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.
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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***I wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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