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Some words never lose their impact

8 January, 2014


Solomon Northup was a well-off businessman in nineteenth century Saratoga – a musical man, a family man, a respected member of society. He was also a black man, and for this reason alone, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. His story is told in the film 12 Years A Slave which I saw last night. It’s a little early to call it for Film of the Year 2014 but it will take something special to better it. It has 10 BAFTA nominations, and there will be at least as many Oscar nods. It was a compelling film, well directed, well scripted, very well acted.


I won’t be watching it again though. I couldn’t. It was a disturbing film filled with such horrific cruelty and at times it was almost unwatchably brutal. There are whippings, shootings, hangings, stabbings and a rape scene, all of which were horrific in their violence and in some cases in their casual nature. (Which is worse – a killing done with evil, blazing eyes and a raging hatred; or an off-hand stabbing, just because, proving how little a human life is worth?). I felt the pain and suffering of the black characters, and I felt guilt and shame at the acts carried out by the white characters.

“Duh! TRG,” I here my readers say, “slavery is a bad thing, didn’t you know that?” Well yes, clearly. And I am aware that oppression exists today in many forms that as a white, able-bodied, heterosexual, middle-class, intelligent, (theoretically) Christian, English man I can never understand. It has been (accurately) pointed out to me on occasions that I am bald, overweight and wear glasses, but boo hoo, so what? None of these things have ever disadvantaged me. But this film exposed me to the unspeakable horrors that were the realities of daily life for millions. A constant thought in my mind through the whole film was “how can one human being treat another this way?” and more widely, “how can one section of society consider it is right, acceptable, laudable to own another?” And between all the scenes of violence was the day-to-day life of slavery. The fact that Solomon could never see the possibility of freedom, because of the colour of his skin. Even those owners who were more sympathetic than others saw their slaves as property and called them n***er. But isn’t that worse? To be a sympathetic slave owner, to see that slaves are not sub-human animals but still buy and sell them?

I swear a lot – I mean A LOT, constantly, inappropriately – and it is true that swearing loses its impact when overused. I barely notice when I swear or when others do. But whenever, wherever, the N-word is used, I hear it, I notice it. And throughout 12 Years a Slave it made me wince every time. As with the violence, it was sometimes used matter-of-factly as a simple description, and sometimes with seething, rage-filled contempt and loathing, spat into a black face from millimetres away. It never once lost its power, its impact, its poison. On the screen last night, it was being used – not in the routine way it is sprinkled through films, hip hop, all manner of popular culture where it has become a commonplace word, where it has been reclaimed – but in its raw, historic, uncleansed form. Every use made me increasingly aware of it, of its history, of its full cultural meaning, of the centuries of barbarity it represents. A word filled with such contempt and cruelty can never lose its impact.

From → Blogging

  1. I’m sure that movie is amazing, but I probably won’t see it. Sometimes it’s hard to sit through movies like that without being bothered to the extreme. Great thoughts you had here on the impact of words (or a single word in this case)

    • It certainly is very disturbing and feels uncomfortably real. a couple of Times I thought I might need to leave but I’m glad I didn’t.
      I’m looking forward to the publicity when it wins awards and I hope discussions like this go on everywhere. People need to consider and understand their reactions

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