Why I haven’t Seen 12 Years A Slave (and probably never will)

I’ve read reviews, tweets and blog articles about 12 Years a Slave. I’ve seen it featured on TV and heard about it on the radio. It not only sounds interesting, but like a movie well worth the time to sit and watch.

But I haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave and probably never will.

If I tried, I’m pretty sure my experience will be like Sorina’s:

It’s not that I want to hide from the history of slavery in America. I’ve written about slavery as the central cause of the Civil War, reviewed Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin – one of the greatest American novels and a prime example of abolitionist literature – to understand what we went through as a nation, and pointed out the ridiculous revisionist history some people still insist on promoting about American slavery.

I’ve also written more than once on modern day slavery, reporting back from a human trafficking conference I attended as well as writing on the cultural issues other countries face in sex slavery.

No Stranger to Human Tragedy

I’m not reluctant to deal with human tragedy, whether it’s slavery or any other. But I don’t necessarily want to spend my off hours engaging more of it through movies or “entertainment”, at least not something presented as powerfully as this movie apparently does.

Here’s the thing: Judges deal with horrible, horrible things every day. Whether someone is at the courthouse for a civil case or a criminal charge or a child custody hearing or a juvenile matter or one of the many other cases we judges handle, all those people are in court because something in their lives is going wrong, sometimes tragically so.

  • I see family members whose daughter/wife/aunt was killed in a traffic accident, sitting through trial waiting to see if the jury will find the other driver was at fault.
  • In that same case, I see the driver accused of driving negligently, of driving so poorly that he killed someone. I see that driver sitting by his attorney each day waiting for the jury to render judgment on what he has done.
  • I see people young and old standing before me accused of drug crimes, people who are caught up in an addiction or habit that is ruining their lives.
  • In those same cases, I probably won’t see any family at all. There rarely is. People accused of drug crimes, especially repeat offenders, usually have no one who will bother to show up in support of them in court.
  • I see parents who once loved each other, now barely able to stand being in the same courtroom together, hoping to convince me they are the better parent.
  • In that same case the one person I’ll probably never see is the child they both love. The parents are instead going to ask me to make the decisions for them: where the child will live, who will receive visitation, and how the parents are now going to have to share the child they used to love together but now only love apart.

I could go on: children removed from the home because first one parent and now the other is doing time in prison; a person with mental illness who has no family to care for him or her, the government needing to step in to fill that void; small business owners suing each other over a deal gone bad, with the outcome of the lawsuit deciding whether one or both might end up having to close their business forever.

Most people can’t handle the job I have.*

How Judges Handle It

If you’ve stuck with me this far, you are probably thoroughly dismayed at the thought of all this tragedy. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that we usually don’t have to deal with every single one of these types of cases all in the same day – although there have been some days when it feels like it.

Another thing to remember is that people who become judges are usually good at making decisions; it’s how we’re made. We don’t necessarily like the things that people are going through, of course, but listening to evidence and studying the law and making a decision based on both is something we’re good at.

You’re probably good at your job too. I tend to think most people end up in jobs they are able to do well. But for those who belong to Jesus Christ it’s not just a matter of doing our jobs well. It’s a matter of doing them in Christ (Ephesians 2:10) and for his glory. (1 Corinthians 10:31.)

So I pray about my workday ahead of time. I rely on my colleagues whose wisdom and experience is a treasure store provided by God. And I trust Him who is the Judge of all the earth. (Genesis 18:25.)

But I still think I’ll probably not be seeing that movie.


*Believe me, there are plenty of jobs that I couldn’t handle in a million years either. It goes back to that bit about being made a certain way.

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25 Responses to Why I haven’t Seen 12 Years A Slave (and probably never will)

  1. Aimee Byrd says:

    I hear you, Tim. There are many quality movies that I just can’t watch.
    Now off to my morning job of getting #3 off to school…

    • Tim says:

      That’s it, Aimee. No matter how well-made a movie is, no matter how good the story is told, there are some I will never sit down to watch.

  2. janehinrichs says:

    I get it too Tim. Wow — what a needed ministry you have in your profession. I am so glad God put a godly man in your position. I don’t know if I will see this movie either. It looks amazing and worth people’s time, but boy, but I don’t think I can handle it myself. Keep serving Jesus. I know that I know that I know He uses you there at work (and here on the internet and wherever else He sends you).

