I will be honest and admit that I did not want to see 12 Years a Slave. Oh, sure, no one forced me to buy tickets, but I still wasn’t enthused. Not in the conventional sense, where I am brimming with excitement over seeing my favorite actor/actresses leave it all on the screen, wondering where the plot will take me during 90 minutes.
I knew the journey 12 Years a Slave would take me on. I expected chains, trees of keloids planted in brown backs, spirituals and devilish whips, blood, sweat, and tears commingling. Somehow, I did not foresee the tears shed being my own.
As an African-American literature major, I read slave narratives aplenty. No matter how many I plowed through, the re-imagining of slavery evoked a maelstrom of emotion in me: anger, sadness, helplessness, fear, and the most shameful of all, weariness. The weariness always, always, gave way to guilt. What right did I, pampered descendant of Alabama slaves, have to feel burdened by merely reading a history that others died to make known?
Every slave narrative would exhume the feelings I buried and stitch flesh to the bones of contention I had with America. I share America’s problem with its own evil: we don’t want to remember our country’s imperfections. We tell ourselves that we just saw Django, that Roots already covered this adequately, that we both read and watched Beloved. Standing in the ticket line, I argued with myself that I was tired of seeing slave movies. My quota was fulfilled because I already knew the history.
But we do not need narratives like Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl solely for historical accounts. By the time we are of age, we know very well the ugly facts of slavery. The lifelong reason for watching and reading slave narratives is the emotional impact. This is why I went to see the movie.
The 60-something year old woman sitting next to me in the theater was old enough to know that a movie about slavery would contain brutality. But that did not stop her from sighing in concert with the whip strikes. Her sighs gave way to sobs when the blood sprayed in droplets. And before the scene was over, she left the theater with her hands covering her wet face. She did not return for the rest of the movie.
I might have held on were it not for her letting go. The dam in my chest burst and I cried in streams, but I did not close my eyes. I took in every pixel of that scene as Chiwetel Ejiofor bore witness for the millions who were unable to write their narratives. I gave thanks for the survivors and I mourned the dead.
Last week, I had a conversation with my friend RJ about how remembering slavery is both necessary reverence and necessary pain. No matter how much discomfort watching a simulation of slavery brings me, I can never tap the surface of slavery’s true damage. I watch with a sense of duty and responsibility to carry the legacy to the next generation. If we let ourselves avoid retelling horror stories because we don’t want the inconvenience of feeling horrified, we risk desensitization to the true devastation of the past.
I could have regaled you with details of Ejiofor’s superb acting or Hans Zimmer’s score, or outlined why both deserve an Oscar award. But I don’t need to review a slave narrative. You already know what it’s about, at its core. Still, I am recommending that you push past every nerve tired of the visual barrage of oppression and see the movie anyway.
Don’t go see 12 Years a Slave to be entertained by a good movie; go see it to be emotionally destroyed. And let the gratitude that you can walk away from it, safely into the arms of freedom, build you back up again stronger.