I read Twelve Years a Slave over twenty years ago for a college history class. Nightmarish cruelty permeated every page in this harrowing story of a free black man, a resident of upstate New York, who in 1841 was tricked, kidnapped and sold into slavery in the deep South. It was a book I couldn't stop reading, although I needed to put it down often. The unimaginable horror and vivid descriptions had a cinematic feel, and I wondered if there would ever be a movie.
And for years there was nothing, or nothing mainstream, until now.
I first learned that Twelve Years a Slave had been made into a movie on CNN, and then read a glowing review in the New Yorker, a magazine whose film critics give wholehearted praise to almost nothing. I stalked it online -- read every critique -- yet shied away from watching the trailer because I knew it reveal too much misery. I asked a girlfriend, my “heavy movie buddy,” to go see it with me. She said she'd think about it, but said she just couldn’t after reading reviews describing scenes “unbearable in their cruelty,” scenes it was impossible to dismiss as “just a movie.”
My mother came to the rescue. She saw it once, and offered to see it again with me. Although I was grateful for her company, I’m still not sure I understand the profound maternal love – wanting to share the experience with her daughter – that could make someone endure this movie twice in less than a month.
Any emotional preparation I had tried to do failed miserably. I was a wreck walking into the theater. I couldn't even bring myself to distraction with popcorn or Twizzlers. I didn't want to, and I didn't even try. The previews -- trailers for the Nelson Mandela biopic and Belle, a film about a beautiful young half black/half white woman (I couldn't help thinking about my daughter) adopted into a noble family in early 19th century century England – didn’t help; I was teary before the main feature began.
From Twelve Years a Slave’s opening frame my muscles tightened. I never walk out on movies, but several times I thought I might have to leave the theater. About halfway through I reached for my phone to see how much time I had left. While there are brief instances of light, kindness, natural beauty and humanity, the suffering and savagery are constant. I arrived home emotionally exhausted, and over a week later my mind dances with the film’s haunting sounds and images.
It was a test of my emotional endurance. And as excellent a movie as it was, beautifully filmed, featuring tremendous performances from all the actors especially Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender, “I loved this movie” or even “I liked this movie” are sentences I can’t let pass my lips. All I can think about is slavery, not softened into the mild servitude in Gone With the Wind but as a barbaric stain on American and world history. More than any movie before it, Twelve Years a Slave makes the audience feel what it must have been like -- the violence, the rape, the dehumanization, the fear, the loneliness, the infantilization, the auction block, the separation of parents and children, and countless daily privations and humiliations. It makes you not just understand that these things happened, but that they were commonplace -- the absolute power of master over slave, psychologically, physically, sexually and emotionally was sanctioned by law, and in the eyes of slaveholders, by God.
Very heavy stuff. So heavy, so depressing, and so disturbing I worry many people won't see it. It’s so much easier not to. It’s not an escape; it’s not entertainment. Much of Twelve Years a Slave is too unbearable to watch, too evil to let into your consciousness.
And it brings up far too many issues. Many folks are tired of hearing about slavery and wish it would just go away, so we can stop blaming people, stop feeling guilty, stop feeling victimized and abused and move on.
But that's impossible. Slavery's legacy runs too deep. And because slavery and race and our feelings about those issues bring out such anger and fear, we’ve stopped talking. We go on extreme offense and defense when something goes down, but then the dust settles, and the gag goes right back in place.
And it's such a shame because we need to ask each other questions. The conversation has to continue. And as much as possible, in person, as opposed to on Facebook where anonymity gives so many people license to let their inner asshole out in full force.
We need to talk about how a movie like this makes us feel, about why it is painful, and why depending on, yes, our skin color, we might be pained for different reasons. We have to talk about our ideas and misconceptions. We need to acknowledge that this is an American story not a “black people’s story.”
We need to be open to hearing things we don’t like.
Slavery’s ghosts still haunt us. All of us. Every day. In things like our booming prison population, our failing urban public schools, the vitriolic opposition to our first black president, the opposition to a Cheerios ad, Trayvon Martin, expulsion over a natural hairstyle, and the list goes on.
Please see Twelve Years a Slave. As much as it hurts to watch, it's such a phenomenal and important movie.
Go. And after you’ve seen and cried and become furious and asked questions and had a discussion, to help your spirit heal, go find a way to see in whole or in part, Alvin Ailey's masterpiece, Revelations. The strong bodies, leaping, running and reaching for salvation become all the more relevant, soothing and heart-stoppingly ecstatic.