A still from 12 Years A Slave.
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12 Years A Slave asks us the most important question . . . why?

Slavery was cholera in water, it infected everyone; a daily routine, spiteful, petty and perverse, its many perpetrators faceless and unexceptional. How did it come about - and what should we think about the thousands who are similarly shackled today?

I would find it difficult to write a review of 12 Years A Slave, since my reaction to it was so visceral. Steve McQueen's film, which last night won a Golden Globe for Best Drama, is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a successful black businessman from New York State who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Northup remains there for 12 years, until – spoiler alert, the first of a couple – he meets a Canadian man who helps to set him free.

Given this film's subject matter, not to say its majestic cast – led by the outstanding Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Solomon – it has been welcomed with the fanfare normally reserved for a political event. In some sense, that's exactly what it is. It's a two-hour look at one of the most relentlessly ugly periods ever offered up by a world that would call itself civilised. After all, slavery has shaped so much of our world, at terrible, terrible cost. If, for just one day, Western edifices turned red with the blood of those who built it, then several of our favourite monuments would be more than tinged with crimson. Watching 12 Years was therefore almost a grim duty, and so I went to see it alone, treating it like root canal surgery: you know it's going to hurt, you're just not sure how much.

As it turned out, I was almost fine. Not because this film was not harrowing, or powerful, or heartbreaking – it was all of those things – but largely because I had been bracing myself for emotional contact for about two days in advance. I had prepared myself for the very worst – for slaves being fed their own faeces, for men being lynched in public squares in front of gleeful crowds, their penises cut from their bodies and stuffed into their mouths. Thankfully, I had read and seen so much of similar things in advance that I had become mercifully desensitised. If anything, I was more immediately moved by Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's brilliant revenge epic. The oscillation between comedy and tragedy in Django meant that the humour often drew me out, caught me unawares, and was then sharply followed by a scene so brutal that it thumped me in the guts. 

I don't mean to set these fine films against each other. They are both vital explorations of an area that many would rather leave untouched.  While I saw Django as a thrilling exercise in catharsis – a slave-era Avengers, featuring a superhero proud, free and unmasked – 12 Years is a movie that examines so many issues in unsparing depth. It looks at, for example, the vicious objectification of black women by white slaveowners – and by extension, their society? – who revere them one moment, rape them the next. 

Lupita N'yongo, the Kenyan actress who is a newcomer to American cinema, gives a superbly nuanced portrayal of a young woman who captures her slaveowner's hungry gaze. N'yongo's skin tone is noteworthy of itself: it's rare that you see an actress with her complexion occupying a lead role in a Hollywood production, or indeed any Western platform. In this film, N'yongo's character is presented as the most sexually desirable; occasionally to her benefit, but overwhelmingly to her detriment. There is an argument that, then as now, black-women-as-chattels were looked upon, used and discarded. We are now living, after all, in an era where Prada has only just employed its second black model in 20 years.

At each stage, 12 Years asks us the most obvious and therefore most important question: Why? Why did all of this happen, and continue so long?  Watching Solomon hack away at that undergrowth with his colleagues on the plantation, most of whom had been born into ownership, I wondered: Why? What possessed people to think themselves superior, or even supreme, to the extent that they would stack human beings ceiling-high and ship them across seas? What was it? Beyond the rhetoric and the prayer books and the cheque books – why was that moment, that tipping point when members of an entire society, either tacitly or explicitly, gave a collective nod and said: “Yes, this is ok?” Why? As simple as that – why? After all, it takes a certain level of hatred to subject one person, or even a few dozen, to consistent hardship; but the enslavement of tens, hundreds of millions, for not decades but entire centuries? What measure of poison must have been in people’s souls?

The answer is simple enough: some people are evil, and some people are selfish, and slavery could not have succeeded without the marriage of these equally reprehensible attitudes. Selfishness and evil are compellingly represented in 12 Years: the first by Benedict Cumberbatch's Ford, who buys Northup and treats him with a measure of kindness but has no interest in setting him free, and the latter by Michael Fassbender's Edwin Epps, who beats and abuses his workers – or, more accurately, his property – with impunity. Some might say that people such as Cumberbatch's character were simply of their time, merely going with the prevailing wind of the era, but that does an immense disservice to those white Americans who remained horrified by the concept of slavery from start to finish. 

