Slavery is not a thing of the past. Nor is it solely an American story.
The British film, I Am Slave, does an excellent job of reminding us of this persistent evil that still exists in the UK and worldwide.
Inspired by the story of Mende Nazer, former slave turned author and activist, I Am Slave chronicles the life of Malia and her struggle to regain not only her freedom but also her identity while living in London.
Through a series of flashbacks we learn that at 12, Malia, the protaganist, was kidnapped from her village in the the Nuba mountains in Sudan and sold to an Arab family in Khartoum. At 18, her owner gives her to a cousin in London.
The film highlights some of the obstacles that a modern-day slave faces. Malia struggles with her fear and lack of understanding of the alien environment of London. In one scene she escapes from the house and rushes into the streets but she is confused about who to trust. Her ignorance and fear forces her back into captivity. Throughout the film Malia lives under the threat of violence: her current slave master threatens to have her father killed if she disobeys.
I Am Slave shows Malia wrestling to hold onto her identity. Her days are spent as a slave: cooking, cleaning and caring for children. In one scene, she whispers into the darkness: “I am Malia Nour, daughter of Bah Al Nour, wrestler of Nuba.”
However, Malia is not the typical heroine that I expected to find in a movie about slavery. Her years of slavery have broken her spirit. And throughout the film, I struggled to ‘like’ the character.
Malia is not sassy, cunning or bold. There is no backchat. No s*** in the pie. No muttering under her breath. No daggered looks.
Her fear of punishment has silenced her voice.
Throughout the film, she maintains a soft, childlike voice that is filled with fear. During the climax of the film when Malia is about to escape, her slave master begs her to stay. Malia’s response is not one of defiance or rebellion. Wearily, she tells her former slave master, “No more.”
Malia isn’t even angry. She is just tired.
Her character contrasts with the narratives of slavery that I have heard. As a child, I listened to stories about slave rebellions in Jamaica and Tobago. As I grew older I read about Haiti’s slave rebellion in 1791 that resulted in the island becoming the first independent black-ruled country in the Western Hemisphere. I watched Roots. And most recently I watched The Help and Black Girl about black domestic workers who worked under oppressive employers.
My view of a slave has been colored by these stories. And I wanted the defiant heroine with flashing eyes and a strong sense of identity. Who wouldn’t be so stupid to escape from captivity and then get into the car of the family’s chauffeur and return to her prison.
The film directly challenged my perspective of what a slave is supposed to be like. And perhaps this view of a slave as P. Djeli Clark’s brilliant blog post argues is “tied more to modern political ideologies of black self-reliance, in which black dignity is found in those who achieve on their own merits, despite what obstacles are placed in their way.”
And eventually Malia does achieve her freedom but without all the bravado.
Despite my dislike of Malia’s docility, I believe the actor Wunmi Mosaku captures the fear, vulnerability and
desperation that Malia experiences. Her expressive doe-like eyes and beautiful dark skin are captivating. She is supported by an excellent cast: Yigal Naor who played the family chauffeur, Hiam Abbass as her cruel slave master and Issac de Bankole as her father.
I Am Slave is a must-see film demonstrating how easily modern-day slavery can disguise itself in the Western world and one woman’s fight for her freedom.