Despair at the movies

We just got back home from Twelve Years a Slave. Throughout that movie, all I could think is, “we human beings did that to other human beings? We suck.”

Now how am I supposed to get to sleep with that kind of disgust for humanity on my mind?

(It was still the best movie I’ve seen in at least a year, though.)


  1. coldthinker says

    Towards the end of this century, people will be similarly appalled by our allowing poverty, children without health care and herding animals for food. Progress will happen. Unless the climate change collapses our societies, which is equally likely to happen, and we’re back to 19th century barbaria or worse.

  2. microraptor says

    I don’t think that climate change is as likely to directly cause a societal collapse like that, the exhausting petroleum deposits is a more likely culprit.

  3. says


    We just got back home from Twelve Years a Slave. Throughout that movie, all I could think is, “we human beings did that to other human beings? We suck.”

    This is a movie I’m looking forward to seeing, and dreading seeing at the same time. It’s hard, looking into the face of all the terrible, vile things we are capable of doing to one another.

  4. says

    That is why I’m thinking I’ll wait until I can rent it at home. I want to see it, but I saw the trailer and I simply don’t know if I’d be able to take that much of…that…all at once without a break. Don’t know if I can do it without a few time-outs.

  5. Thumper: Token Breeder says

    I can’t wait to see this movie. It’ll probably make me as depressed as it did PZ, but that’s the point of good cinema, right? It makes you empathise with the characters. It’s a good medium to get people to realise quite how shit slavery was.

  6. mildlymagnificent says

    I’m with demonhype.

    I want to see it, but if I watch on a big screen I’ll have my head down and my eyes all scrunched up for far too much of the time. I’d rather watch at home where I can have a bit of a break every now and again. It’ll still be bloody awful, but I’ll actually take more of it in doing it that way. We might treat it as a play – in however many acts we need it broken into to make it doable.

  7. lesofa says

    I haven’t seen this one yet, but your reaction reminded me of one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen, Lilya 4-Ever. Knowing that it was based on a real story, I had trouble sleeping for a few days after watching it, because of the anger and disgust.

  8. Dick the Damned says

    I don’t think i could watch this movie. It would sadden me too much. I know well that some people can just be inhumane to those they can get the better of.

  9. ludicrous says

    Looking forward to the isolation of a sadism gene so the pool can be cleansed. My plan for now is to put everyone in an fMRI machine, show them the movie and if their pleasure centers light up, ship them to a remote island and let them work it out. Oh, wait, that would be cruel.

    I am amazed this movie was made, amazed that anyone could watch it. I guess it’s educational. There are dozens of holacaust films, there is that passion of christ movie. I am not sure what the appeal is, well to be honest I am suspicious of the appeal. Just saying. Why would you want to see this cruelty?

  10. kevinalexander says

    We are social animals to be sure but we are also predators. There’s just so much fun in torturing others. Look at the way that the RCs dedicate their rules to the cultivation of suffering. Look at the way that they have always supported whatever fascist regime promised to enhance the application of God’s prescious gift . Kisses from Jesus and all that.
    They believe that that little emotional rush that the rest of us get from watching Quentin Tarantino moves is for them god’s reward for piety.

  11. marcus says

    Read the book. Northrup was a sensitive and intelligent man. We are fortunate that he was able to write about his experiences. It stands to reason that this was not the only time that this sort of thing happened. From Wiki “(New York) had passed a law in 1840 to provide financial resources for the rescue of citizens kidnapped into slavery.”

  12. doubtthat says

    12 Years a Slave is a really good movie, but it’s also an important movie. As a person who grew up in a red state where people drove trucks with Confederate flags plastered all over (one that ironically fought bloody battles to remain a free state in the run up to the Civil War), the Lost Causers still exist, there are a lot of them, and they influence our politics in a very negative way.

    Since Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, for some strange reason Hollywood has been more or less on the side of the Lost Causers: the South was noble in defeat…mostly they just ignored the horror of that time period and the subsequent century long terrorist campaign these noble citizens waged against black people.

    <i<12 Years is a good movie in its own right, but along with Lincoln, I’m just glad to see an end to the softening of the truth of our national history.

    Finally, a haunting thought about the movie: this is a story about someone who had a really, really great experience with slavery in a relative sense: he grew up free, was a slave for 12 years, then managed to regain his freedom. This is the mildest story of slavery that could be told, and…well, watch it.

    For those of you interested in confronting deeply disturbing but incredibly necessary films, I also highly recommend The Act of Killing, which was the strangest, most troubling movie I have ever seen.

  13. nora says

    I had the same reaction as P.Z. I asked my husband how anyone could have thought it was okay to own another person? He didn’t have an answer. It shows the power of societal norms and the importance of thinking for oneself.

  14. carlie says

    Kevin – way to bury the lede! Congratulations!

