The 3:30 Project is a collaborative blog by life long friends: Maggie, Mary Margaret, and Jillian. Several months ago, we wrote about our favorite movies—the ones we return to again and again. This month we flip that around and explore movies that we never need to see again…for varied reasons. I’m up first (Mary Margaret), and to be perfectly honest, I had no idea that this would come out of me when I sat down to write, so I’m hoping for your grace as I try to articulate a difficult subject.
12 Years a Slave
Undoubtedly this movie is tremendously acted, with impeccable production design, stunning visuals, and of great historical relevance, but having watched once, I can also say that I never need to see this movie again. This movie falls into a category that I find a bit tricky, because I feel like people don’t so much watch or enjoy a movie like this, but rather, they submit or subject themselves to it. Films like this develop the status of being labeled “important,” and then groaning under their powerful historical weight, they suddenly become the sort of films that people do not simply want to see, but perhaps more significantly, feel they should see. In a country and culture still deeply and painfully grappling with its legacy of slavery, systemic and self-selected segregation, and racism, some of us feel the need to attempt a head-on look at our past; one way we seek to do this is through the medium of film and other arts. I know I may be generalizing or that this may sound judgmental, but I sometimes feel like I hear white, educated, liberal people falling over themselves to say how excellent and amazing movies like this are, without being truly honest with themselves or others about how the movie actually impacted them. I’m not suggesting that the movie is not of cinematic excellent and deserving of its accolades, but rather that there’s a different sort of conversation that occurs when a movie takes on certain grave, (almost sacred), and relevant social subject matter. I sometimes feel that the vociferous adulation of “important” films is used as if to prove some point about one’s level of social consciousness and awareness. Incidentally, this film came out the same year that the Black Lives Matter movement began, and I admit a part of me wonders if the impulse to discuss the power of this film is also an attempt to signal one’s “woke-ness” to the racial divides coursing through both our history and everyday reality. In other words, “I appreciated this film, therefore see how racially sensitive and enlightened I am.” I am not criticizing the impulse to signal open-mindedness, but I want us to be honest about what we mean and the limits of this kind of signaling.
So I will be frank about my experience: This movie was truly difficult to watch, and I can honestly admit I did not enjoy the experience of sitting through it. Great acting does not make seeing people inhumanely chained in the hold of a ship, or being raped, or being flogged to within an inch of their lives a pleasant or good experience (not that I’m suggesting this as the ultimate goal of art, to be clear). In fact, I did not watch the movie all in one sitting, and I had to force myself to return to finish the last hour, driven by an innate sense of guilt that I should face these images. These events truly happened to people, so who was I to say that I wanted to look away from viewing a fictional presentation of these atrocities on a screen?
The story was undoubtedly fascinating, the performances powerful, and I do not regret seeing the film…but once was enough. Firstly because I do not have to convince myself that winning awards or being historically significant means I must like a film; I did not like watching this film. I felt sort of sick and emotionally wrung out, but not in the cathartic way that certain songs, films, and books elicit. Secondly (and closely linked) because I think we need to remember that simply subjecting ourselves to the difficult facts of our past is not some sort of atonement or exculpation for those events. I am not a better, more purified person for simply having watched 12 Years a Slave and experiencing an emotional reaction to its raw intensity. I haven’t done anything to help heal the wounds that the institution of slavery drove deeply into the core of this country.
Sorry, folks, there are just no moral merit badges handed out because you watched a movie that exposed you to difficult truths. There is always the temptation to substitute emotional reactions for true changes of heart or meaningful action, and I think we must guard against this. Art is one of the most powerful ways we can be awakened to certain heartbreaking realities, but we can’t get stuck in the moment of realization or emotion and feel the work is done somehow, when that’s really the point where the true work begins. I don’t need to revisit this movie to remember that the gut-wrench it left with me is a merely an infinitesimally small twinge of the pain that we must continue to try and heal in our nation. It is a pain not mine to claim, a pain inflicted undoubtedly by some of my own ancestors as white Americans, but also a pain that I pray I might have a part in further distancing ourselves from.
So view this film and others like it–if you truly want to. Dare to ask yourself the context that brought you to watch it, and try to recognize how your own race, gender, age, cultural identification, history, and bias may play a part in reaction to the film. Perhaps most importantly, remember emotion isn’t action; you may not have to watch the film again, but I think we must keep trying to face the hard truths- again, and again.