The Oscar-tipped 12 Years a Slave hits cinema screens across the UK on January 10th 2014. The movie provides a vivid and harrowing portrayal of the unrelenting brutality suffered by slaves in pre-Civil War America. It is tempting to view the story as an historical drama about a practice long since abolished, in a time long since passed. But the story is "not just about slavery". It tells us about the racial prejudices that infect the death penalty in today's USA. And it also tells us how we can work to abolish the death penalty.
The film is based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, a black New Yorker who, in 1841, was kidnapped and sold into slavery until he was rescued in 1853. It is no secret that slavery was underpinned by racism, and it is no secret that racist attitudes did not die with the abolition of slavery. The phenomenon of all-white juries convicting black defendants on dubious evidence has been well documented. And consider the case of Duane Buck, who is currently languishing on death row in Texas. At Buck's trial, a psychologist testified that black people pose a danger to society, leading the jury to recommend a death sentence. That sort of testimony is not a million miles away from those who testified in the 1800s that there is scientific proof that black people are inherently violent and dangerous, and therefore need to be enslaved and oppressed.
In addition to this overt type of racism, a less visible type of racism rears its head in today's system of capital punishment. Research has shown that, all things being equal, you are more likely to be sentenced to death if you kill a white person instead of a black person. In one study, it was found that the odds of a death sentence are 97% higher for those who kill whites, than for those who kill black people. The implication is clear - when a black person is murdered, there is not such a clamour for the ultimate punishment because the lives of black people are considered to be relatively unimportant compared to the lives of white people. 12 Years a Slave shows us that these attitudes derive from the time of slavery. In the 1800s, white people raped and assaulted slaves with impunity, while slaves were punished in grotesque ways for the slightest offences against white people.
Racism has also led to innocent people being wrongfully sentenced to death. In 1980, Clarence Brandley and Henry Peace discovered the body of a white schoolgirl who had been raped and murdered. Peace recounted how, while being interrogated, one of the investigators told them: "One of you is going to have to hang for this." Turning to Brandley, he continued: "Since you're the nigger, you're elected." Brandley was duly sentenced to death by an all-white jury in a town where Ku Klux Klan meetings took place with some frequency. He was freed nine years later when it became clear that the authorities had hidden evidence that pointed to his innocence. The judge who granted him a new trial wrote that "no case has presented a more shocking scenario of the effects of racial prejudice."
Perhaps counter-intuitively, though, the links between slavery and the modern death penalty also offer hope for today's death penalty abolitionists. Just as Northup and other freed slaves educated our ancestors about the realities of bondage by writing stories such as 12 Years a Slave, so today's death row exonerees like Brandley can teach us about the realities of a practice that is widely accepted, but little understood. Their first-hand accounts of how the system of capital punishment is broken beyond repair have the same impact that the writings and speeches of freed slaves had in the 1800s - they shed light on a practice that is usually cloaked in secrecy, and they compel individuals to speak up against a practice that is built on a bedrock of cruelty. The organisation Witness to Innocence is comprised of exonerated death row survivors who travel the length and breadth of the country - and indeed the world - to "challenge the American public to grapple with the problem of a fatally flawed criminal justice system that sends innocent people to death row." Their efforts have yielded extraordinary results, with exoneree Kirk Bloodsworth playing a prominent role in abolishing the death penalty in Maryland in 2013.
If you watch 12 Years a Slave, don't view it as an historical account of one man's horrific experiences in a time long since passed. View it instead as a damning indictment that we have not learned from the mistakes of our past. Watch the One For Ten documentary series about innocent people freed from death row, and consider how their stories of injustices are basically modern-day versions of Northup's story of injustice. And be inspired to take action against the death penalty. Amnesty International offers lots of ways to help the abolitionist cause. Maybe then, one day, viewers will watch films about the death penalty and respond in the same way that we currently respond to films like 12 Years a Slave: with profound disbelief that our ancestors could inflict such mindless cruelty on other human beings.