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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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era