12 Years might have been far more terrifying, for me at least, had the racists been unknown actors. This is not a criticism, rather an observation: with so many famous faces, it was easier for me to cling to some semblance of reality, to escape the terror. Whenever things became too unsettling, I could tell myself: “these are not racists. Look, that’s Paul Giamatti. That’s Paul Dano. That’s Benedict Cumberbatch. I’ve seen them do interviews. They seem like nice people.”

One of the greatest horrors of slavery, I think, was that it was practised, propagated, profited from and accepted by so many. Slavery was cholera in water, it infected everyone; a daily routine, spiteful, petty and perverse, its many perpetrators faceless and unexceptional.  That truth has troubling implications for our attitudes to some of the conditions, akin or equal to slavery, in which so many workers still toil today.  For, of course, there are places in this world where human beings are similarly shackled even now, being freely traded so they can provide labour, sex or anything else their owners demand.

Some will see 12 Years as a "white saviour" narrative, where Northup is only saved by the intervention of a Canadian abolitionist. That is a fair contention, but I would argue for a more charitable interpretation: which was that, in the 12 years he endured on those plantations, Northup saved himself.  He retained his independence of spirit to the extent that, after he was freed again, he spent the rest of his life campaigning for change and the liberation of others like him. He could have quietly lived out his days as a doting grandfather, but he chose to engage tirelessly, maybe even fatally, with the defining issue of his time. Others will be unhappy that it is seemingly only ever black films about slavery that make their way on to the Hollywood radar, but that remains the fault of the industry, and not of the individual filmmaker. Hopefully, in time, we will see a greater diversity of black films on the big screen, in the manner, say, of Frances Bodomo's Afronauts – the fictional tale of a group of Zambian exiles racing to beat the Americans into space

I mentioned earlier that I felt almost fine watching the film: it was not until the closing scene that I was caught off guard, when Solomon returns to his family, and delivers the most restrained – and, to my mind, devastating - moment of the film: when he apologises to them for his absence for so many years. The unutterable hurt and humility in his final, eye-brimming address were overwhelming, and I had to tilt my head back to avoid an endless stream of tears. As I wandered out into the foyer, I stopped to speak with an elderly black steward, who saw me out with a smile and a slow shake of the head. “Ha,” he said, offering perhaps the most fitting review that 12 Years A Slave will receive. “I don’t like to watch such things.” Me neither: but if we're not yet fully aware of the extent of slavery's evil both past and present, then, perhaps, watch them we must.

Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based poet, journalist and musician.

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How Roger Moore made James Bond immortal

Roger Moore, James Bond actor, has died at the age of 89. 

Unlike every other actor to play James Bond, Roger Moore was already a star when he came to the role. Not a star of motion pictures admittedly, although he had topped the bill in some minor films, but a star in television. The lead of the adventure series Ivanhoe (1958-59) and The Saint (1962-69), the latter of which brought him international fame and reportedly made him the highest paid actor on television.

It was a far cry from his beginnings. Although he lived much of his life abroad (it has been said, for tax reasons, something the actor himself denied) and was regarded by many as the archetypal English gentleman, Moore began life as a working-class Londoner.  Born in Stockwell in 1927, the son of a policeman and his wife, he grew up in a rented three room, third floor flat in SW8, and attended Battersea Grammar School. There, he later insisted "looking as though I was listening", was the only subject at which he excelled. Battersea Grammar was, despite the name, then an overcrowded local school boxed in by the buildings and sidings of Clapham Junction Station and made dark and noisy by the still expanding railways.

As both Moore and his friend and fellow film star Michael Caine have observed, their backgrounds in urban South London are almost identical, something that has never fitted with public perception of either of them. The difference was, as again both noted, that when it came to National Service Moore, unlike Caine, was picked out as officer material and trained accordingly, in the process acquiring the accent he would carry for the rest of his life.

The common, near universal, ignorance of Moore’s origins (although he himself was never shy of them, writing about his family in his various books and discussing them in interviews) says something significant about Roger Moore the public figure. Despite being a household name for decades, an international film star and latterly a knight of the realm, he was, if not misunderstood by his audience, then never really quite what they assumed him to be.

