Astrid Swan and Nick Triani watch Steve McQueen's powerful film 12 Years A Slave. In this review they discuss structural racism, the current sociopolitical climate and the alignment of art and politics.
Immigration, refugees, racism and racialization have become the focal points of discussion in these times. The balance of power in most westernized democracy is being reimagined dependant on how these topics are presented to the masses. For many people this discussion is normal. Being a foreigner in a western country will surely bring some form of racial slur or abuse. I know this from personal experience. Rather like my parents, I am an immigrant (in addition to growing up as the son of immigrants). I live in Finland, my parents moved from Italy to England before I was born. Roaming is in the Traina blood (my great grandfather emigrated to the USA in the early 20th Century), and I’ve always felt the world should be anyone’s oyster to move around as freely as one wishes. Yes, I’m an idealist. In what has become a familiar feeling, my Englishness has been constantly discussed whilst I’ve been living in Finland (yes, I’m a tea drinker and I like football). People base most of their observations of me based on stereotypical national references. This is not a criticism of Finland – actually it’s been fairly mild if truth be told – but more an observation that your nation’s traits travel with you. In Finland I’ve often been mistaken for being an Arab (and of course had the abuse that goes with it). Whilst growing up and living in England, I was constantly reminded of my Italian heritage and that all Italians were cowards and hot blooded tempermental beasts. “Watch that Latin temper of his” being one example of the stereotypical talk I’ve had directed at me. Mook, spook, eyetie, dago, spic, wop, chocolate flake, chocolate drop, wog, ape, monkey, banana eater, brownie, coon, nigger etc. are some of the derogatory slurs I’ve been subjected to during my life. It’s no biggie and I’m not looking for sympathy, I’m just painting the picture. My own perception of myself is that I am British and white. Yet, very few people actually see me the way I see myself.
Whilst growing up and living in England, I was constantly reminded of my Italian heritage and that all Italians were cowards and hot blooded tempermental beasts. “Watch that Latin temper of his” being one example of the stereotypical talk I’ve had directed at me.
My point in telling you some of what I’ve experienced as an immigrant – and son of – is that generally most people haven’t been able to look past my nationality/skin color wherever I’ve lived. This has most definitely defined me in the eyes of others. The progress of time and knowledge has not led to any enlightenment in general terms, in fact quite the opposite – the right are on the rise. Of course, despite the near constant abuse I’ve experienced, it hasn’t stopped me from doing what I’ve wanted with my life (mostly). I still live the life of a free man compared to many. But casual racism has become a norm over the years that I’ve just come to accept. I despise racists with all my might, and have to say that the majority of people I’ve met in my life (and some good friends included) have been inherently racist. I used to think that racism in Finland was naive, the almost flagrant use of the N-word by some a sign that Finland has had very little experience of foreigners (and not understanding fully the implications of the ‘N’ word). That doesn’t rub anymore. Britain ran out of excuses years ago and the onset of Brexit has just exposed the levels of inherently racist posturing that passes for unchecked discourse. Of course the flip side to this has been overwhelming support from many Finns who have humbled me in their generosity over the years. By my own admission, my integration into Finnish life has not been seamless, but many Finns have made my second home feel like the place where I want to live my life (despite all I’ve mentioned above). But racial conditioning can also be found in my front room, as my five year old son would like to make the distinction that he’s not as dark as his Isi. Oh how I fear for him as he has to grow up and deal with the racist structures that are still so inherent in our societies.
12 Years A Slave is without doubt the most important mainstream movie of recent times. Its truths are the truths of our age. It’s depiction of deep seated hatred is often hard to stomach, almost revelling in a type of masochism.
12 Years A Slave is without doubt the most important mainstream movie of recent times. Its truths are the truths of our age. It’s depiction of deep seated hatred is often hard to stomach, almost revelling in a type of masochism. 12 Years A Slave also conforms to much classic film making tradition. Clear storytelling, fine acting and Steve McQueen‘s focussed and unfussy direction all contribute. But it’s a film that everyone should see. It angered me in many ways and that was good. I need that anger to start feeling something again and not become desensitized to the racism I’ve had inflicted against me. I related to this film on many levels and recognized the many unfathomable injustices we see on screen. Sadly and unbelievably, this struggle continues for many in 2017. 12 Years A Slave is more than a reminder of what has happened in the past, but a mirror to attitudes that remain relevant in these times. 12 Years A Slave’s power as social commentary will last as long as we let the forces of racial disharmony prevail. Oh, and dear reader, just so you know you’re not let off the hook that lightly; I’ve been making my own stand against this all my life, when are you gonna make yours?
I remember watching 12 Years A Slave in the cinema alone in the middle of my personal storm: a sudden breast cancer diagnosis in January 2014. In that cinema I cried for the cruelty and hopelessness of the continuous racist oppression of people, the depiction of which filled the screen – and I cried out of personal hopelessness. At home I told Nick the movie is amazing and that he should see it, but it took us three years to get to that point. I continued to cry while watching Lupita Nyong’o accept her Academy Award for supporting actress at the 2014 Oscars and when the whole cast walked on stage to accept the best picture award for 12 Years A Slave. I smiled through my tears at Steve McQueen’s jubilant jumps while I held my fever-flushed two-year-old in my lap and rejoiced. Sometimes, not very often, cinema aligns directly with the most urgent political message of its time and this was the case with 12 Years A Slave.
Sometimes, not very often, cinema aligns directly with the most urgent political message of its time and this was the case with 12 Years A Slave.
Three years later the Oscar for best picture went to Moonlight in 2017 and the issue of structural racism is more in the mainstream than it ever has been. Yet, the current sociopolitical times appear harsh and while awareness may be growing, hatred and racism have gained ground where a kind of educated equilibrium seemed to previously be perching. Problems like slavery, have not disappeared either. So watching the film version of Solomon Northup’s autobiographical narrative from nearly 200 years ago seems disturbingly familiar and impossible to distance from current realities. Again, the film nailed me to my seat and forced me to confront the most horrible sides of humanity and whiteness.
12 Years A Slave should be compulsory viewing in the education of a teenager. Yes, this is demanding a lot, but I’d add it right next to Schindler’s List (1993), which I still remember watching at 14. What I’m trying to say is that it is a film that needs to build new generations by becoming a building block for their thinking. The movie represents structural racism and its impacts through an artistic rendition in the particular context of the US in the 19th Century. It shakes the core of anyone watching and shows the arbitrariness and co-incidental nature of freedom, faith, and the systems of power in place. Because it is art and not a history lesson, it gets right through to your heart and it twists and twists… the kind of hurt that I cannot bear and I cannot turn away from. Chiwetel Ejiofor carries the film on his shoulders and in his eyes. He is mesmerising. The cinematography catches him mid-emotion so many times it is heartbreaking. I don’t know other actors who have managed this truthfulness and then not won the Academy Award. I also don’t know how the cast of actors were able to act in 12 Years A Slave without completely exhausting themselves – I hope they had good on-site therapists. Crushing as it is, this film gives me hope.
Chiwetel Ejiofor carries the film on his shoulders and in his eyes. He is mesmerizing. The cinematography catches him mid-emotion so many times it is heartbreaking. I don’t know other actors who have managed this truthfulness and then not won the Academy Award.