Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is leading the Golden Globe nominations and is sure to be an Oscar contender. It’s been praised as an antidote to slavery-nostalgia fantasies like Gone With the Wind. Yet some see no redeeming qualities or uplift in the movie—just pain. Others feel that we don’t need to be reminded of where we used to be.
But as a professional who studies the lingering effects of psychological trauma and as a human being connected to the history depicted onscreen, I completely disagree: Seeing this movie could save your life. It’s as much about now as then.
African Americans will never fully escape the historical legacy of the brutality endured by our ancestors. It is true that seeing the movie can be traumatic. When I saw the film, I cried for Solomon Northup, the main character in the film based on his own narrative. But I also cried because I see the lasting effects of what is depicted in the movie and how it affects us today. Slavery is in the marrow of this country. Images of slavery remind us of its intergenerational psychological consequences and what we, as a people and a society, must do to fix them.
Those consequences, also common to genocide and other forms of oppression, are real, even more than 150 years after legal emancipation.
In their article "Historical Trauma Among Indigenous Peoples of the Americas: Concepts, Research, and Clinical Considerations" in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, Josephine Chase, Jennifer Elkins and Deborah Altschul define historical trauma as the “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding across generations, including the lifespan, which emanates from massive group trauma.”
Their research shows that responses to historical trauma include depression, anger, self-destructive behavior and elevated mortality rates from suicide and cardiovascular diseases. One implication of these findings is the importance of “considering traumatic histories of oppressed people, and the impact history has on presenting problems, health statistics, and other psychosocial conditions.” To address the effects of historical trauma, we need to confront it, understand it, transcend it and release its pain. This is accomplished by increasing awareness through education, and resolving the grief through collective mourning and healing, which creates positive group identity and commitment to community.
Which is why—if we haven’t already seen it—we should consider seeing 12 Years a Slave.
People who shy away from the film are missing the point. Yes, the movie has messages about what happened in the past, but it also has more important lessons for what slavery has passed down and for what is says about today. The legacy of slavery affects how we relate to each other within and outside of our African-American community and what messages and patterns of behavior we carry within. We should reflect on slavery to understand the psychological wounds we inherited and how we will break free of them, and what strengths we can build upon that resulted from that experience.
Racism is an obvious historical legacy of slavery, and it is literally killing us. We’re no longer property to be bought and sold, and the social, economic and political advances for African Americans would have been unimaginable a few decades ago.
But the impact of racism on African Americans’ health still tells troubling story.
Most African-American adults report experiencing racism, and perceived racism—whether it actually happens or not—is associated with negative mental health outcomes (depression, anxiety) and other negative behaviors (smoking, substance use/misuse) in African-American adults, even when taking into account other factors that could explain this relationship, such as income. In turn, smoking and substance use/misuse are significant risk factors for heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and kidney diseases, the leading causes of death for African Americans Thus, racism can be conceptualized as a chronic, cumulative stressor that can become a risk factor for poor health and well-being.
And though not the codified restrictions of the past, laws and policies with discriminatory impact still play their part. While some communities are taking steps toward racial reconciliation by holding community conversations related to race relations and healing, others are debating the effectiveness of stop-and-frisk policies that disproportionately affect citizens of color. We need conversations and training related to issues of race so that we learn to recognize and effectively deal with challenges as they arise.
Part of that is looking at the scenes of brutality in 12 Years a Slave—torture, rape, Northrup’s abrupt loss of basic human freedoms—and come to terms with it, rather than trying to forget it. African Americans should reflect on slavery to understand the cumulative wounds we inherited and how we will break free of them. We need to learn what strengths we can develop that honor Northup and the many others who sacrificed much on a journey that is far from finished. In that way, the film has the potential to be uplifting, not just traumatic.
Confronted with evidence that racism can kill the spirit as well as harm the body, shunning a movie won’t make the problems of slavery’s legacy disappear. But watching and learning from 12 Years a Slave may help solve them.
Cindy A. Crusto, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology in psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.