’12 Years a Slave’: Why high school students should see this R-rated film

This image released by Fox Searchlight shows Chiwetel Ejiofor, left, and Michael Fassbender in a scene from "12 Years A Slave." (AP Photo/Fox Searchlight, Francois Duhamel)
This image released by Fox Searchlight shows Chiwetel Ejiofor, left, and Michael Fassbender in a scene from “12 Years A Slave.” (AP Photo/Fox Searchlight, Francois Duhamel)

(Update: Adding newly released study on gun violence on films)

Kids as young as 13 were free to waltz into a theater this year to watch the violence-laden “Iron Man 3,” which was rated PG-13 and featured terrorists executing people, bombings and a bad guy holding a gun to a child’s head. It’s regular fare these days for young people, allowable in the movies because of the film industry’s cockamamie movie ratings, which seem to care a lot less about violence than they do about sex. Except when the violence is part of a searing true story from the ugliest part of U.S. history, slavery. That’s when it gets an R-rating, which was slapped on the brilliant “12 Years a Slave,” a film that every high school student should see. (See the trailer below.)

The movie, as The Post’s film critic Ann Hornaday explains in this review, is about an educated and highly accomplished free black man living with his family in New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South before the Civil War. It is based on a memoir titled, “12 Years a Slave,” published in 1853, by Solomon Northup. Hornaday wrote:

The film offers a panorama, not just of the African American experience in the antebellum South — from the inconsolable wailing of a woman separated from her children to a former slave contentedly ensconced as the wife of her former owner — but of the varieties of racist pa­thol­ogy.

As  Hornaday explains, the film tells about a “journey of unimaginable suffering and horror” — and that’s why Americans, including high school students, should see it. What happened shouldn’t be unimaginable. Americans, who are still confronting the deep legacy of slavery, should understand what really happened, and great films, with their visual explanatory power, can be part of that learning experience.

American students learn about slavery and its legacy at different stages of their education — but too many still don’t learn about it accurately or fully; this is true in the South, where many still learn that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights, freedom, and political/economic power rather than slavery, the cause over which it was really fought, as well as in other parts of the country. Watching a  film won’t make up for poor and inadequate curriculum, but a great one such as “12 Years a Slave” would be instructive to a generation of students who take in so much information on large and small screens.

Here’s part of a description of watching the film by a college student, Jake Walters, at Amherst College, taken from his piece in The Amherst Student:

As a history major at Amherst, I’ve taken numerous classes specializing in slavery in the US. I thought I could understand something of the history, the pain, the suffering, the anguish. I thought, to whatever extent it was possible for a white kid in the early 21st century to know, I knew. I was wrong. Sitting in the theater watching “12 Years a Slave,” I felt the inescapable grasp of history around my neck and I couldn’t do anything about it. Never before have I felt so clearly and achingly the tragedies upon which America is built. I felt helpless, my face contorting in anguish. My reaction was visceral; I gritted my teeth, I began to shake uncontrollably.

The “R” rating for the movie was given for “violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.” There is actually nothing sexual about the film; whatever sexual scenes there are are really about violence.

At what age should kids see this movie? That clearly depends on the student. Brad Pitt, a producer of the film who has a small role in it, told Ann Curry on the “Today” show that he might allow his oldest child, who is 12, to see it.  Schools should allow older teens to see the film, with a note to parents beforehand who can opt them out of the screening if they want.

There is no getting around the fact that kids watch way too much violence in films and on television — stuff that is created supposedly for sheer entertainment. A newly released study by Ohio State University and the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that “gun violence in PG-13 movies has rivaled the frequency of gun violence in R-rated movies since 2009, and actually surpassed it in 2012,” the Associated Press reported.

Researchers examined a total of 945 films, drawing from the 30 top-grossing movies from 1950 through 2012. It focuses on sequences involving “the firing of hand-held guns with the intent to harm or kill a living being.”

This Huffington Post piece by Peggy Drexler notes:

A study published in a 2008 issue of Pediatrics reported that almost 13 percent of kids between 10 and 14 watch “extremely” graphic depictions of violence in film. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, meanwhile, reports that the typical American child will view more than 200,000 acts of big and small screen violence, including more than 16,000 murders, before age 18, and that such exposure may result in more aggressive behavior as violent heroes become role models. PG-13 films are a significant source of this violence–not to mention nudity, profanity, sexual situations, and references to drugs and alcohol–and yet an increasing number of parents sanction such films for their children who are far younger.

If young people can watch violent movies for fun, they can watch one to learn something, too.

Here’s the trailer:

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | November 10, 2013