Benedict Cumberbatch's Ancestors Were Slave Owners: Should 'Sherlock' Actor Apologize?
BBC's hit series Sherlock may have wrapped its third season Sunday night, but Benedict Cumberbatch is far from retired. As one of the most noted British actors of the decade, he exists as villain Khan in Star Trek, he lives as toe-headed Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate, and he envelops theatres with his smoky narration as Smaug in The Hobbit. But perhaps most notably, Benedict Cumberbatch appeared in this year's Best Picture darling, 12 Years a Slave , as a plantation owner. Yet ironically, the Telegraph has reported an interesting irony: this role hits close to home for the actor, as Benedict Cumberbatch's ancestors were slave owners.
In arguably the most powerful and beautifully crafted film of the year, 12 Years A Slave, a free African American man is captured and sold into slavery and is forced to change is name and forget a family and the free life he once had. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Ford, a slave owner in New Orleans who buys Northup to work in his fields. The two instantly form a connection, and as Ford learns of Northup's many skills, he employs him with tasks far beyond the reach of the average slave. There comes a point in the film where Northup is forced to leave the plantation — he is to be sold to a much meaner and crueler slave owner. Northup begs and pleads with Ford, divulging his biggest secret: He is a free man, wrongfully imprisoned in a life of slavery. Ford responds in outrage, telling Northup that he has a debt to pay, and Northup will act as the bargaining chip. It is then we see Ford's true colors: as kind and as generous of a Master he had been to Northup, he is still in the business of trading slaves. And just as Ford had a financial debt to pay, we must ask what debt Cumberbatch should pay to his audience. The actor's ancestors were kin of Ford, and he played a crucial part in reliving their story on screen.
The telegraph reports:
Abraham Cumberbatch, who was born in Bristol in 1726 and died in 1785, came from a family of merchants and adventurers and built the clan's fortune from a sugar plantation on Barbados. The Cumberbatches are among many prominent British families who once built their wealth and standing on the slave trade.
But this is not the first time the actor has taken on roles linking him to his all too real past. In 2006's Amazing Grace, Cumberbatch played William Pitt the Younger, an abolitionist prime minister. He called taking on this role, "sort of apology." The Daily Mail argues that these roles are a bid to atone for his ancestor's sins. But this simply doesn't make sense. In 12 Years A Slave, his character turns out to be the enemy. Sure, he's as kind as a Master could be, but when confronted with the truth, he chooses monetary gain over doing the right thing. In the same vein, is it Cumberbatch's responsibility to carry the burden of things old men did years before his being came into inception?
I would argue that it is. If he were anyone other than Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor swooned over and toting a legion of self-proclaimed "Cumberbitches" to fight to the virtual death any critics that may lay a hand to his name, this burden would not be his to bare. But he is a celebrity, and just like his sugar cane farming family was in the top 1% of British money-makers, he is in the 1% of celebrities we care about. His name carries with it a powerful responsibility. We will watch what he does, and we will certainly listen to what he has to say. When Cumberbatch was cornered by paparazzi and held up a sign reading, "Go photograph Egypt and show the world something important,” he was using his power for good.
So while he has previously offered a "sort of apology", why not offer a full-fledged one now? We can't blame Cumberbatch for things this family did generations past, but we can blame him for not using his publicity, and the unanimous success of 12 Years, to bring attention to humanity's darkest hour.
Image: Regency Enterprises