12 Years a Slave won best picture at the Academy Awards on Sunday night. The film highlights the relentless cruelty perpetrated in 19th century America. However, slavery stubbornly persists today and the film brings into sharp focus the struggle against modern day slavery.
Steve McQueen’s film is a dramatic and, at times, brutal retelling of the memoirs of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery and forced to work on a cotton farm for 12 years. The critically acclaimed picture shows the harsh realities of 19th century slavery in the US.
The director of the charity Anti-Slavery International, Aidan McQuade, has previously commented the film should “inspire us to work against slavery today rather than simply reflect on past atrocities”.
It’s estimated by the International Labour Organisation that at least 21 million people live in slavery today across the world, with all regions being affected. The conditions and treatment of these people are direct parallels to those in 12 Years a Slave.
McQuade said, “Scenes of slaves picking cotton reminds us of the tens of thousands of Uzbek citizens forced to pick cotton every year by their own government.
“The beatings and flogging depicted in the film are reminiscent of recent stories of Indian brick kiln workers having their hands chopped off for refusing to work in inhuman conditions, or of a 10-year-old child domestic worker beaten to death by her employers in Pakistan. Slaves struggling in extreme heat makes us think of enslaved migrant workers building venues for the World Cup in Qatar.”
He notes that slavery is even an issue in the UK, with many of those being suspected of being trafficked into the country simply getting deported. In December last year, the Home Office announced it would publish draft legislation that aimed to toughen laws on slavery in the UK.
Under the measures, those convicted of the most serious cases will receive life sentences, previously set at 14 years. James Brokenshire, crime and security minister, said whilst the modern slavery bill was a “good start”, everybody in society needed to play a part if we are to “consign slavery to the history books where it belongs”.
The abolition of slavery was the foundation block of ethical investment in the 18th century, when a group of Quakers argued against the prevailing consensus and refused to participate in, and then vigorously campaigned against, the profitable slave trade. Since then, sustainable, responsible and ethical investing has evolved to include a widening range of criteria. But at its heart remains the responsibility to treat all life on Earth with dignity and respect.
12 Years a Slave is the best ‘best picture’ in a long time.