Oscar winner shines light on problem of modern slavery

A scene from 12 Years a Slave.
A scene from 12 Years a Slave.

The annual ceremony celebrating accomplishments in film started with red carpet gawking and ended with a sober reminder.

Everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live,” said Director Steve McQueen after his film, 12 Years a Slave, won Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

“This is the most important legacy of Solomon Northup. I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery, and the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today.”

12 Years a Slave is an adaptation of a little known book written by Solomon Northup. The free black man was kidnapped when in Washington DC in 1841. The book recounts the twelve years he spent as a slave in Louisiana. The book was initially successful, but was not well known until it was re-discovered by a pair of researchers in the 1960s. The film version of Northup’s story garnered widespread praise for the director and the actors in it.

The Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Lincoln 151 years ago, making slavery feel like a distant memory. McQueen’s few words served as a reminder that the abhorrent practice is far from over around the world. Slavery today takes many forms, from the trafficking of women in the sex trade to the use of children for labor. Mauritania was the last country to abolish slavery, in 2007, and it still deals with the problem.

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The UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Gulnara Shahinian, recently commended the country for setting up a special tribunal to prosecute crimes of slavery, but said more needs to be done. She expressed hope that the adoption of the road map for the implementation of her previous recommendations, expected to take place on March 6, will bring an absolute end to slavery in the West African nation.

McQueen’s Oscar remarks should not have come as a surprise. He is a supporter of Anti-Slavery International and met with U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power for a dinner in February. The success of the film has provided the opportunity for McQueen to discuss the issue of modern slavery.

“I have seen it as an opportunity to talk about a subject matter. Every Q&A that I’ve done [for this film]has been like a town-hall meeting,” he said in an ITV interview.

The Obama administration has taken note of slavery and human trafficking in recent years. The president used the platform of the Clinton Global Initiative, the annual gathering held each September during the UN General Assembly in New York City, in 2012 to draw attention to and launch a plan for elimating modern day slavery.

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“It ought to concern every person, because it is a debasement of our common humanity.  It ought to concern every community, because it tears at our social fabric.  It ought to concern every business, because it distorts markets.  It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime,” said Obama.

More recently, Obama signed a proclamation declaring January National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. He re-upped the commitment of the US to arrest and charge the perpetrators of trafficking. It is aided by using newer technologies to root out modern slavery as well as focusing on services and support for the victims of the practice.

Last night also saw Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o with Best Supporting Actress for her performance in McQueen’s film. She too humbly recognized the dichotomy between the joy of her winning for telling the story of the agony of slavery in the 19th century US.

“It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s. And so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey for her guidance. And for Solomon, thank you for telling her story and your own.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.