12 Years A Slave – Too Hard to Watch?


12 Years

My husband Bruce and I went to 12 Years A Slave on opening night, too early in its life to have heard much about it. I hadn’t read the book, not even a review. I went in without expectation. Two hours later, I’d been shaken to my core. When the lights came up, the room was silent, somber.


Within minutes of leaving the theater, Bruce and I ran into a friend. “What’s going on? Is everything okay?” she asked, reaching out to touch my arm.

“We just saw 12 Years A Slave,” I managed, not wanting to be touched. Or even seen, really.

“Oh my God, this is why I’m not seeing it,” she said.

“Oh yes you are,” Bruce said, kind of aggressively, okay, really aggressively. “Everyone needs to see it.”

Couple not talking

I cringed. This wasn’t the first time Bruce had chided a friend for their aversion to film violence. We’d argued over this dozens of times — Bruce alluding to sensitivity as a weakness, me advocating for people knowing their own limits in the name of self-care. I wanted to remind Bruce how lucky he was to have married me, a Quentin Tarantino, Coen Brothers fan. Instead, I withdrew further into myself, knowing we would dig into the film and its aftermath the next day.

Over coffee the next morning, Bruce spoke about the rage the film had stirred in him. He called our friend to explain and apologize for his outburst. Then he turned to me.

“Debby, I can’t believe you think it’s okay for comfortable white people to opt out of seeing this film, just because it’s ‘too hard to watch.’ ” He made little quotation marks in the air with his fingers. “You of all people.” He looked at me as if I should be getting something that I clearly wasn’t. “Too hard to watch? Are you kidding me?”

Exclamation Question

He was right. This wasn’t Pulp Fiction or Fargo, fictional films that use violence to play their audiences and punctuate their stories. This was history, raw and real; exactly what I’ve been saying I regret having been ‘protected’ from for most of my life.

In the month since the film opened, I’ve heard several white friends and family say, “I can’t go. It would be too hard to watch.” Though there are some for whom the film really would be too traumatic – including young children – most grown people can and should see the film. The reflex to choose comfort is, believe it or not, one of racism’s most powerful tools.


I now think of 12 Years A Slave as an offering, an antidote to the whitewashed history and Walt Disney distractions that created my former state of extreme ignorance and denial. It’s one thing to learn history. It’s another thing to feel history. 12 Years A Slave delivers both. This is not ‘black’ history or ‘slavery’ history, this is unvarnished American history, a vivid exposure of the white supremacist roots that continue to entangle all Americans in racially coded social roles today. And yes, that is hard to feel.

comfort zone

What I’m learning is that even the best-intentioned white people, myself included, can obstruct racial healing and justice simply by staying within the white social role, which includes choosing comfort. No one wants to deal with racism. No one alive today created it. Yet all of us inherited it. People of color are choiceless when it comes to feeling racism day in and day out. What motivates me to get in the game and stay in the game is that sharing the burden of racism is every white person’s first best step towards creating racial healing. Being willing to step outside of white comfort zones is a prerequisite.

black white hands

And who knows what the experience will actually be like. Unlike my silent theater group, I’ve heard reports of cheering, crying, holding hands, and embracing at the film’s end. Whatever the group vibe may be at any given theater on any given night, there’s no way to experience this film and not feel a shared history with the strangers in your midst.

My feelings centered on profound love for humanity, including the strangers around me, and shock at the extent to which we can inflict pain on one another. It also forced the question: When and how was America supposed to recover from such pathology? When were those who were enslaved provided with the PTSD services they surely required? When were white people given consequences and opportunities to restore their humanity? And if neither of those healing measures ever happened, how are white supremacist cultural beliefs and patterns showing up today?

One belief I inherited was that avoiding conflict and tension was my right, not a privilege. I also believed racism was a problem belonging to black and brown people, not to the white people who created it — that part of history went missing from my textbooks, TV shows, and family history.

Me in chalk circle

White people have a huge role to play in racial healing and justice. It starts with the simplest of steps: just an agreement with yourself to examine your limits and a willingness to get uncomfortable in the name of changing them. For instance, why did it take Bruce to point out to me the racial implications of white people’s choice to avoid the film? I’m supposedly the racial justice educator in the family.

The truth is, my own socialization still haunts me, keeps me tied to my social role as a nice white girl taught not to rock the boat. Not only could I not challenge my friend that night to go see 12 Years A Slave, I couldn’t make the connection that it mattered. A lifetime of avoiding conflict and choosing comfort over growth has dumbed me down in ways I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to overcome.

So thank you John Ridley, Steve McQueen, and everyone else who brought 12 Years A Slave to life. It’s the kick in the pants I needed to continue freeing myself from my own, inherited, white social role.

Hands untied


27 thoughts on “12 Years A Slave – Too Hard to Watch?”

