12 Years A Slave and racism in the UK

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I saw 12 Years A Slave a few months ago at the London Film Festival. I liked it well enough – it’s well-made, features some brilliant performances and proved engrossing. I wasn’t, however, as blown away by it as most of the American critics I’d read had been. I particularly found the claims that it was the ‘most brutal’ Hollywood film ever made to be quite odd: yes, it’s difficult to watch at times but the violence (which is rarely as extreme as much advance word would have it) is countered by a strong sentimentality. It was no surprise then that I found bell hooks’ take on it (“sentimental clap-trap”) to be compelling, if characteristically blunt.

As I left the cinema after seeing it, the sound of weeping echoed around the room. It’s certainly the most tear-inducing film I’ve ever seen in a public setting. What partly drove some of my own thoughts on it was the presence in the audience of some people whose response to the London riots had both angered and upset me. How, I wondered, did the racism portrayed in the film connect in their minds to the racism which played such a massive part in the riots and responses to them? Did it even connect at all?

I was reminded of this earlier this week while reading Hadley Freeman’s take on the film, specifically this observation:

Whenever a movie, documentary or otherwise, is made about a terrible historical atrocity – the Holocaust, genocide, slavery – the easiest approach for the filmmaker is to shock the audience while simultaneously making them feel good about themselves for being so different from those brutes from another era – validating all of their beliefs about the past (bad) and themselves (good.) But 12 Years a Slave is too brutal a film, and McQueen too clear-eyed a filmmaker, to do that.

I was completely bemused by this comment because I think it’s exactly what the film does. The ‘racists’ in the film are almost uniformly sociopaths, barely recognisable as human. The big exception is Benedict Cumberbatch as a ‘humane’ plantation owner – but viewers are pretty much invited to sympathise with him, to view him as a ‘good man’ because he treats his slaves with a modicum of dignity. In this way racism is individualised, portrayed as a consequence of how we act. This is most egregiously underlined with Brad Pitt’s cameo as (SPOILER) a carpenter whose intervention ultimately leads to Solomon Northup’s freedom. This is, of course, loyal to Northup’s autobiography but the decision to cast Pitt in the role, looking and sounding to all intents like some American Jesus Christ, is a major misstep. White viewers inevitably identify with him, we think “that’s what I would have done!”

If the film does indeed intend for us to think about racism as a deeply-embedded structure of inequality, of brutality, of human misery, it is a failure. The brilliance of the novel Alone in Berlin is that it makes us realise that most Nazis were just like us, rather than the caricatured visions of evil that we so readily imagine. To get ahead in Nazi Germany meant at the very least acquiescing to what was happening while being a ‘good’ person and opposing the Nazi regime meant almost certain misery and probably death. How many of us have that moral courage? I think it’s a very difficult and uncomfortable question to answer, if we’re honest with ourselves. 12 Years A Slave avoids this discomfort and I can’t imagine many viewers leaving the film wondering what their behaviour might have been had they been alive at that time, in those circumstances. The racism it depicts is both very obvious and very in the past.

If this offers comfort to me as a white (and liberal) viewer, it offers us nothing in terms of understanding racism as a force today. What seemed clear from the riots and was underlined yesterday by the Mark Duggan verdict (and the responses to it) is that many (most?) people in the UK have absolutely no understanding of racism as an endemic system where it’s not only the police force that is institutionally racist. The popular law tweeter Jack of Kent instantly responded to the verdict by tweeting “Hurrah for a jurisdiction where juries can come to verdicts which are unpopular” before engaging in some twisted point-scoring, portraying himself as the dispassionate and rational observer against a legion of over-emotional nitwits who had rushed to offence. This was about the law, not about race, a line taken by the police even as they lied and smeared after killing yet another black person and getting away with it. If the instinctive rush to defend the police is disturbing, meanwhile, the sense (also seen re: the riots) that many believe ‘thugs’ and ‘street criminals’ are less than human and deserve to be brutalised is downright terrifying. The police and many in the media know this – that’s why they have repeatedly tried to control the narrative and assert that Duggan was a ‘violent gang member’.

We as a country are in denial about race. We are so in denial that we actively shout-down those who dare to suggest that we might have a problem, at best portraying them as bitter and over-sensitive cranks and at worse hurling abuse at them. As a white man with a lot to learn I’ve still had plenty of the former when discussing racism – the latter seems largely reserved for the black commentators, who are perceived as ‘angry’ and ‘difficult’ from the off. Even amongst ‘liberal’ people, responses such as these (re: the last Lily Allen video) seem common:

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“I guess it’s just me who sees a person as a person, not as their skin colour first.” This is how I feel. Racism continues because it’s consistently brought up.” You get that? Racism is your fault, losers! Stop bringing it up! People are just people! It would be hysterical in its stupidity if it wasn’t so damaging and widespread. 

I noted in the Lily blog that I was seeing a lot of white gay men shouting down black women who were asserting that the video was racist. This sprung to mind again yesterday with the announcement by former footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger that he is gay. While this may be a positive move with regards to football, the hysteria it elicited was completely (but inevitably) overblown. So far, so standard, Where things became dumbfounding was when the Sun posted its morning front page online:

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The UK’s biggest newspaper apparently didn’t think the verdict on the police killing which sparked England’s biggest riots in generations, a verdict which had instantly aroused anger and fear of further riots, was front page news. More than that, they went with a front page contrasting the ‘brave’ white gay man with the ‘loser’ black one. The people behind The Sun knew exactly what they were doing here: they understood the racial tensions triggered by the Duggan verdict and they knew what message their front page sent in this context. Knowing that The Sun is a racist rag, we might not be surprised at this. Where things got incredible was when people started congratulating them on this move:

