Taken, Skyfall and 12 Years a Slave: Three approaches to slavery and human trafficking in film
“If you let my daughter go now that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you, but if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you.”
This infamous, instantly quotable and meme-worthy speech of Liam Neeson’s character Bryan Mills in Taken (2008) is upheld faithfully by the father on his mission for his daughter. In full Liam Neeson style, he tracks down the Albanian sex trafficking ring that kidnapped his daughter, and finally discovers her held at knife point by her “buyer” on his private boat. He uses those particular set of skills of his and successfully kills his daughter’s captor. The father and daughter embrace as she cries through her tears, “You came for me”, to which Neeson tenderly replies, “I told you I would.” Neeson’s character fulfils his trustworthy commitment as a father to use whatever means he can to look after his daughter.
When Taken came out, it awakened some people to the dangers of human trafficking and sex trafficking in particular. An estimated 24.9 million people are trapped in modern day slavery. With many films out there that address historical slavery, directly or indirectly, it’s a surprise that we do not see as many film addressing the issue of modern day slavery. So when a modern day action film does address it, it is interesting to note the way in which it does so, and the message that it leaves. Does it raise our awareness, show how we are implycated or merely contribute to the problems that lead to sex trafficking?
Another film that engages with this issue, albeit more indirectly, is Skyfall (2012). Now, James Bond has become well known as a womanizer who often treats his love-interests as sexual objects, as expendable as the cars that he writes off. So, when
I watched Skyfall, my interest was piqued during the casino scene, in which Bond meets Sévérine, the mistress of the main villain, the unnervingly creepy Raoul Silva. Bond adeptly recognizes a tattoo on her wrist that reveals she is a sex slave. He sees through her confident show, to see the fear and helplessness in her heart caused by her unwilling slavery to Silva. Bond exhibits some emotional awareness in this scene, seeing the torment Sévérine suffers, gaining her trust and promising to help her. Great! I thought, a mainstream, popular, action film, exposing sex slavery for exactly what it is: slavery.
But what follows is not helpful, either to Sévérine, or to the conversation surrounding sex trafficking and exploited women. In a baffling scene, Sévérine – a victim of sexual abuse – takes a shower, and Bond proceeds to mysteriously walk in and initiate a sexual encounter with her. While this seduction may be seen as a familiar Bond trope, and the scene is played out implying some kind of consent, the history of sexual abuse that any girl trapped in sexual exploitation has experienced (in this case, since the age of 12 or 13 as Bond suggests in the previous scene) means that when a man walks naked into her room, she knows he is carrying all the power. If we can forgive Bond for his usual sexual antics, his attitude to Sévérine’s death is more troubling.
As Bond is receiving the tour of Silva’s island lair, the villain remarks, “There is nothing superfluous in my life; when a thing is redundant, it is – poof [mimes gunshot] – elimina
ted”, as the camera then pans to a restrained Sévérine. Silva forces Bond to shoot a shot glass of scotch off her head – Bond misses so Silva shoots her in the head. In response Bond sighs and says, “it’s a waste of good scotch.” This evaluation of purchased goods against superfluous “things”: the scotch versus the prostitute is particularly heavy handed. It doesn’t help contribute to a healthy view of women’s true value apart from their use as a sexual object. Bond’s sexual advance on Sévérine and his nonchalan
t response to her death seem to be an attempt to validate his masculinity and cold edged heart, but all they do is perpetuate (and exacerbate) a problem inherent not just in James Bond movies, but many action movies: the objectification of women, which is the whole basis of the sex trade, the selling of humans as objects for the purpose of pleasure. This objectification is painfully explicit as this victim of sex slavery is treated with indifference by a man who promised to protect her. While the casino scene seems to set up a promising story line, what follows sends mixed messages. Bond, and the filmmakers, ruin any chance of a meaningful message being spoken about the value of women and the insidious nature of trafficking.
Now, I love James Bond films, and I love most of Skyfall, and that is precisely why I tackle it. The films that we watch influence the way that we think. Many British boys grow up wanting to be James Bond, and perhaps that inclination remains into young adulthood as Bond is the ideal British gentleman, an image of masculinity. But is this the kind of masculinity we want to be accepted as an ideal? This ideal is raising men who see women as sexual objects, and I think much more likely to buy sexual “services”. One of the main reasons that sex trafficking exists is because there is a consumer demand for it.
Contrast Bond’s response to his girl with Neeson’s response to his daughter: While Sévérine is just a means to the end, a cheap expenditure in his mission and/or the plot, Neeson’s daughter is portrayed as the end goal, the person of great value that must be saved at all costs. However, while Taken definitely offers a positive view on the value of girls caught up in sex trafficking, the ending of a more traditional drama on slavery offers a perspective that we may not have left with leaving the cinema when watching Taken.
12 Years a Slave (2013) tells the true story of Solomon Northupp, a free black man who was kidnapped into slavery in 1841. When he is finally rescued by an old acquaintance, he has to leave his friend Patsy and the rest of the slaves behind on the plantation. Solomon leaves in a horse cart looking back at Patsy, and as he turns forwards, we barely catch Patsy fainting in the background, out of focus. What could have been a happy ending becomes mournful but poignant as we are left with the question: what about Patsy? What about the other slaves?
This brings us back to Taken. As Neeson rescues her daughter, we release a sigh of relief -but not because we were unsure if she would be rescued. We knew she would be okay – why? Because her dad is Liam Neeson. How many other prostitutes have a Liam Neeson who can come and save them? We can look back on 12 Years a Slave and wonder if the other slaves on the plantation ever survived to see abolition, but we sigh with a sad acceptance that they did not, and there is nothing we can do about it. However, can we sit with that same mournful resignation over the fate of the girls who Liam Neeson did not have time to rescue, who are currently being exploited all over the world? Is there hope for the rest of these girls, and men, women and children in the wider human trafficking industry? Is there anything we can do about it, or can we just wait for Liam Neeson?