  1. Debby,
    I saw the film over the weekend and found it to be riveting, powerful, moving, horrifying, and so much more. My husband and I entered the theater just after the film started and I could see forms in the dark but didn’t know if they were white or black. At the end of the film I said to my husband that I couldn’t imagine being black and watching this film and knowing perhaps one of my ancestors had suffered similar emotional and physical torture. A black family was leaving as we were and the woman asked whether we thought it was an Oscar worthy film. I said absolutely. Their son who was maybe 13 said when he left the theater in the middle of the film to use the bathroom, he felt like he was in another world. Both the husband and wife said they thought it was kind of overdone. The husband observed there are good black people and good white people and bad black people and bad white people and, generally speaking, I agree. But what I thought the film made clear was that while the first slave owner had some compassion, and it was easy to see him as a good guy, particularly compared with the other guy who was a monster, he was nonetheless A SLAVE OWNER!! Maybe for this couple it was “too hard” to acknowledge that things were as horrible as depicted. I don’t know. I really wanted to engage them further in conversation but I really had to use the bathroom and they moved on with their son.

    Anyway, I’m grateful to you for this blog so I can read others comments and impressions. Any comments to my experience are welcome!

    • Thank you for sharing your experience. I’ve heard a few people — and not just in reference to this film — try to use the ‘good’ slaveowner as an argument that slavery was not an altogether wretched institution. It’s a natural place to go for those of us who so staunchly believe in the capacity for human goodness. And you are spot-on by redirecting the sentiment to the fact that it’s still PEOPLE OWNING PEOPLE!!!! Thank you for engaging. I’m hoping for much more in 2014!


      • I just saw the film today and it's simply harrowing  , thankgod there was a vaguely happy ending for Solomon , reuniting again with his family ,  but it shows the full spectrum of humanity good and bad , and in particular that not all white people were bad , and also lest we forget the fact that slavery continues to this day around the world in different guises , we must all learn through education and banish ignorance , ethnocentric ideology dooms us all to a very bleak dark and blinded world , we must always fight and rage against the dark to quote from  Dylan Thomas 

  2. Thank you Debby for your thoughtful, introspective, and honest response to the film. I saw the film yesterday with a friend who needed to step out during the most extreme moment of brutality. It got me thinking about the very question you address, so I was pleased to see your post. What I want to say is this. Ordinarily my attitude is similar to your husband’s. I want to tell white people that they simply have a non-negotiable responsibility to just see it. But after some reflection, I noticed a belief I have been carrying around that I had not really thought about. The belief is this: to witness the horrific actions that have been perpetrated by our forebears is the same as facing the truth about them, and that there are psychological, moral, and social benefits to this. Moreover, not only does every white person have a responsibility to see films like this, if we all do so, we might, in some small way, be cleansed of our collective guilt. This latter belief is rooted in an assumption that moral improvement requires suffering. I think this assumption is part of a legacy of Puritan asceticism, brought here by English settlers. For this reason alone, we should probably be wary.

    Having said all that, I still agree that it’s important for everyone to see the film, and it is also OK if they step out for the worst of the brutality. The reason, I think we white people, in particular, should see the film is not to see how bad we acted then, but to get the insights the film offers about who we are now. We can either look back at the slave masters in the film as monsters, or we can consider how, like them, we continue to place our financial interests ahead of our humanity on an almost daily basis.

    • Thank you for your own very thoughtful reflection Gregory. I love the saying (and I wish I knew where I first heard it!) that conversations are the way human beings think together. The comments on this blog have been so useful to me and I’m guess all who’ve read them. Let’s keep the conversation going!

  3. Debby – thanks for honing in on the issue for white people like myself: “the reflex to choose comfort… one of racism’s most powerful tools.” Since I’d read Northrup’s book, as I wrote “Why Read Slave Narratives?” for my blog, I thought I didn’t have to see the violence on the big screen. But Lani Guinier, at a Nov talk, she said everyone must see it, so I did. Thanks to Norma Johnson’s remark “The great blessing of this film is that it heals, because it reveals the truth. What happens to us all, when this kind of truthful experience is not only suppressed and hidden but altered and sugar-coated?”

    • Barbara, thank you so much for your comments. So well said. I am a 70 year old Black woman who grew up in New Orleans and first hand experienced racism. So, I am so grateful to those who brought this true story to the screen. It is a chance for all Americans to SEE the truth and not just become friends with African Americans based on the “whitewashed” version of American history. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to watch the movie either but I went and had to look away several times, closed my eyes many times shaking my head in pained disbelief and openly weeped often even though I know and have lived through racism. It was to open my eyes to the truth so I can better understand what my ancestors went through and how through the grace of God & the help of others, they endured and made it through.

