The following essay has been reprinted with permission from the Guardian.
Slavery has been written off as part of the pre-history of our world. Contemporary capitalism was shaped by its rational brutality but the banks, insurers and speculators who facilitated and expanded slavery have been able to project their activity as unsullied by a cruel and racist system that was as systematic as it was functional. Financial institutions appear instead as the very agents of freedom, emancipating the archaic world of the plantation with their dynamic, modernizing energy.
Today, neoliberalism reprises and extends that tale. It decrees that racism no longer presents a significant obstacle either to individual success or to collective self-realization. Race provides a useful way to mark out the boundary between then and now: Racism is presented as anachronistic—nothing more than a flimsy impediment to the machinery of colorless, managerial meritocracy.
Any residual effects of past inequality are effectively privatized—seen only on an individual scale. If you cannot succeed in contemporary conditions, that failure can only be a result of your own shortcomings. The newly multicultural market cannot be bucked; and slavery, though not yet quite forgotten, is entirely overshadowed by the heroic story of its abolition by the morally charged forces of economic progress.
Steve McQueen's new film, 12 Years a Slave, contests this ground and returns us abruptly to the problems of race and human freedom. It revives the righteous agenda of 19th-century abolitionism and asks what might happen if we employ the recent history of racial slavery as a lens through which our contemporary predicament is considered? What understanding of freedom, of literacy, creativity and legality does a reflection on that archive now yield?
McQueen's film is a deadly serious piece of work that aspires to be properly historical even when Solomon Northup's autobiographical tale on which it is based has been condensed, filtered and adapted. Among other things, these slaves are capital incarnate. They are living debts and impersonal obligations as well as human beings fighting off the infrahumanity imposed upon them by their status as commercial objects.
In McQueen's characteristically unrelenting manner, the film slices through the trivialization that has been integral to slavery's popular representation, particularly when it is judged illegitimate only by virtue of its excessive cruelty.
All the traditional figures that connect DW Griffiths' 1915 silent film Birth of a Nation to Django Unchained via Gone With the Wind are absent in McQueen's portrayal. Mammies and messiahs alike have been swept off the screen in favor of a more complex and discomforting constellation of actors and interests: commercial, intimate, sentimental and vicious. Perhaps the past is not yet past, and the tempo of change in racial matters altogether slower and more difficult than the expensive PR of friction-free capitalism would have us believe.
McQueen's film is dominated by work. We are not spared slavery's intermittent and incidental horrors but they are less important to the overall mood he has created than the underlying rhythm of relentless exploitation. The film reveals a world where suffering lacks all redemptive qualities and human insight, generosity, resilience and morality do not conform to the simple binary code of black and white.
It is no surprise that the film has proved controversial. African-American critics like Armond White have decried and dismissed the film as an exercise in "torture porn." It is, he says, a festival of victimology unsuited to the contemporary needs of black communities, who should by now be moving away from the dubious psychological identification with slavery even while the effects of mass imprisonment appear to confirm that the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow segregation are still at large.
Some commentators have misread the film as a costume drama, while others recoil from its shocking implications for the age of Obama—a time in which the old assumptions of racial solidarity are being shattered but the lessons of the resulting disappointment have proved hard to learn. Rather than fade away, racism—rooted in past injury—has proved both durable and potent in what we've been told are today's postracial conditions.
McQueen has had to reckon with the deep and justified distrust of Hollywood found among African Americans. The U.S. film industry has not just overlooked the black freedom movements but actively mystified them. When they have been acknowledged, they have often been rendered in token and parochial patterns that inhibit any sense of their world-historic character and often merely repeat the ancient stereotypes born from minstrelsy and racist contempt.
However, the occasional hostility to 12 Years a Slave also derives from an enduring sense that the bleak history of racial slavery is the exclusive property of African Americans. For fear of being disoriented by further dilution of their already beleaguered common identity, they will not countenance any outsider engaging with this storehouse of suffering in ways that do not conform to the local habits.
McQueen seems determined to challenge the supposition that this history is best understood as an unhappy variant of the U.S. family romance. He has uncoupled the representation of slavery from the old sequence that runs deep into the history of American cinema and fixes Hollywood's role not only in assembling and celebrating racial difference as entertainment but also in projecting it as a source of pleasure to audiences that remain stubbornly segregated.
The choice of African actors in key roles is part of a larger strategy to place this important story exactly where several generations of black intellectuals have aspired to establish it: at the very center of humanity's official, moral history.
The particular experience of the slaves is not posed against a universal meaning but infused with it. McQueen's bold challenge to the continuing enslavement of people for profit allows no happy ending because slavery and unfree labor are still far from over.
Paul Gilroy is professor of American and English literature at King's College London and author of There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack.