Yes, Interracial Couples Can Handle ’12 Years a Slave’

Race Manners: Go ahead, invite 'em: They probably figured out how to deal -- or not deal -- with America's racial history long before the film came out. 

Fox Searchlight

I‘m planning to get a group of friends together to go see 12 Years a Slave, and most of us have read the reviews and are prepared for how harrowing it will be and the way it will depict the horrors of slavery. However, I’ve seen from what black friends and acquaintances share on Facebook and Twitter that they leave the theater finding themselves upset at white people in a general way that takes some time to get over. Some have said they have looked at interracial (black-and-white) couples and wondered how strange they must feel seeing such a movie together because of all the issues it raises.

Which brings me to the question. My older brother’s longtime girlfriend is white, and I’m struggling with whether to include them because I care about both of them and don’t want them to feel uncomfortable. Is there anything we should be concerned about how this might affect them as a couple? Is it insensitive or inappropriate to include them and risk the discomfort it might bring up? Or is it worse to leave them out? –Film fretting

(The Root)  —  I think it’s safe to say that couples in interracial relationships, just like any other romantic partners, have taken stock of all their feelings for each other, as well as all the available data about their compatibility, and made a decision to go for it.

In other words, the assumption that your brother and his girlfriend haven’t considered how they’ll manage discussions and depictions of racism and all its manifestations likely doesn’t give them enough credit.

That said, as a fellow anticipator and avoider of potentially awkward social situations, I do see where you’re coming from. I’d do just about anything to avoid having an uncomfortable moment or watching other people experience one. Add that on top of a film that’s already emotionally draining? I couldn’t handle it. And Marcia Dawkins, who has scrutinized data on the psychological impact of interracial relationships, tells me, “The writer of this question is to be commended for her sensitivity to this issue and to not wanting to add to any pressure that brother may be experiencing.”

You’re not just being sensitive — you’re also being very perceptive about the early reactions to this movie about a man abducted and sold into slavery. In fact, “pressure” is putting it mildly when it comes to the impact of 12 Years a Slave on audiences. It’s been called a “blistering portrait of the human capacity for cruelty,” with parts that are “unbearable to watch” for people of all backgrounds. 

 Of course, there’s a very race-specific angle to the issues it raises. “An expanded reading of 12 Years reveals a historical phenomenon rarely portrayed so explicitly on the silver screen: the pathology of white racism,” wrote one reviewer. And that’s not all in the past.” The toxic racial environment depicted in 12 Years, in which blacks are daily assaulted, remains embedded in the nation’s psyche,” observed The Root’s Peniel Joseph.  

Thus, it’s reasonable to think about how we might react to the film in race-specific ways, as Shadow and Act’s Frances Bodomo did as he “rose with the largely white, upper-class audience” and “wondered if we were feeling the same kind of catharsis.”

So, it’s not going to be an experience free from difficult emotions about America’s past or present for anyone.