Watching 12 Years a Slave in a Blindingly White Capital City

Desiree Wariaro watches <em>12 Years a Slave</em> in Stockholm, a city where it can take generations to become the sort of person considered unquestionably native.

I pretended to read, conscious of the shuffling at the other end of the bench. A man turned towards me. Glancing up apprehensively I saw he was an alcoholic, not the destitute kind, but getting there. A fellow member of Stockholm’s precariat, this one consigned to cracking open beer cans on street corners while the government rests on its dubious laurels. “You look nice,” he said, in the exclamatory way drunks say things. I got up, anticipating trouble. He huffed, “You think you’re so great, but you’re just a nigger reading a book! He raised his voice, “Another nigger girl who thinks she’s beautiful!” I sprang away with that word burrowing into me, reshaping and fragmenting my thoughts like the resurfaced memory of a broken heart. While the people I rode the train home with would never have put it that way, with their expensive coats and restrained inquisitiveness, I thought about how they spoke when I wasn’t there.

It can take generations to become the sort of person everyone in Stockholm finds unquestionably native. If you are white when you enter you get to bypass the queue. If you are black you could hold hands with a white person, so your grandkids become as effortlessly Swedish as any wiry blonde with monosyllabically oratory English. Although, for certain people the quarantine between entry and embrace does not apply: Roma people - who can trace their origins in Sweden back to the 16th century - still wait in line amidst widespread scrutiny and suspicion. People of African and Roma descent are statistically the most discriminated: in the housing market, in the job market, in the workplace, on public transport - virtually every sphere of life – we are shown a proverbial trapdoor. As a middle-class light-skinned black Swede I don't encounter a lot of overt racism (despite the anecdote); my family tree and network is not mapped in a police registry, which it would be if I were Roma. Only Kristeva’s abject could begin to justify the way racism dances inside a victim's head, disturbing everything with its flailing and screaming.

Watching the film 12 Years a Slave will make you connect the dots between drunk men ejaculating racist profanity and a shredded social contract. A while ago I sat in a cinema watching it. I had listened to the podcast Black Girls Talking where the audience vis-à-vis 12 Years a Slave was discussed; the eponymous girls had all watched the film separately with other people they alternately approved (“unexpectedly full of black people”) and disapproved (‘’a white couple making out while I was sniffling”) of. As I was consigned to one venue, on a posh street in the middle of Stockholm, I didn’t have much choice but to acquiesce with the disappointingly pale crowd of other people filing in. I willed away my indignation, longing for the proximity of a moveable feast of black and brown bodies while watching the echelons of male thespianism flounce their brightest feathers, in a retelling of the many-splintered beast that is white supremacy; my download of ‘Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana’ (1853), vanquished from the screen of my muted phone, had a nearly identical plot.

Despite its facilitation of modern capitalism, most creative minds du jour don’t occupy themselves with the knowledge that black people built the world. I’m suspicious of the reasons for financing this film. Never mind the genius of director Steve McQueen, the film star Danny Glover has spent decades trying to make a film about the Haitian Revolution. 12 Years a Slave is an opiate for the disgruntled, approved by greedy executives vying for white tears and black masochism. (And I took the bait.)

It is not often anti-racist ‘torture porn’ is sanctioned for worldwide viewing, but I see no need to be as allergic to the punch-in-the-gut imagery as the critics who disparage the director Steve McQueen's claims towards good art by way of memento mori.  McQueen’s Achilles’ heel is his commitment to the truth, feminist icon bell hooks has aptly criticised 12 Years a Slave for its lack of imagination, dismissing it as ‘sentimental’. Chances are Hollywood has asphyxiated the scriptwriters capable of producing both intellectually and visually dazzling films about what it means to be black.

It is the character Patsey’s (Lupita Nyong'o) circle of hell, and the circumstances of her silencing in contrast to the white ‘sisters of Shakespeare’ that depresses me the most: she is slapped around and torn apart only to be slapped around and torn apart some more in an infinite loop. Racialised women are subjected to twice the amount of discrimination in society as their white counterparts - not only do we duck the blows of patriarchy but we battle white supremacy when reading novels in public, even when we are one of the richest women alive shopping in a high-end Swiss boutique. I don’t particularly enjoy being the lowest member on the totem pole of racial hierarchy pioneered by the Swedish school of biology that brought you eugenics and concentration camps. The EU profits off my unhappiness. There are no monuments commemorating the lives lost to Sweden’s slave trade, and nobody writes about how the country I live in produced the iron that shackled the sixty million or more kidnapped bodies that made our surroundings possible. We cower under the whip of a racial paradigm.

A group of British abolitionists sailed to Stockholm in 1847 to lobby the Swedish government, igniting a vicious debate in the Riksdag. In the aftermath Sweden freed the slaves on its Caribbean colony. Today, the Aryan People’s Party in parliament, colloquially called the Sweden Democrats, are riling a crowd against me, obfuscating facts like expert magicians. I'm scared, and wonder whether I would have joined the crowds if my circumstances had been different.

As victims of our unreliable and permeable minds we require representations of ourselves in film that serve up slivers of recognition. 12 Years a Slave isn't blackness portrayed in a way I remotely know or recognise, it is blackness in a state of emergency - the usual boring way cinema and the media tell stories about us - a way that is somehow deemed truer, and, in so, better (!), than a middle-class experience of blackness. It is not that I self-centeredly expect Hollywood to order a treatment of my NSA files, I’m just starved of nuance, like all the other fed-up women of colour tweeting about the weird erasure of their lives. Soon, I might go so far off the grid there will be no doubt I never existed; a voluntary self-silencing to negate a world that hands a one-size fits all corset to racialised women. Although I suppose 12 Years a Slave could make fair-weather types who believe(d) in the post-racial myth focus on the heart attack-like urgency of plain meat and potatoes racism.

Desiree Wariaro is an editor at Media Diversified

Sarah Paulson as the vile Mistress Epps and Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey.
DES WILLIE/BBC
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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution