talking with a friend over the past weekend when she mentioned that she had
just recently seen 12 Years a Slave.
Knowing my love of that film, you can imagine the ecstatic discussion that
followed. However, our conversation changed course when she told me how one of
her own friends had watched the movie with her parents, and that the mother had
kept asking in a shocked voice: “Did this kind of stuff actually happen?” My
friend had intended this as just a funny anecdote—“older
generations and Southerners are ignorant”—but then I confessed that I had been
shocked as well.
You see, I
like to think of myself as a “conscious” person—socially conscious,
politically conscious, culturally conscious—but in truth I’m pretty ignorant. I hope that recognizing that fact and striving to correct it
is worth something, but then again it doesn’t really mean much to just know a
thing; you have to understand and accept it.
Before watching 12 Years a Slave, I would
say that I was fairly well-versed intellectually on American slavery. I knew
the history of colonialism, the system of triangular trade, and the common layout
and routine of plantations. I knew the horrors of slavery objectively, but
I was and likely still am far from fully understanding them subjectively. 12 Years proved that to me.
12 Years is a relentlessly brutal movie,
one that shows no obvious sympathy toward its audience or its characters. We
viewers receive no respite from the suffering and inequities on display, and
the powerlessness of Solomon to prove his identity or avoid punishment is
suffocating to see. Throughout, the movie dares you to look away, placing
atrocities front and center on the screen.
When I attended a screening of 12 Years back in October 2013, I remember
seeing at least 10 people walk out before the end. I understand this, just
as I understand the many people out there who have avoided seeing the film due
to its lack of sentiment. However, I can’t endorse this avoidance, not for
There’s a quote I like from the
film theorist Dennis Lehane, which he made in reference to “unsympathetic
“In the void of sentiment, we, the viewer, are forced to
decide what our capacity for empathy is,” he wrote.
Film is a spectacular art medium
because we humans somehow seem to connect with it more than anything else.
Whatever it is about the combination of sight, movement, and sound, it endows
anything presented with a resonance it would have otherwise lacked. This empathetic connection is one of
the reasons that I love film so much, and, as silly as it sounds, it is the
reason it is so essential that filmmakers use this power for good, and why
we need films like 12 Years a Slave, Dogville, and (God, forgive me) Salo to force us to recognize the
monstrous capacity of regular humans.
So go out and see 12 Years a Slave if you haven’t already, and, if you have, check out some other unflinching, merciless movies: Bicycle Thieves, The Wages of Fear, and The
Act of Killing come to mind. Do this not just because these movies are all
brilliant in their own ways, but also because they will make you a better
Dan Brown PO ’16 is a media studies major. You can check out his show, Out of Breath, on the Claremont Colleges Television channel on YouTube.