raw emotion and feeling from Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon) and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o.
It marks the transition from the film industry reflecting politics to projecting a period of history nations would rather ignore. Instead the arts have chosen to take a stand and portray a brutal period with the utmost respect and honesty, delivered with stunning artistic beauty. It’s an important film that has pulled many audiences to the cinema and should continue to attract more as the years pass. While I wait for the days Native Americans, Aborigines and other oppressed groups will be given the representation in culture they deserve, 150 years has passed since slavery ended in America. One can only hope that 150 years on “12 years a slave” will still be recognised by audiences as the film that altered cinema storytelling forever.
BY: Moriyo Aiyeola