Steve McQueen’s 12 years a slave won the best picture Oscar last week. I went to see it with my wife and afterwards found myself uncertain how to reply to the question from one of my children as to whether we had enjoyed it. Not because it wasn’t superbly done, but because it evoked a whole range of emotions and ‘enjoy’ seemed the wrong word to use. Yes, there was superb acting and the photography was stunning, but the theme it dealt with was harrowing.
It is the true story of how Solomon Northrup, a black American, had been kidnapped in Washington, leaving wife and family, and sold into slavery in the south. It was twelve years before a conversation with a Canadian abolitionist (I wondered if he was a Quaker?) led to his friends being notified and his release.
All’s well that ends well? Well no, the closing credits told us that it proved impossible to get a conviction of any of those involved and limited success in closing down this trade.
Northrup was initially sold to an upright Christian man, who by the standards of the time was a good, kind owner. He like so many others was blinded to the inherent evil in trafficking human beings. William Wilberforce ended his three hour speech to the House of Commons on this subject saying that now “you can never again say you didn’t know”. It still took years to ban the trade in the UK and longer in the USA.
We have this month in a joint Lords and Commons the committee stage a draft Modern Slavery Bill. This trade still happens in our society today and we are blind to it.
Where else in society are we blind to the inherent wrong, and who will tell us “you can never again say you didn’t know”?