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12 Years a Slave

Tom Winnifrith
Saturday 1 February 2014

Last night’s film. Having watched producer Steve McQueen being interviewed about his latest flick I was not entirely minded to trot along and see it. I am thankful to the Mrs. for ensuring that I did as this is a powerful – true life – tale and a brilliantly shot movie. At the (happy) end I could hear sobbing in the audience and even a hard hearted old guy like myself shed a tear. But the ending is the only happy bit of an otherwise grim tale.

Post 1833 it was illegal to import slaves to the American South. In the North the black population was free and it appears, from the film, integrated. I think this is a bit of an airbrush of history. During the Civil War elements of the Irish Community in New York protested about being asked to “fight for the niggers.” I am not so sure the North was a place of universal tolerance. But at least there was no slavery.

Hence some “entrepreneurs” decided that kidnapping blacks from the North to sell in the South was a cunning wheeze. This is the true story of one such slave.

There is one scene that made the whole audience wince. If you have not seen this film yet I won’t ruin the surprise. But it is very good cinema.

The South - “Dixie” was for too long romanticized on our screens. The rebels were in some way seen as re-asserting the rights of the States or of the individual against Big Government. You remember the “Good old boys” of the Dukes of Hazard driving “General Lee” (a Southern war “hero”)? Gone with the Wind depicts a happy sort of slave, fat and laughing.  Even uber-PC Tom Petty sings “I was born a rebel, down in Dixie” – hmmm, rebel against what Tom?

This film should shatter such romantic illusions. Slaves were viewed as commodities to be bought, sold, raped, killed, worked until they dropped at will. Life expectancy on the more brutal plantations was not long. Even the “kind hearted slavers (the one played by “Sherlock”) still viewed slaves in this light. I am not sure that I entirely share the agenda of Steve McQueen, the film’s very able producer, in making points about today’s America. But in showing the true horror of a society some still seek in some way to romanticize, he does us all a service. So far, in 2014, 12 Years a Slave has to be my film of the year.

Next up is the Wolf of Wall Street. 

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About Tom Winnifrith
Tom Winnifrith is the editor of When he is not harvesting olives in Greece, he is (planning to) raise goats in Wales.
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