Africans were enslaved by Britain and the United States in continental North America for nearly 250 years (1619-1865). The profits accrued from the Atlantic slave trade led to the rise of industrial capitalism and the worldwide exploitative system of imperialism. (See “Capitalism and Slavery” by Eric Williams, 1944)
A new film directed by Steve McQueen, a Caribbean-British filmmaker of Grenadian descent, captures the horrors of U.S. slavery in his depiction of an autobiography, “12 Years a Slave,” written by Solomon Northup in 1853. Northup was legally a free African living in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who was lured to Washington, D.C., and then kidnapped into slavery in Louisiana.
Northup’s life in New York was portrayed as a successful one with a loving spouse and two children.
A skilled carpenter and violinist, he was invited by two white men in 1841 to come to Washington to negotiate the terms of a performance tour. He was then drugged, chained to the floor of a ship and transported to Louisiana, where he became a slave.
It would take 12 years for Northup to escape the slave masters. He was subjected to enslavement by three plantation owners, the final one of whom tormented and tortured him along with other Africans.
The plight of Solomon Northup portrayed in this film was by no means an isolated incident. There were many Africans who were considered “free” who later wound up on plantations.
Africans are portrayed in the film not only as victims of the racist and exploitative system but also as resisters who defied their captors through slowing down work production, running away and fighting against brutality by the overseers and owners.
Northup was played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, an acclaimed actor who was born in London to Nigerian parents in 1977. He began acting during his school years at the age of 11.
Ejiofor has received numerous acting awards and nominations, including the 2006 British Academy of Film and Television Arts Rising Star, three Golden Globe Awards nominations and the 2008 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor for his performance in Othello. He appeared in such films as “Dirty Pretty Things,” “The Operative in Serenity,” “Kinky Boots” and “Children of Men.”
One of the most compelling performances in the film was the depiction of “Patsey,” an African slave woman who was subjected to horrendous abuse by the plantation owner Edwin Epps, played by actor Michael Fassbender. The owner attempts to rationalize his abusive behavior through a false interpretation of the Bible that supposedly justifies the torture and rape of the enslaved.
Patsey was brilliantly portrayed by Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o. This film represented her debut in films in the U.S.
Nyong’o is the daughter of Kenyan politician Peter Anyang Nyong’o, who had previously served as the minister of Medical Services and was elected to the national parliament in the recent 2013 elections to represent Kisumu County in the country’s Senate. Lupita’s cousin, Isis Nyong’o, was named by Forbes magazine in 2012 as one of the most powerful women in Africa.
Lupita Nyong’o graduated from Hampshire College after studying film production and theater. She has worked on various films and would later attend Yale Drama School, from which she graduated in 2012. Lupita Nyong’o is considered by many film critics as the frontrunner in the best supporting actress category for the 2014 Academy Awards.
Reparations — a demand for justice
The narratives and autobiographies of enslaved Africans have made a tremendous contribution to the exposure of the exigencies of the slave system. These accounts are taken directly from those impacted by the exploitative and oppressive system.
Slavery was not only a moral issue but its existence was indispensable to the development of the U.S. ruling class as the dominant force in world imperialism.
The impact of slavery is still very much in evidence in the U.S. today. The U.S. government has consistently refused to recognize the contributions of slavery to the political and intellectual culture of the country.
Moreover, the U.S. government and capitalist corporations have refused to pay reparations to the descendants of enslaved Africans. Even current President Barack Obama, whose father was born in Kenya, stated during his initial presidential race in 2008 that he opposed the payment of reparations to African descendants in the U.S.
This film makes a monumental contribution to the popularization of consciousness about the political, social and economic origins of the U.S. capitalist system. It makes a powerful statement as to why African Americans are continuing to demand reparations for slavery and remain in the forefront of the struggle against racism and national oppression.