USA must face slave history says movie director

Oscar hope: Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup in the film based on his memoir.

The epic British film 12 Years a Slave is now an Oscar contender after winning best motion picture at the Golden Globes. Does it force us to face uncomfortable truths?

It is set to become one of the most talked about films of the year. The winner of Sunday’s Golden Globe awards for best drama has already sent the critics into a spin. “If you have any interest in cinema – or, for that matter, in art, economics, politics, drama, literature or history – then you need to watch 12 Years a Slave,” read one (fairly typical) review in this weekend’s Observer newspaper.

Based on the 19th-century memoir of Solomon Northup (adapted by screenwriter John Ridley), 12 Years a Slave follows the tribulations of an educated carpenter, musician and family man from New York state who, in 1841, was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south – a common phenomenon at the time.

Some Americans hope the movie will be a catalyst to address the current state of the nation’s race relations. They point to recent controversies from the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin to the US supreme court striking down parts of the Voting Rights Act – making it potentially harder for black Americans in certain states to vote.

Closer to home for people in the UK is the fact that many British fortunes were built on the back of the 19th century slave trade. The government paid out £20m to compensate some 3,000 families that owned slaves for the loss of their ‘property’ when slave-ownership was abolished in Britain’s colonies in 1833. This figure represented a staggering 40% of the Treasury’s annual spending budget and, in today’s terms, equates to around £16.5bn.

The biggest single payout went to a James Blair (no relation to Tony), an MP who had homes in Marylebone, central London, and Scotland. He was awarded £83,530, the equivalent of £65m today, for 1,598 slaves he owned on the plantation he had inherited in British Guiana.

Others who benefited from slavery are ancestors of the prime minister, David Cameron, former minister Douglas Hogg, authors Graham Greene and George Orwell, and the chairman of the Arts Council, Peter Bazalgette. Other prominent names which feature in the records include one of the nation’s oldest banking families, the Barings, and the second Earl of Harewood, an ancestor of the queen’s cousin.

Ancient history?

Interesting stuff and a great story, some say, but not something to get worked up about today. If we all knew the truth about our ancestors few would be blameless. History is full of great injustices and we can’t wind the clock back.

Claptrap! say others, such as the Polaris Project, a modern anti-slavery organisation. The control mechanisms used against Solomon Northup by his captors are the very same tactics employed by human traffickers against 20 million people currently held as modern slaves.

You Decide

  1. Why do you think slavery is a difficult subject for many to talk about?
  2. Do you think it is helpful or unhelpful to study the history of slavery as a way of understanding present debates about race?


  1. Write a short article about any film that has influenced your view on an important subject.
  2. Is there a true story that you know that might make a good film? Write a short proposal to a Hollywood director saying why it should be made into a film.

Some People Say...

“When it comes to slavery I’m saying, problem not solved.”

Oprah Winfrey

What do you think?

Q & A

Surely everyone knows slavery is wrong, why is this still an important issue?
Of course no one will openly defend slavery, but millions live in conditions which may be little better than those in which Northup finds himself in the film. Slavery may no longer be an issue about race now; but terrible things can happen if we assume that horrors are in the past and can no longer happen today.
Why is Hollywood’s take on history important?
Films have a way of bringing history alive for a wide audience in a way that can emotionally affect people’s view of a topic.12 Years a Slave’s depiction of the harsh realities of slavery helps lift slavery off the page of history textbooks and gets people to empathise with the character’s predicament.

Word Watch

Golden Globe
An American award bestowed by the 93 members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association recognising excellence in film and television, both domestic and foreign. The annual formal ceremony and dinner at which the awards are presented is a major part of the film industry's awards season that culminates each year with the Oscars.
Trayvon Martin
An unarmed, black 17-year-old youth who was shot and killed in Florida in February 2012 by George Zimmerman, 29, who said he opened fire on the teenager in self-defence and was acquitted of murder.

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