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The Guardian’s James Ball led the charge, joined by Charlie Brooker, Stuart McGurk and many others. It was like they were living in some alternate world where nothing much of note had happened that evening. Perversely, Ball and others then followed up with a chorus of sneers at anyone who thought Hitzlsperger’s coming out wasn’t ‘news’. Of course it was, they insisted – gay people are oppressed! And so by writing some patronising words about a gay man (after decades of poisonous, destructive homophobia) The Sun managed to push its vile racist message, that they don’t care about black people, without criticism. It’s a move which is testament to how far the UK has come with regards to homosexuality – what was once hated is now wheeled out as a diversion tactic. This is no surprise given the neutered self-obsession of the gay movement and its firm embedding within the neoliberal mainstream. Gay liberation and gay politics poses absolutely no threat to the wealthy interests The Sun acts as a front for – interests which are served well by our racist structures. Nonetheless, as night follows day you’ll find a white gay man drawing a comparison between gay people and black people. There are volumes of books that could be written about this facile and offensive comparison, which does a disservice both to the fight against homophobia and to anti-racism. Suffice to say that we’re not in danger of being stopped and searched because we’re gay and we’re certainly not about to be shot dead by the police any time soon.

In applauding The Sun people get to feel good about themselves. The whole Duggan affair offers no such balm and even threatens widely-held images not only of our country but of ourselves. And so it’s easier ignored. 12 Years A Slave might offer a visceral depiction of racism but ultimately it offers the same soothing balm and makes it easy to affirm our self-image as ‘good’ and ‘not racist’ people. As long as we keep buying into this and avoiding the reality of racism, the Mark Duggans of this world will keep paying the price.

‘Alone in Berlin’ and ‘Decency’

‘Decency’ is a word (and concept) at the centre of the outstanding novel, ‘Alone in Berlin’, which I finished last night. Based on real events, it is about an ordinary couple living in Nazi Germany who, upon discovering that their son has been killed in the war, embark on their own tiny campaign of defiance against the Third Reich. The campaign is almost comical in its insignificance – they write postcards denouncing Hitler and the Nazis and drop them in stairwells to be found by passers-by.  Yet it is a campaign which costs them their lives. We are left in no doubt that their actions were almost entirely ineffectual as propaganda. Instead, however, we are invited to see the campaign as a metaphysical victory. The couple are, like the sower in Matthew’s parable, sowing good seeds amongst the weeds. Once they refuse to acquiesce to the cruelty around them they reclaim their humanity and stand as testament to the enormous power of integrity and, yes, decency. Despite the small scale of their actions we are left in no doubt that they are giants amongst the petty, cowardly cruelty of the Nazis around them.

Much is made in the novel of how apolitical the couple were prior to being notified of their son’s death. ‘Politics’ is seen as something separate to their lives and they ‘keep their heads down’. I found myself thinking about this throughout. We all know the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ but Nazi Germany is such a ubiquitous signifier for it that I think we still believe it was a ‘special case’. Yet the stark truth is that the mass mania of Nazism took hold amongst human beings not much different to ourselves and the significance of the tacit acquiescence of many who ‘kept their heads down’ is enormous. As proud as Britain can rightly be for standing against Nazi Germany, it’s impossible to believe that as a society we are immune from ‘the banality of evil’. You need only look at how swiftly we as a population have unquestioningly accepted the inevitability of ‘austerity’ to see how easily we can be manipulated. In the pursuit of this austerity we are encouraged to dehumanise and denounce those around us who, we are told, are getting more than their fair share and (more often than not) by duplicitous means. At every turn we are encouraged to place our own material needs before all else – why should we who struggle pay for benefits of people who don’t work, pay for the university education of kids who’ll only mess about, pay for the pensions of workers when we’ll live our old age in penury? Whether we think it is inevitable, justified and/or morally right, we allow our society to be cruel.

This dehumanisation goes further and deeper, of course. Since 9/11 we are repeatedly reminded of our ‘enemies’, reduced to one-note caricatures of brutal barbarians. As a society we have a mass indifference to torture taking place in our name. We are encouraged to believe (and it seems largely accept) that it is an abomination for our ‘enemies’ to have human rights…even to be viewed as humans (instead they are ‘terrorists’, non-people). Those who speak out against our cruelty are troublemakers, a fey elite concerned only with their own voices.

On a macro-level, then, our decency is at least questionable. Yet how is our decency as a society dictated? As we see with the couple in ‘Alone in Berlin’, once we reduce this question to a personal level our own role becomes clearer. If we try to live decent, compassionate lives then we are contributing, in however tiny a way, to the decency of our society. Now, when talk turns to personal morality and personal responsibility, two things tend to happen – firstly, it is pointed out that humans are flawed and hypocritical and a perfect life is impossible; secondly, attention is drawn to the flaws of whomever raised the issue and they are seen as smug hypocrites. As night follows day, this happens. Yet no-one, surely, would ever argue that we can live morally perfect lives? This does not mean that the question of personal morality and responsibility is to be completely dismissed. We can always find excuses for our behaviour and narratives which allow us to feel comfortable with our choices but I think we also ultimately know, deep down, if we are being ‘decent’ or not. Keeping our heads down and tacitly acquiescing to everything around us  isn’t a dramatic thing, it’s something we do every day in the choices we make at work, with our friends, with the strangers we come into contact with. And we fail – we fail again and again and will keep doing so until the day we die. Yet we must try, we must reach for that basic decency and integrity which is inside of all of us but is compromised and hidden by our frailty, cowardice, ignorance and greed. Accepting that we are hypocrites and that we can never get remotely close to perfection, we must hold onto the sense that we as individuals are responsible for the world around us and try to live as we would like the world to be.