Introduction to ’12 Years a Slave’, The Watershed – 28.1.14

[Below is a written up version of what was spoken from the head, rather than recited from a script.
Introduction given at The Watershed, Bristol, 28 January 2014, 5.30pm]


Good evening and welcome to the Watershed for the screening of ‘12 years a Slave’.  I’m Dr Shawn Sobers – I’m told to use the “Dr” at these types of events so I shall do so! – I’m Dr Shawn Sobers and I teach photography and research media at the University of the West of England.  I’m going to talk briefly as an introduction to the film, not really talking about the film itself, but more of an autobiographical look at the context of this subject in filmmaking.

I’ve been asked to give an introduction to this film as slavery is a subject I’ve addressed many times throughout my career, probably more than any other recurring subject, from first addressing this subject in 1993 when I was a film student, through to years later with my colleagues at Firstborn Creatives making documentaries about the slave trade for ITV, BBC as well and publishing a book, conducting research and writing chapters on the topic.  But no matter how many times I explore this topic I always feel like I’m just scratching the surface, as the history is so deep.  But the motivation to explore this subject continues, as there are still many untold stories.

In the 1800s the motivation for publishing the life narratives of enslaved Africans was driven by the context of the campaigns of the Abolition movement, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Olaudah Equiano, Solomon Northup – the main character of this film – and the life story of Mary Prince, the first Black woman to have her life story published in Britain and formally enslaved in Bermuda. I’d like to read you a short extract from her autobiography, which sheds some light on some of her motivation to get her story told.

“Oh the horrors of slavery! ­– How the thought of it pains my heart! But the truth ought to be told of it; and what my eyes have seen I think is my duty to relate; for few people in England know what slavery is.  I have been a slave – I have felt what a slave feels, and I know what a slave knows; and I would have all the good people in England know it too, that they may break our chains, and set us free.”

 You can see here Mary Prince’s drive to want others to see what she has seen in the name of awareness and activism, and the final sentence is the nod towards the abolition campaign, to agitate the political classes to instil freedom.  My motivation living today and exploring this subject isn’t for anyone to set me free, but rather to share stories from shared histories – as I believe in shared histories and get worried when I see history pocketed and set aside to belong to certain sections of people.  I believe history is shared and have things that we can all relate to and learn.   And the stories are powerful in themselves and I believe still need to be told.

So, again welcome, thank you for listening, and I hope you find the film enlightening.



The History of Mary Prince, by Mary Prince – 1831, Penguin Classics, 2004, page 21

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