When 12 Years a Slave came out in 2013, people were shocked at the violence and atrocities they witnessed on screen. They sat in disturbance as they watched Solomon Northup be forced back in to slavery and endure the cruelty of a vile slave owner played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
Looking back, the oscar-worthy buzz surrounding it reminds me of the controversy surrounding Joker. It’s brutal and far from comfortable, but it boasts fantastic acting, seamless transitions, and necessary origin stories. But, in both cases people were saying that they had to look away during especially violent scenes. It’s no surprise as in 12 Years a Slave you saw the cruelty upfront with lynching, brazen whippings, and painful sexual encounters. It was a landmark movie because for one of the first times in Hollywood, the story was told from a slave’s first-hand perspective . Unlike Gone with the Wind or even The Help, slavery is not whitewashed or romanticized in any way. The same holds true for Morrison’s Beloved. Since they are from the perspective of former slaves, it can be hard to watch and read at times, but it’s important that we do.
When someone told Morrison at a book reading that they couldn’t read parts of novel because its was so terrible, she responded, “People had these things done to them, they experienced them and they survived them. The least we can do is to write them, and read them, and talk about them.” Beloved, though in the 3rd person for most of the novel, is largely from Sethe’s perspective as we are taken through her intense flashbacks of Sweethome and her journey to 124. Morrison’s language captures the trauma that Sethe went through decades after escaping. As readers, we get the sense that the kind of trauma Sethe experienced is inescapable. Beloved was definitely hard to read at times. 12 Years a Slave was hard to watch. But it’s important to see the full story and actually read from the perspectives of people who went through such horrific things. Morrison was able to recover a story from the past that is often overlooked in Hollywood and even history classes I’ve taken.