    Back on topic – I always have trouble with things like this. I think in many ways I ought to watch it, because one of the few tiny things I can do is at least bear witness and support the exposing of wrongs. But on the other, I’ve always been overly sensitive to depictions of violence – they stick with me for weeks in a really bad way, and I don’t know that there’s anything specifically that I’d learn from it that I don’t already know, and it feels a bit like voyeuristic exploitation of that history for entertainment, too.

  15. Olav says

    This movie has not yet arrived to any cinema in my town or country. But in some mysterious way it appeared on my computer shortly after reading PZ’s post. So I guess I must watch it tonight. Looking forward to it.

  16. Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive] says

    I read Northrup’s book (the one that the film is based on) and have seen the film. I agree: the film is brutal, it is disgusting, it made me cry all over the place. It’s also excellently done, with inspired writing and acting.

    It also toned down the book.

    And the book, if you talk to people who study life on plantations, is a snapshot. Northrup probably toned down reality a bit to make it palatable to his readers.

    ‘Course, what really got me was two facts, one of which the film kept, and one of which is discarded:

    (1) Solomon Northrup differed from those he suffered alongside insofar that he had something to go home to: he had something to hope for. He had known life in freedom. He also differed in that he (after those twelve years) got his freedom. The film kept that.

    (2) When Solomon Northrup returned home, his wife welcomed him with loving arms. However, his children, grown in his forced absence, did not recognize him. The film dropped the latter part of this. I rather wish they hadn’t, because it really drove the message home to me.

  17. Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD says

    I’m not sure which is more devastating, having had freedom and lost it, or never having had it at all.

  18. Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive] says

    That may well be a question for the poets, Ariaflame, because I don’t know if I can answer it.

    On the one hand, if you knew freedom, you have a picture in your mind to hope that you’ll get back. On the other, you’re constantly reminded that you don’t have it.

  19. Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD says

    Since both versions suck, then the best thing would be to make sure that nobody is deprived of freedom.

  20. David Marjanović says

    but we are also predators. There’s just so much fun in torturing others.

    1) Not connected. Predators are usually just indifferent to the suffering of their prey; cruelty-for-play has been observed in dolphins, but only with other dolphins (incl. porpoises), not with anything they eat.

    2) …There’s a wide range of individual variation in how much fun it is to torture anyone.

  21. Steve Caldwell says

    If anyone is interested, a few years ago the filmmaker Kevin Willmott did a mock documentary about an alternative history where the Confederacy won the Civil War and chattal slavery was still legally happening today. This fictional alternative history was used to connect Confederate ideologies that are still present today influencing American politics (as one can see in the red state/blue state divide).

    The movie is available on Netflix and free on YouTube:

    CSA: The Confederate States of America

    The commercials breaks in the movie are part of the alternative history too.

  22. says

    marcus @ 12: That is a good idea. I just went to Amazon and found it for .99 for Kindle (with alternative versions including slave interviews or other slave-oriented books for 2.99). Bought and downloaded.

  23. Rich Woods says

    @Olav #17:

    But in some mysterious way it appeared on my computer shortly after reading PZ’s post.

    Deeply mysterious — it happened to me too, though about ten days ago.

    The problem is that I haven’t since been able to find an evening when I think I’d be comfortable watching it. I should probably just delete it and wait a few months until a friend brings it round. At least then I can be uncomfortable in good company.

  24. HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr says

    ludicrous @ #9: We call that gene “most of humanity” plus “humans do what they can get away with, and what is permissible/popularized by their culture”. Also, I like how you are lumping in people who enjoy consensual kink and storytelling that also contains violence with people who torture and harm others. Nothing problematic there.

  25. says

    Go see this movie. As horrible as its dark moments are, the acts of bravery and kindness it depicts are deeply moving. I didn’t leave the theater just saddled with the weight of humanity’s worst (though I certainly did feel despair.) It was also an inspiring film. I had such admiration for the people who maintained some semblance of human dignity and generosity in the face of all that horror.

    It’s not a movie about losing hope in the face of evil. It’s a movie about strong people who survive those horrors. Thinking of it as a depressing film does it a disservice. It’s a much better film than that.

  26. says

    I heartily recommend 12 Years a Slave too. Finally a film about slavery as opposed to a film with slaves in it, and faithful to the original book into the bargain.

    Also would highly recommend Philomena, about an elderly woman looking for the child who had been taken away from her by Irish nuns because she had conceived it out of wedlock, also based on a true story. It’s not as hard to watch as 12 Years, mostly because the screenwriter, British comedian Steve Coogan, adds some light touches here and there, but it doesn’t shirk from its responsibility of telling the harrowing tale of injustice at the hands of the Catholic Church. Bill Donohue was livid about it, so you know it must be good.

  27. says

    #9, ludicrous:

    You have combined two things I despise: simplistic biological determinism & eliminationist rhetoric. Don’t do it again.

  28. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    Looking forward to the isolation of a sadism gene so the pool can be cleansed.

    …am I allowed to tell him where to start? *eyeroll*

  29. microraptor says

    Regarding the “how could people think it was okay to own another human?” question, the short answer is that they didn’t: look at how much effort was spent dehumanizing the people who were kept as slaves.