Last Friday evening, finding myself in want of entertainment, I decided to go to the movies. I went to see Twelve Years a Slave – and entertaining is not the word I would use to describe the most unflinchingly brutal film I have ever seen. Scene after scene of beatings, whippings, lynching and rape build on each other without respite and with no counterpoint of goodness. Almost more unbearable to watch than the vicious beatings and lacerated backs of hopeless slaves is the degradation that comes to almost everyone involved. The movie depicts a system of complete dehumanization, whose point, Stanley Fish wrote, is “to withhold from the audience an outlet for either its hope or its sympathy.” This is Schindler’s List without Schindler. Some want to see in the film an allegory of modern life, whose aim is to make viewers recognize parallels between the ante-bellum South and 21st-century America. But history is not a morality play; it is the ever-unfolding autobiography of a culture, a complex effort to make sense of the complicated, many-sided and evolving portrait of who we are and how we came be so. Twelve Years a Slave is painful to watch and yet needs to be seen. We forced Germany and Japan to confront their pasts, but here, in “the land of the free”, we still gloss over our own two genocides. For our self-image to transcend hypocrisy, for our country to live her ideals, we must take ownership of our past.