      It made me even more appreciate how far we have come as a people and realize what a strong race we are with so much to contribute to America. We’re all in this together, as was evidenced by many good people in Solomon’s life, and until the true history of ALL Americans is revealed and learned, especially in our schools, we will not all be healed. We cannot continue to refuse to see and learn the painful truth. IT HAPPENED and we want you to face it and try to see the truth, in the midst of your own pain.

    • One more remembrance. There is a beautiful open market place in one of our American cities in the Deep South with a majestic staircase that overlooks the original cobbled stone streets. While visiting there I watched a video about the history of the city and the various cultures who now sell their wares in the market place. Nowhere do they mention that during slavery this exact market place housed hundreds of slaves who had been taken from the ships arriving from Africa and who were marched up those beautiful stairs where they stood to be eyed, touched, families separated and sold into slavery to the highest White bidder seated in chairs on those cobbled stone streets.
      This horribly painful part of our American history is not shared with tourists perhaps because someone thinks it may be too painful to bear, even tough it is the true story. On e again the truth of Black history is glossed over. How sad for our people. It’s like we don’t really matter. But we do!

      • Thank you Anne Marie for both of your comments. Your example of what I call ‘missing history’ in the southern city tourist destination is a powerful example of the kind of ommissions that created my ignorance. 

  4. I found myself sobbing, having to leave for bathroom toilet tissue mmovie. I was at a tender spot in my life, emotionally vulnerable and tears come easily these days. They poured out. I had to cover my eyes id-and ears at times but I never once thought about not watching the movie all the way through. Seeing the onslaught of pain, suffering, violence, torture, family and marital shattering, in the midst of the horror or racism and slavery sometimes seemed like too much to bear in the midst of my own suffering/tenderness and yet it put it all into perspective. I suffer, they suffered, you suffer, we all suffer. It’s not a contest to see who suffers more but how we each endure. I’m grateful for the movie, I’m grateful for my suffering in the midst of watching it. I have no apologies for my response while watching it. I’m grateful for knowing this story and the stories of love in the midst of horror. I regret not knowing what happened to an amazing man, how he died, where isy buried. So many men, so many women, so many children…so many…

  5. Dear Debbie,
    Your piece is very thoughtful and sincere. I appreciate your honesty. However, I would like you to consider that it is really not your responsibility or your right to pressure others to see a movie with traumatic violence. It my have been a movie that awakened your consciousness about the evils and trauma of slavery. Others may be equally engaged without exposing themselves to the trauma of violence. Have you considered that your friends may have experienced a violent incident in their own lives that would make the watching of the movie a different experience than your own. Your sincerity is evident, but I would like for you to consider that your own transformation is your responsibility. By your efforts you will most certainly affect others. However, it is not for you to decide the path others should take. Criticism of others for not taking the path you have found helpful, is patronizing. In my opinion there are more effective means for addressing the ills of the past than by watching vicariously while the atrocities take place. Other ways to work toward good include making friends with people of different racial, ethnic, class, and religious backgrounds. Invite them into your home. Visit their homes. become engaged in one another’s life. This, in my opinion, does much more to advance to healing process for the trauma carried by the evils of slavery, than sitting in a movie, however wonderful and powerful that movie may be. But everyone must forge their own path toward solving these problems. This is the way I choose to live my life and refusing to watch 12 Years a Slave does not represent some moral failing but just a personal choice. There is a teaching in my faith, the Baha’i Faith that I use as my guide. I will paraphrase the quote: Bring into the circle of fellowship those who have been excluded.
    If we do not become friends to one another, these ills will never heal. Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts.
    Best, Patsy

  6. Debby,

    Thank you for your very honest, emotional recounting of your experience of watching 12 Years A Slave, and your thoughts about white people’s conscious and unconscious ways of choosing comfort over facing the realities of racism and the history of slavery. I have also read blog posts by people of color who wish to avoid seeing the film because it would be difficult for them to bear the pain; the raw truth, again, on film. This, of course, comes from a different place, for a different reason, and cannot be compared to white people’s reasons for seeking comfort over confronting the realities of this shared American history.

    Thanks for sharing this important piece with all of us.

  7. Debby, your courage and commitment to honesty share your experiences and challenges with race are tremendously helpful to me. It reminds me this is a life long practice or challenging my conditioning if I want to realize my full humanity, and see the full beauty of it in others. Your writing is such a gift. The movie has been on my list, now it’s next. Thank you.

  8. Those questions you ask, starting with “When and how was America supposed to recover from such pathology?”, put me in mind of what South Africa did when the great injustice of apartheid was finally brought to a halt. Mandela and Archbishop Tutu, among others, turned a potentially explosive country of victims and victimizers towards healing through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truth_and_Reconciliation_Commission_(South_Africa)). Post-Civil War America was probably not “in touch with itself” enough to do such a thing, but it should have done so as soon as it was able. It didn’t (another example of white privilege), and I wonder what would happen if such an idea was brought forward today. Many would say “That’s ancient history–we’re over it,” but they’d be quite wrong.


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