OPINION | 12 Years a Slave: A necessary movie


Melissa Harris-Perry called “12 Years a Slave” the best movie you’ll only want to see one time.

This is one of those very rare times when I disagree with my celebrity news crush. Normally I find her insight on issues spot on and in toe with my own. But this time she got it wrong.

Now understand, I get where the host of the “Melissa Harris-Perry Show” was coming from. “12 Years a Slave,” the adaptation of the book written by Solomon Northup, a free Black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, is not an easy watch. And that’s precisely why people need to watch the movie multiple times. The fact is, the institution of slavery – and the truths of the brutality and depravity heaped upon human beings shouldn’t be easy to watch. If we’re going to have a serious conversation about the slave experience – and the long-term implications – we need to watch “12 Years a Slave” until it physically sickens us.

Unlike the gory, cartoonish violence of “Django Unchained” – a slave-era movie I enjoyed as entertainment, there was nothing entertaining about director Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.” Let’s be honest, this is not a fun movie. But it’s a necessary movie.

With “Django” I remember the mood in the theater was almost upbeat. People were clapping at scenes, eating their popcorn and having a good ‘ol time. Not to say “Django” didn’t evoke certain moments of anger, but at the end of the day, Django was an avenger – he was a hero.

But “Django” was fiction.

Solomon Northup was real. His account was real. The brutality he witnessed and endured was real.

As I said earlier, “12 Years a Slave” was not entertaining. Don’t go thinking you’re going to sit back with your soda and popcorn and have a jolly time at the show. In fact, my purchase of a drink and popcorn was a waste of $12 because at some point during the movie I thought to myself, how can I sit back a “enjoy” my treats while witnessing the most vile, repulsive and heartbreaking acts ever done to man. I couldn’t take another bite.

In one particularly emotional scene of a whipping of a young woman, McQueen brilliantly shows the mist of blood with each striking of the whip. I say brilliantly, because in almost every other slave-era depiction of a whipping, there’s the sound of the crack and screams and then a scene of the healed scars. In many ways, with other depictions of slavery the viewer gets to escape the horrors of what these human beings really endured.

Torture is not only physical.

“12 Years a Slave” shows how day in and day out, men, women and children lived in constant anguish – constant fear. When we talk about mental health in the African-American community, there’s no wonder why we are disproportionately affected with psychological aliments. Study after study confirms that stress from the mother is passed on to the child. It’s a wonder we’ve progressed so far so fast.

Even for white Americans, there’s got to be a level dysfunction that exists embedded in their genetic codes, as it is clearly not natural to inflict such horror on a fellow human being without leaving some psychological scars.

Now it’s time to heal, but in order to heal, you’ve got to know you have an illness. “12 Years a Slave” reminds us of the illness we as Americans suffer from collectively.

Director McQueen said his hope in making the movie is that the book would become required reading in schools throughout America. While I don’t think the film should be given that same distinction, as the images of brutality are more than what I would want to expose to a child, I’d push for every American history course in institutions of higher learning to require its students to view the film – at least once.

For me, I’m going to watch it a couple more times to truly digest what my not-to-distant ancestors endured. Melissa, maybe you’re right. “12 Years a Slave” is the best movie you’ll only want to see once. I don’t want to see it again. I’m obligated to see it again.

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