Torture Porn? Re-Examining 12 Years A Slave, 9 Years Later

The Best Picture Oscar winner debuted this month in 2013.

Jeremy Helligar

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Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in 12 Years A Slave (Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Do you remember where you were when you saw 12 Years a Slave? I was living in Cape Town. My location at the time was fitting and almost poetic. During the year I spent in South Africa, I was constantly reminded of the country’s legacy of racism, both in historical artifacts and present-day remnants. Race was the elephant in nearly every room there.

Though slavery in the U.S. and Apartheid in South Africa were two completely separate injustices on different continents, Jim Crow, a direct descendent of slavery, had uncomfortable overlaps with Apartheid. I didn’t fully grasp them until I spent an afternoon in the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg in 2013.

12 Years a Slave, the Roots of its generation which debuted at the Telluride Film Festival nine years ago this month, documents the ugliest blemish on U.S. history. It explores the roots of the generational trauma of Black Americans in a way that’s more heavy-handed than the exhibits I saw when I visited the Apartheid Museum around the time of the movie’s release. There’s nothing subtle about the 2013 Best Picture Oscar winner. It’s history delivered with a sledgehammer.

Though some dismissed it as “torture porn” at the time (an assessment I get and, to a degree, agree with), critics loved it. Most people you ask would probably say they did to — even if they weren’t able to make it through the movie’s unflinching depiction of plantation brutality to get to the happy ending. I watched it all the way through to the final scene, and at no point during 12 Years a Slave, did it move me the way I was moved to tears that day at the Apartheid Museum.

Maybe over-familiarity breeded a touch of indifference. I was raised on a steady diet of slavery and Civil War-era miniseries like Roots and North and South and had seen the (in my opinion) superior and more original Django Unchained the previous year, so 12 Years a Slave didn’t…

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Jeremy Helligar

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj