12 Years A Slave

Yesterday was the release day for Steve McQueen’s much-anticipated film on the life of Solomon Upnorth, 12 Years A Slave. The movie is based on a book he wrote of his ordeal as a free man in New York, kidnapped in Washington and exploited in a life of slavery for 12 years.

The film is both one of the best and worst I’ve ever seen. Brilliantly filmed and told and acted, and absolutely horrible. I felt nauseous for its duration, and I think most of the audience felt the same way: the tension was almost palpable, as gasps and clenched limbs tried to endure scenes of sorrow, violence, injustice. The room was silent, but for a few nervous giggles, when the movie ended. Though perhaps the most difficult watch of my life so far, I would absolutely recommend you seeing this.

I surprised myself in how visceral my reaction was, how it felt like I was learning about slavery for the first time. Slavery is so wrong, so revolting though, that working on it every day doesn’t take away from its effect. This reminds me of part of a book I read earlier this week that talked about frustration and discontentment leading to activism, and the importance of frequently returning to what frustrates and enrages you whilst seeking to change it. Again, whether you are in the anti-slavery movement or are just curious, I would recommend you seeing this.

Why? Because as difficult as those two hours were, they were just that: two hours. They weren’t our reality. We sat there with paid-for tickets for a movie we had chosen to see, refreshments at the ready, friends or family in our company, end in sight and comfortable normalcy to return to then. But because slavery was reality for Solomon Upnorth, because it was reality for many others in his time, and because it is reality for countless (those who try suggest it could be 29.8 million) people today.

I almost feel guilty for being affected by the film – for being uncomfortable and upset. This isn’t my reality. But because it is that of someone else, and because I know about it, I can’t just carry on as if I didn’t. And I hope you feel the same.

With privilege comes responsibility. Responsibility, first, to allow ourselves to be exposed to the reality of others and to feel as much as we can of their plight. And responsibility, then, I believe, to act.

3 simple things you can do to act:

FIND OUT MORE about slavery today. Watch a documentary, read a book, explore a website. You may be surprised to know of how similar slavery today is to what it was like in the 1800s.

TELL PEOPLE: the more the word spreads, the less hidden modern-day slavery is. Talk. Tell stories. Share statistics. Make it difficult for traffickers.

LEARN AND REPORT THE SIGNS: know what the signs of trafficking are. Report them when you see them.

But one last thing…when faced with the enormity and complexity of something like slavery, we can often feel overwhelmed, or like the three actions highlighted above aren’t enough. We want to do more, but feel powerless. Please don’t. Brad Pitt’s character in the film is the one who leads to Solomon Upnorth’s freedom…by doing his job as a carpenter. He comes across Upnorth in a work context, listens as they converse, and then acts. Be where you are. We need to be a society of people who are aware and ready to act. Do what you can to equip yourself, but know that you, where you are, with what you have, are able to change things. A doctor who learns the signs and reports them. A teacher who raises kids not to prejudge or devalue. A business who commits to chain-checking. You.

“Slavery is an evil that should befall to none.”

True then, true today.

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