12 Years a Slave is a 2013 British-American film  adapted from the 1853 memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup, a black man living in New York as a free person with a family and a job playing the violin, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. He was  released after 12 years with the help of other people who are against slavery, and he himself becomes later much more active in the abolitionist movement. 

The film has received great critical acclaim, was awarded the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture, and received nine Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for his protagonist,  and several other nominations and awards. History tells us this film is history, but is it?

“Ms. Gulnara Shahinian was appointed in 2008 as the first UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary forms of slavery, its causes and consequences. Article 4 of the UDHR states that ‘No one shall be held in slavery or servitude: slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms’.

“The mandate on contemporary forms of slavery includes but is not limited to issues such as: debt bondage, serfdom, forced labour, child slavery, sexual slavery, forced or early marriages and the sale of wives. As a legally permitted labour system, traditional slavery has been abolished everywhere, but it has not been completely stamped out. There are still reports of slave markets. Even when abolished, slavery leaves traces. It can persist as a state of mind- among victims and their descendants and among the inheritors of those who practised it –long after it has formally ended.” … “The majority of those who suffer are the poorest, most vulnerable and marginalised social groups in society. Fear, ignorance of one’s rights and the need to survive do not encourage them to speak out.”

There is little doubt that the main factors that maintain the risk of situations of slavery have to do with economic conditions and dehumanisation of “the other”. Going to the cinema to see this movie can make us more sensitive to the theme but not necessarily will lead us to take action to end the economic violence that still breeds this horror, or to humanise others who don’t look, think or live like us. But at least let us take this as an opportunity to reflect on how we could, even in our own small way, welcome all peoples as fellow human beings.