12 Years a Slave: An Honest Reflection

12 Years a Slave is a biographical film about a free African American Solomon Northup who was abducted and enslaved. The film is an adaptation of the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup (12 years a Slave). I was one of the few people priviledged to watch this film last year at an advanced screening at Cineworld, London Haymarket with some celebrities present including Chewetel Ejiofor (the lead actor). My recollection of watching the film, the audience response and the Q&A afterwards was silence, tears and a serious atmosphere. Without giving any spoilers, the film speaks about the discourse of slavery from different point of views. There is the view of the oppressors and the view of the oppressed. The film also helps us to understand the mental and psychological trauma that people enslaved have to go through. The film also communicated strongly and demonstrated with brilliant camera angles and cinematography how enslaved women were abused physically, sexually and mentally. This is an area that is not often emphasised in slave discourse which Steve McQueen’ s direction brought to the world’s attention.

As an African scholar who have studied and researched into the discourse of slavery, I was still stunned and disturbed by some of the abuse suffered by the people enslaved in the film. At one point I felt anger, not just about what I watching or because of thinking about what my ancestors would have gone through during the slave trade, but at the fact that the legacies of slavery are still very much with us today. This can be seen in the issues of immigration (especially when coloured immigrants are stereotyped as poor and draining the country’s resources)[1], neo colonialism and global poverty. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave gives us a window into the past to try and understand how people enslaved were treated as objects and not humans. This is important for our collective memory if we are to address the issues in the present. How do we remember the past? For American history the slave discourse is part of that past, but I am afraid that in the British context, although different, the elephant in the room has not been fully addressed. The question is still to be asked, how did the British Empire with its colonisation and Imperialistic policies governed its subjects around the world? How is this being taught in our schools today and what versions are we feeding the next generation?

Another angle that the film reveals is the role of Christianity in the slave discourse. This can be seen in the oppressors using the Bible out of context to justify their actions. On the other hand, the oppressed used the same Bible to inspire hope that one day they will be free. This tension between the Bible used as a tool of oppression as well as source of freedom is very true to the history of the slave trade. This understanding is the reason why Black Theology takes seriously the experiences of the oppressed and we have a lot to learn from Black Theologians in regards to black experiences. Lastly, as mentioned above when watching the film I was very angry at the injustice I saw and I am sure that many people that will watch the film will be as well. It is interesting that the film has come out around the same time as Nelson Mandela’s film, Long Walk to Freedom made more important by his death. The message Mandela’s death and film communicates is forgiveness. But lets not forget that forgiveness and justice go together. Steve McQueen’s 12 years a Slave reminds us that we still need to have some honest conversations.


[1] Currently immigration in the UK is focused on Eastern Europeans

About israelolofinjana

Rev Israel Oluwole Olofinjana is an ordained and accredited Baptist minister and has pastored Crofton Park Baptist Church (2007-2011) and Catford Community Church (2011-2013). He is currently the pastor of Woolwich Central Baptist Church, a multicultural church in south east London. He is Nigerian coming from a Pentecostal background. He holds a BA (Hons) in Religious Studies from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and MTh from Carolina University of Theology (CUT). Israel is the editor of “Turning the Tables on Mission: Stories of Christians from the Global South in the UK” and author of “Reverse in Ministry and Missions: Africans in the Dark Continent of Europe” and “20 Pentecostal Pioneers in Nigeria” He has spoken in a number of conferences regarding reverse mission and Black Majority Churches (BMCs) and has also contributed to academic journals and Christian magazines on the subject of Black Majority Churches (BMC) in Britain. He is an Honorary Research Fellow at Queens Foundation, Birmingham and a trustee and visiting lecturer at Redcliffe College. Israel is also one of the Directors of Centre for Missionaries from the Majority World an initiative design to train and equip pastors and missionaries from the South. He is a member of the Global Connections council. When he is not preaching or writing he is playing with Lego! He is happily married to Lucy who works as the Media and Communications Officer with Churches Together in England. She is a graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), earning a BA in Social Anthropology and International Development. Lucy loves baking and watching movies! They are blessed with one son, Iyanuoluwa (God's miracle)
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3 Responses to 12 Years a Slave: An Honest Reflection

  1. A Honest Reflection… Bravo! Today, at Spurgeon’s, college we MTh students discussed the Baptist Union of Great Britain (BUGB) Council Apologies concerning the transatlantic Slave Trade made on Thursday 15th November 2007. A number of points were focused on in discussion:
    Is it possible for one generation to apologise for the actions of a previous one? What is our share in and benefits from our nation’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade? How sincere can an apology be and is it enough to just apologise? What is being done within our churches and what more can be done to educated cross-cultural awareness.

    Today feelings of emotion and pain are still being experienced for many who reflect on past human rights atrocities. The issues of racism and discrimination has not gone away with lessons of the past and present still not been learnt. Human trafficking is still being experienced across many cultures. Human Rights education, on its own, be it within media, our schools, churches… etc is limiting when it is not continually supported and carried through into practice within both private and public life. May the New Testament mandate to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves be preached and be a practical working reality in all our daily lives.

    Keep up the good work and Every Blessing Israel

    Michael Lovejoy

  2. Pingback: 12 Years a Slave: An Honest Reflection « Black and Multicultural Churches Directory

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