12 Years a Slave, the authentic ordeal of a free man who was enslaved for 12 years

With “12 Years a Slave”, broadcast tonight on France 5, Steve McQueen delivers a powerful and masterfully staged work on the authentic story of Solomon Northup, a free African-American kidnapped and enslaved for 12 years.

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In a mixture of shame and guilt, in the shadow of the Founding Fathers of Independence and the American Constitution, twelve of whom made slaves work on their plantations, the United States is still struggling to bring up the subject of slavery. Even if we must not hide the fact that many artists have preferred to privilege the history of Segregation and Civil Rights, treated many times in the cinema, such as Mississippi Burning or Malcolm X.

Why ? Because the end of slavery did not necessarily lead to real equality, and it was not until the beginning of the sixties (of the twentieth century) for this equality to emerge, with the culmination of Great March to Washington for Work and Freedom led by Martin Luther King in 1963, and the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Since DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in 1915, which gave the history of slavery a misleading and racist reading and which was intended to fuel propaganda in favor of segregationist politics, too few Hollywood fictions have testified to the reality of slavery in the United States, even if things tend to move very noticeably on the subject.

On this point, the Racines series, broadcast in 1977, had a significant impact. If it was obviously not free from faults, starting with the lack of rigor on certain facts or attention to detail (which in no way detracts from its qualities, by the way), it had real educational virtues. : before its broadcast on the small screen, many Americans were still unaware of the country’s slavery past …

12 Years a Slave, a salutary and historic film

Often presented as the heir of Spike Lee, the British Steve McQueen delivers with 12 Years a Slave, released in 2013 and broadcast tonight on France 5, a salutary and historic film. For at least two reasons. The first: this is the first Hollywood film dealing with the theme of slavery directed by a black director; was he non-American. The second: McQueen offers a point of view that contrasts radically with past film productions. Here, the film espouses the perspective of Solomon Northup, a free man reduced to a slave after being kidnapped and sold in 1841.

The unhappy man will tell a story of his ordeal in his memories; essential testimony written by the person concerned in 1853. 101 fugitives published a book on their slavery in the United States, but only Solomon Northup told his story as a free man, then that of his captivity, and that of his recovered freedom.

Below, the movie trailer …

Why did we wait so long to see a film in Hollywood dealing so fairly and sensitively with the subject? “In fact, the problem is that unlike the plethora of films about different historical atrocities like the Holocaust, there are few films on the subject of slavery.” wrote in an article Salamishah Tillet, Associate Professor of Anglo-African Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and now working at the Rutgers University in Newark.

And to continue: “but unlike films about the Holocaust, which allow American viewers to understand past traumas and mass violence as phenomena taking place outside the United States, films on slavery reveal the paradox that continues to haunt us: the strange marriage between racism and freedom, on which the country was founded “.

Even before having read Solomon Northup’s memoirs, which were a real success in his time, sold 17,000 copies, Steve McQueen already wanted to be able to make a film dealing with slavery and these blacks delivered “illegally” in the South. His wife then introduced him to Northup’s memories.

For him, it was the revelation: “I was shocked and fascinated by this extraordinary story. It almost reminded me of Pinocchio or a tale of the Brothers Grimm – the story of this man torn from his own and subjected to a long succession of trials, but for whom still shines a light at the end of the tunnel (…) This story is much larger than anything I have read or seen ” he said. “I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this book. How is that possible? Most people in the United States that I’ve mentioned it have never heard of either. For me, this book – an incredible account of a man plunged into a world of absolute inhumanity – is as essential to American history as Anne Franck’s Diary is to European history. “

Avoid simplifying diagrams

With a rigor which commands respect, Steve McQueen also avoids with his film, in filigree, simplifying diagrams, where for ease if not simplism, one opposes the States of the North and the South, the abolitionist States and the slave States, before the War of Secession.

However, underlines Henry Louis Gates Jr., American scholar and literary critic who teaches at Harvard and consultant on the film, “One should not exaggerate the delineation between North and South. Certainly, at the time of the kidnapping of Northup, there were 13 slave states and 13 abolitionists in America. But we must not forget that before the War of Secession, there have always been more free black men in the South than in the North, despite slavery “.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Solomon Northup extraordinary in Steve McQueen’s film.

And to add: “If there was a major gap between the freedoms Solomon Northup enjoyed as a free man in New York and those he enjoyed as a slave in Louisiana, discrimination in the North was widespread In some states, anti-immigration laws and racial arrangements even foreshadowed a segregationist era, making freedom for black Americans a myth until the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s.

For me, this book […] is as essential to American history as Anne Franck’s Journal is to European history. (Steve McQueen)

If the United States welcomed about 400,000 Africans from Europe, victims of what has been called the Black Trafficking, it is estimated that around 1860 their descendants numbered 4 million. “You know my parents are from the Caribbean” said Steve McQueen; “and there is a significant mix of people in the United States and Europe who have a lot in common. Malcolm X, Sidney Poitier, Colin Powell … They all carry this story with them. The point is not to seeing things in black or white, when it comes to nationality. It’s much more complex than that “.

A story that is indeed complex, cruel and terrible at the same time, which has its roots deep in the past of the United States and the collective conscience, but not only. A story to which 12 Years A Slave makes a salutary and brilliant contribution.

You know what you have to do if you have not yet seen this film, broadcast tonight at 8:50 p.m. on France 5.

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