  3. stephanielynn75 says:

    I watched the movie after seeing it recommended by a few sites and books that deal with human trafficking. The movie is incredibly difficult to watch. Not only the story of the main character, but the stories of everyone involved are nothing less than heart wrenching and tragic. I am glad I watched it once, because it helped me understand how a person who has been the victim of human trafficking in our modern world might have difficulty finding a way out, surrounded as they are by people who have a vested interest in keeping them enslaved. Having said that, I won’t watch it again. The book is just as good, if not better because it is written in Solomon Northup’s own words, and the book created a very clear picture of the horrors endured.

    I can understand your aversion to watching it, though. The movie disturbed me. There is no reason to invite that into your life if you can avoid it.

    • Tim says:

      I appreciate getting insights from someone who saw it and also gets that this experience might not be best for everyone, Stephanie.

  4. Jeannie says:

    Thanks for this, Tim, esp from the perspective of your profession. Interestingly, a friend recently told me that she and her husband and another couple went to see 12 Years a Slave (at my friend’s suggestion) and the other couple was very angry at them for inviting them to such a disturbing movie. I think it’s helpful not to just wander unknowingly into a movie but to research it first and see if it seems like something we can handle. A book is different: we can set it down immediately if it becomes problematic, but a movie is such an assault on the senses and we can’t always escape once we’ve begun watching. So we should be wise about what we see and not be pressured by thinking we “should” see a certain movie.

    • Tim says:

      The powerful effect of story, especially when visual and narrated out in front of you, is one reason we tried to be careful with what our kids saw when they were young. And young minds aren’t the only ones that are impressionable; I think we all should continue to be measured in what we take in, even if it is something as worthwhile as that movie.

  5. LorenHaas says:

    My wife has been a critical care nurse for 25 years. She has a sensitive soul, but when she has her nurse ‘hat’ on she can handle medical situations I cannot imagine. In fact her greatest gift is working with dying patients and their families. She says a prayer and follows the Spirit’s lead. She decompresses with me. There are many tears.
    She will not go to movies with violent scenes. She walked out of “Batman” and “The Passion” is out of the question. If she is going to do her difficult job she needs her down time to refresh and recharge. She sees the consequences of violence too often. She has seen enough.
    I do not go to movies about the Holocaust. Never saw “Schindler’s List”. I even skipped the Holocaust Museum in DC. I am not a denialist. I have seen enough.
    My father was an engineer for IBM. He took a transfer to Germany in part so that his family of seven could be broadened by the experience. We traveled all over Europe in a VW bus, from Rome to Oslo. When I was eleven we all visited the site of the former concentration camp Dachau. It was important to my father as an Anabaptist conscientious objector during WWII that we understood the true consequences of hatred and war. I walked the remains of the buildings, the ovens and giant photos of piles of bodies.
    I have seen enough.
    Thanks for the post.

    • Tim says:

      Dachau had a powerful effect on me too, Loren. Our decisions not to add more experiences is, as you say, not denial at all. I think it’s a matter of finding ways to deal with what we have already experienced in serving Christ.

  6. Tim, I wrote a review on the movie recently honestly. . . .you won’t be missing anything by not seeing it. There was a lot of things they shouldn’t have included in it so I was so sad about it. I wanted to like it much more. I think I’ll read the book in which is by the man who it is about. I wish I did that instead. I can understand how it would be hard for you to watch such a movie with what you hear of on a daily basis and how you don’t want to see or deal with more sad events like that.

  7. jenmuse says:

    I grew up in Charleston, SC. Home of the Confederacy. My mom was a tour guide at Drayton Hall plantation. I played on the hills overlooking the cotton fields. I saw the slave quarters. I looked at photographs of slaves. The grandchildren of American slaves came to our history class to tell the stories of their grandparents. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I read other slave accounts. I have not see 12 Years a Slave, for much the same reasons as others have stated. I think it is probably a very strongly directed film with fine actors portraying terrible events. But I cannot fathom watching it.

    I think it would have the same affect on me as The Last King of Scotland. I was viscerally ill for hours after that film. It was powerful, it was harrowing. Forest Whitaker gave an amazing performance and was awarded the Oscar for it, yet I cannot recommend the film: and I never want to see even clips from it again. Still, I’m almost glad I saw it because I had never heard of Idi Amin (he rose to power shortly before I was born and was deposed before I turned 5), and it led me to read about Uganda’s history.