This extends, of course, into his work as an actor. Moore was often mocked by the unimaginative, who saw him as a wooden actor, or one lacking in versatility. Often, he was somehow self-deprecating enough to play along. And yet, the camera loved him, really loved him and his timing - particularly but not exclusively comic - was extraordinary. To see Moore work in close up is to see someone in absolute control of his craft. His raised eyebrow, often mocked, was a precision instrument, exactly as funny or exactly as surprising as he wanted it to be.

It is more accurate, as well as fairer, to say that Moore was typecast, rather than limited, and he made no secret of the fact that he played his two most famous roles, Simon Templar in The Saint and James Bond 007 as essentially the same person. But he would have been a fool not to. Bond producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R "Cubby" Broccoli’s EON productions wanted Templar nearly as much as they wanted Moore.

They had thought of the actor for the part of 007 as early as 1961, before casting Sean Connery and before Moore had played The Saint, so it was not just his success as Templar that made him suitable. Yet both producers knew that audiences in both Britain and America loved the way Moore played Templar, and that if that affection could be translated into ticket sales, their series would be on to a winner.

It was a gamble for all involved. George Lazenby had already tried, and as far many were concerned, failed to replace Connery as James Bond. When it came to 1971’s outing in the series, Diamonds Are Forever, David Picker, head of United Artists, which distributed Bond films, insisted that Connery be brought back for an encore before EON tried a third actor in the role, re-hiring Connery at a then record $1.25m and paying off actor John Gavin, whom EON had already cast. That’s how high the stakes were for both the Bond series and Moore’s reputation when he stepped into the role for 1973’s Live and Let Die. The film was a huge success, so much so that EON rushed out its sequel, The Man With The Golden Gun the next year, rather than after two years as it had planned.

The reason for that success, although the film has many other good qualities, is that Moore is brilliant in it. His whip-thin, gently ironic and oddly egalitarian adventurer, capable of laughing at himself as well as others, is a far cry from Connery’s violently snobbish "joke superman". It’s been said that Connery’s Bond was a working-class boy’s fantasy of what it would be like to be an English gentleman, while Moore’s was essentially the fantasy of a slightly effete middle-class boy who dreams of one day winning a fight. It’s a comprehensive reinvention of the part.

That’s not something that can be achieved by accident. One shouldn’t, however, over-accentuate the lightness of the performance. Moore’s Bond is exactly as capable of rage and even sadism as his predecessor. The whimsy he brings to the part is an addition to, not a subtraction from, the character’s range.

Moore expanded Bond’s emotional palette in other ways too. His best onscreen performance is in For Your Eyes Only (1981), in which the then 53-year-old Moore gets to play a Bond seen grieving at his wife’s grave, lecturing allies on the futility of revenge ("When setting out for revenge, first dig two graves") and brightly turn down a much younger woman’s offer of sex with the phrase "Put your clothes on and I’ll buy you an ice cream". None of which are scenes you can begin to imagine Connery’s Bond pulling off.

Moore was not just a huge success as Bond, he remains, adjusted for inflation, the most financially successful lead actor the series has ever had. He was also successful in a way that guaranteed he would have successors. What he gave to the part by not imitating Connery, by not even hinting at Connery in his performance, was a licence to those who followed him to find their own way in the role. This, along with his continued popularity over twelve years in the role, probably the only reason the series managed to survive the 1970s and the EON’s finally running of Ian Fleming novels to adapt to the screen.

Actors have received knighthoods for their craft for centuries, but when Moore was knighted in 2003, there was some push back. Moore was understandably seen as not being in the same category as an Alec Guinness or a Ralph Richardson. But the citations for Moore's knighthood indicated that it was for his decades of charity work with Unicef that he was being honoured. It’s yet another of the misconceptions, large and small, that aggregated around him.

Moore himself was always clear that it was the profile playing James Bond had given him that made his role with Unicef possible, let alone successful. When asked about pride in his charity work, he always responded that instead he felt frustration. Frustration because as with, for example, the UN’s iodine deficiency programme or Unicef’s work with children with landmine injuries, there was always so much more work to be done than could be done.

It was an answer that, along with his energetic campaigning, at the age of 88, to ban the use of wild animals in zoos, pointed to the biggest misunderstanding of all. Moore was known for playing frivolous characters in over the top entertainments and this led to him being perceived by many, even by those he enjoyed his work, as essentially trivial. Ironically, such an assumption reveals only the superficiality of their own reading. The jovial, wry interviewee Sir Roger Moore was, beneath that raised eyebrow, a profoundly serious man.

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