Mandatory Viewing: 12 Years a Slave

by Annie Stein
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12yearsSlaveYesterday I sat through two and a half of the most excruciating hours of my life. Sat through, twisted my torso through, felt like throwing up through. But I stayed there riveted, horrified, sickened and saddened beyond belief.

I was at a movie, "Twelve Years a Slave." A movie that should, in my humble yet convinced opinion, be required viewing for every American over the age of fifteen. It is based on the true story of a black man, a father, a husband, a violinist, a cultured, educated, middle class citizen of Saratoga Springs New York in the 1840's who is kidnapped, brought to the south and sold into slavery. It is the story of what he witnessed, endured, and survived for twelve years before being rescued and reunited with his family.

The movie, directed by Steve McQueen, gives it to us full strength, undiluted. The camera lens takes us into the open, oozing, purple wall of the wound. Close up and into the bubbling beads of fresh blood made by the long taut leather lashing out, slashing, ripping red rivers into chocolate skin.

It's a story of a despicable part of our history and needs to be told correctly for many reasons. And it is torturous to sit through.

The theater was packed for a 1:10 screening. I took my seat, smiling at the black woman to my right, just as the trailers were about to come on. We smiled at each other, acknowledging ourselves as neighbors saying hello, enjoy your movie. I noted her popcorn and its smell, thinking twice about deciding to forgo my usual bag since I just finished a big breakfast. That was it. A smile, a pleasant nod. Once during the movie I spontaneously commented to her something that I couldn't hold back. Other than that, and my hearing her small noises and gasps during the movie, as I'm sure she heard mine, we didn't speak at all.

12-years-a-slave-2Yes we have all "studied" slavery in our history books. But what we really did was skim the surface, never getting close to the under belly of the beast. The horror and brutality that was slavery was so up there, so in your face, soul, gut and heart that when the movie ended I could not open my eyes. Fearing I would explode, with sick sensations running all through my body, I could only hold very still with my eyes closed.

Shame exuding from every pore blanketed me. Never in my life had I ever felt such palpable shame. Sitting frozen in this aura of shame I instantly understood why Jews feel the need to keep the memory of the horrors of the holocaust alive. We need to see how brutal, how despicable we can be. We need to squirm in shame, contort from the pain of seeing ourselves as less than animals, so we can vow never to sink so low again. Forgetting is to be lulled into thinking it wasn't so bad. Forgetting is denying we have it in us. Forgetting is opening the door for it to happen again.

Sitting in that chair, the only thought I was conscious of permeated my whole body. It was this question: How Can black Americans forgive us, us white Americans? The how of it filled me as I sat there vibrating with emotion. Suddenly from the corner of my right eye which was fiercely fighting back a deluge of tears, I saw a dark hand the size of my own heading towards my lap where my hands where clasped together, fingernails digging into my palms. I saw the hand and pulled my right hand loose and I grabbed it. I grabbed it like my life depended on it because at that moment it did. We sat there silently for however long, holding each other's hand with the grip of life. As we flushed all the love we had in our hearts through to our palms, we both felt the answer arrive. The answer was forgiveness.

When our hands had made peace for the moment we let go. My eyes were still closed when she quietly got up and left.

There was nothing to say. Forgiveness is an action that promotes healing. Go see this movie. For the sake of healing our nation, please, go see this movie.


LA based Writer, Annie Stein, has written for C and More Magazines, NYTimes and is a regular blogger on Huffington Post. She runs creative writing workshops for at risk teens.

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