    • Tim says:

      You bring a new perspective to the conversation, Jen, thanks.

      • jenmuse says:

        Wow, just wow. God’s timing. Today I had lunch with a male co-worker at a nice restaurant. We had great conversation over great food. But it was marred by the disapproving looks we (although mostly him) kept getting from 3 women at a nearby table. Our offense: he is black.

        If a film like 12 Years a Slave can open even 1 pair of eyes to the stupidity of racism, then I think we are all better for it.

        • Tim says:

          My shy and retiring nature would have prevented me from dumping my plate of food in their laps. I’d have had to settle for shouting at them “What are you looking at!”

  8. Mary Anne says:

    I have watched Schindler’s List several times and do get it out and watch every now and then to remind myself that this sort of thing can still happen and shouldn’t be allowed to happen. But that’s me–and if someone else can’t stomach it, that’s up to them. One of the things about it that keeps it personal for me is I keep imagining the names of my Jewish friends appearing on that list, or worse, NOT appearing, because those who were not on Schindler’s List had a far lower chance of survival.

  9. Adriana says:

    Tim, A friend of mine toured Auschwitz and had to be hospitalized after because the experience so disturbed her she developed a debilitating migraine along with vomiting. I watched Schindler’s List once and I think it was something I needed to do, but I’ve never found the right time to watch it again –esp now that I’m a mother with small kids who need me to stay as upbeat as possible.

    I have not seen 12 Yrs A Slave; however, I believe movies like Schindler’s List and Glory are important for our culture collectively. They are a way to respectfully mourn and acknowledge what has occurred in the past and a means to nurture compassion in present and future generations. I’m grateful that some of these films have been made, but I agree with you — it’s important to weigh out other factors (like one’s job!) before becoming absorbed in depressing scenarios.
    I think Jeannie made a good point — “A book is different: we can set it down immediately if it becomes problematic, but a movie is such an assault on the senses and we can’t always escape once we’ve begun watching.”

    When I was about 16 I told my aunt that I considered a movie great if it made me cry. I remember her reply: “Life is hard enough. If sit down to a movie I want to laugh, or at least feel more optimistic!” Now that I’m about the age she was at the time, I get it! Joe and I normally watch comedies together or a “take me away” drama like Downtown Abbey or Lark Rise to Candleford.

    • Tim says:

      I’ve found myself drifting more and more toward the same type of movies and TV shows, Adriana. I could handle the heavier things better when I was younger.

  10. Mary Anne says:

    Something interesting in relation to this: Turner Classic Movies recently aired Gentleman’s Agreement starring Gregory Peck as a reporter whose assignment is to do a story on anti-Semitism. He can’t find a good angle until he poses as Jewish for about eight weeks and chronicles the immediate prejudice he encounters in both subtle and blatant forms. Somewhat easier on the stomach than some of the films we’ve been discussing, but it says what needs to be said and can still make any sensitive viewer wince, because one of the major points it makes is that we can offer tacit agreement to bigotry by not speaking out against it.

    And hey, Gregory Peck. An actor I’ll watch in just about anything! In a classic Hollywood version of Emma he might have made a fine Mr. Knightley . . . *sigh* Or maybe Colonel Brandon in S&S. *double sigh* 😉

    • Tim says:

      Brandon would be a perfect role for him.

      Thanks too for mentioning the more subtle ways that prejudice and oppression can find there way into relationships. Film is a powerful medium for getting those messages across.

  11. Rev. Carlene Appel says:

    I understand where you are coming from Tim. Many people exclaim “That must be so depressing!” When I tell them I’m a Hospice Chaplain. But the truth is that it energizes me because I was made to serve the Lord this way just as you were made to serve The Lord at the bench and gavel meting out justice. There was once a very young RN who came to Hospice from heading up a children’s burn unit in a major hospital for 7 years–even had a toddler herself. She only lasted a year, balled her eyes out at every team meeting. I said to her during one of our conversations that it was just as important to find out where you didn’t fit as it was to find out where you did. (I could never work in a children’s burn unit) She went on to a very successful career in Public Health Nursing.

    • Tim says:

      MY cousin worked neo-natal ICU her entire nursing career, Carlene, and I saw her work the same way. It’s something that fit her well, and she handled tragedy every day since so many of the babies never made it home from the hospital. Yet it was work she loved because she was able to care for the smallest of patients in the greatest need for her care.

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