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.
BBC/ ITV Cradle Ltd/Matt Squire
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Is Danny Baker a “bona fide genius”? Not in his new show

The clichéd decade: Cradle to Grave and Danny and the Human Zoo reviewed.

I’m not qualified to rule on whether or not Danny Baker is, as the newspapers insist, a “bona fide genius”; I gave up listening to the ever more blokeish BBC Radio 5 Live a while ago, and I’m too young to remember the supposedly fantastic pieces he delivered to the NME back in the day (I read that they were even more amazing than those of Tony Parsons, which is saying something, isn’t it?). But I can tell you this: his new autobiographical comedy series, Cradle to Grave (Thursdays, BBC2, 9pm), displays no evidence at all of his talents, brilliant or otherwise. Anecdotes that just peter out. Jokes that fail to hit home. Misplaced nostalgia. Honestly, what’s the point? If you want 1974 – and quite a lot of us seem to, if the performance of Jeremy Corbyn is anything to judge by – you’d be better off treating yourself to a box set of the eternally satisfying Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?.

The series, co-written with Jeff Pope, is based on Baker’s memoir Going to Sea in a Sieve. It’s 1974, and Danny (Laurie Kynaston) is a randy teenager who still lives at home in good old Bermondsey with his ducking and diving docker dad, Fred, aka Spud (Peter Kay), his kindly mum, Bet (Lucy Speed), and his older sister, Sharon (Alice Sykes). A voice-over tells us, in effect, to forget all about the nasty old three-day week and to consider instead the warmth of lovely south-east London. How decent its people are, how eager to try out newfangled consumer goods such as the continental quilts Spud has pilfered and which now fill the hall of his tiny house like clouds. (Correct: he’s basically Del Boy, minus the Robin Reliant, the cocktail bar and, fatally, the workmanlike jokes.)

The denizens of Bermondsey are not, you understand, quite ready for the new world. In this part of London, bomb sites remain, merrily sprouting buddleia and pink willow herb; men are men and women are women. Spud is horrified to discover that his daughter’s new boyfriend wears – wait for it – white plimsolls, though not quite so horrified as Danny is to find a stranger’s ­penis flapping exuberantly against his cheek when he goes up west to see Hair (needless to say, our Danny was in search of naked girls, not sweaty blokes). If you find this kind of thing funny and (I can hardly bear to write the words) “heart-warming”, then you have seven weeks of bliss ahead. Who knows? Perhaps the characters will go on to debate the virtues of the various flavours of Old English Spangles. But I can’t believe that many people will be so easily pleased. Those who are old enough to remember the Seventies will know that the best of the decade’s own comedy was ten times more sophisticated than this, and those who aren’t – those who have never had anything other than a duvet on their bed, and can locate a naked female or even a flapping male member with just one tap of their mobile – will simply watch something altogether more grown-up on Netflix.

Kascion Franklin (centre) on BBC1. Photo: BBC/RED

Unfathomable BBC scheduling (is it having some kind of John Whittingdale-induced nervous breakdown?) treated us to two doses of 1974 as the summer limped to an end. The second loving spoonful came in the form of Danny and the Human Zoo (31 August, BBC1, 9pm), an almost-biopic drama in which Lenny Henry told the story of his painful start in comedy.

My TV critic colleagues have all been most respectful but, lovely as Kascion Franklin’s performance in the lead role was, I couldn’t altogether get with the show. Unlike Baker, Henry certainly wiped the Vaseline from the lens: his version of the Seventies was clear-eyed, particularly in the matter of racism. But his tendency as a writer is to tell rather than show, which becomes wearying, and the narrative he offered us – success on the New Faces talent show, followed by the self-loathing that came of joining the Black and White Minstrels – wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. An unscrupulous manager with bad hair; parents who think their son should get a “proper” job but are secretly oh-so-proud; Mud’s “Tiger Feet” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on the soundtrack: such TV clichés really should be illegal by now.

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 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses