The Problem With Slavery-Themed Films

October 4, 2013  |  

Folks complained to Hollywood about the lack of black actors/actresses getting roles in film and television and Hollywood has responded with enough slavery-themed projects to keep the brothers and sisters employed for quite a while. Well, at least they are getting a paycheck – unlike their ancestors.

Blame it on the first black president, whose election has inspired a renewed interest in race. Or, as speculated by the black film website Shadow & Act, Hollywood’s decision to revisit the nation’s dark past might have something to do with marking the 150 year anniversary of the Civil War this year. But definitely, I think we can all agree that the success of Django Unchained has brought about a renewed – or even new – interest in the slave narrative.

As reported by Shadow & Act, there are a number of other slavery-themed films planned for the near future. Brace yourself, the list is long:

Starting the season is Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, which stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, and Alfre Woodard, among others, and it’s the true story about a free-born black man named Solomon Northup, who has been kidnapped and sold into slavery in Georgia. Also on tap is Savannah, which also stars Eijofor, and is loosely based on the book Ducks, Dogs and Friends, which tells the real-life tale of a white hunter who spends his days shooting fowl by the river with his best friend, a freed slave named Christmas Moultrie. Cuba Gooding Jr. attempts to free his family from a tobacco plantation in the upcoming flick, Something Whispered, while Former NFL linebacker Jeremiah Trotter will play escaped slave Big Ben Jones in The North Star. Not to leave our mulatto half-brothers and sisters out, there’s also the tale of Belle, about the trials and tribulations of a mixed-race girl living in the 18th century. Rounding out the Year of the Enslaved is the Civil War drama The Keeping Room; a fugitive slave hunting drama The Retrieval; and Tula: The Revolt, which stars Danny Glover and is based on a true story about a slave uprising on the island of Curacao.

And if you haven’t quite had your fill of upcoming black oppression on the big screen, don’t fret. Hollywood is also working on bringing the chattel to the small screen by way of two slavery-themed miniseries, including ABC’s miniseries based off of Paul Jennings, a black man who was a slave for President James Madison. The other series, which is said to still be in talks, hopes to bring the unlikely duo of Martin Scorsese and Harry Belafonte together for the purpose of telling the notorious true story of Belgian King Leopold II. His deadly colonization over what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was responsible for the biggest genocide of people in world history.

Now I know folks might be wondering why we can’t we move past…well, the past already, but I’m actually not all that bothered by slave narratives. And in actuality, some of the films listed I am actually looking forward to seeing, like 12 Years A Slave. Tula: The Revolt sounds promising. And if it ever gets made, the King Leopold miniseries sounds like a good one. We shouldn’t shy away from the slave narrative, after all, it is part of our legacy. And in some respects, a few of these stories might actually be beneficial, particularly in educating and reminding folks about what the legacy of slavery has meant for our community. But I would also be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that some of the slavery-themed content we have seen as of late has been problematic–including the ill-conceived Harriet Tubman sex tape skit.

Not to mention the clichés. Who isn’t sick of the white savior angle dressed in a historical slavery depiction, where all the white folks learn valuable lessons about themselves at the expense of black bodies? Or the benevolent servant, who gets tortured and sexually assaulted for 90 minutes – only to be rescued and freed with the help of the aforementioned individual? Quite frankly, I’m just not interested in watching that. Matter of fact, if I want to sit and watch black suffering brought on by the hands of institutionalized white supremacy, I’ll just open my front door and take a walk around my neighborhood. And instead of just exploring slavery stories that speak about plantation life, the sometimes congenial relationship between master and slave, and the general horrors of the peculiar institution, I want to see more about the stories of those who said “forget this crap!” and took their freedom. I’m not just talking about those who ran from the plantation, but also the ones who burned, pillaged and fought back against the institution itself. Those folks are national heroes too.

And it’s not like there isn’t enough source material, including these three examples:

  1. Nat Turner’s Insurrection: After many moons of speculation about the story coming to life on-screen and being a “must-make” movie for quite a few respectable lack folks, the fact that this story has not been turned into a feature-length film is deplorable.
  2. The Maroons of Jamaica, Surinam, and the Americas too: Not everybody stayed. In fact, slaves ran away by the tens of thousands during the antebellum period. From North America to South America, and also through the Caribbeans and through Central America, these runaways, or maroons, took to the jungles, the mountains, and the marshy swamps in order to avoid being chattel. They started free black communities of their own and in many instances, created hybrid settlements with other threatened ingenious people. To maintain their freedom, they took up arms and fought often times triumphantly against colonizers. In fact, some of the maroon tribes still exist and fight to maintain their autonomy. This is not to say that we should rewrite history to fashion a much more heroic past. However, in addition to learning about the ones who literally slaved in quiet dignity, we should also get to know more about the Black Seminoles of Florida, Cimarrons of Panama, the Quilombos in Brazil, among many other maroon settlements too.
  3. Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth: Come on. This is a no-brainer. Tubman personally lead more than 300 enslaved blacks to the promise land with a shotgun, and Truth was a fierce abolitionist and champion of women’s rights, including authoring the ever-poignant speech, Ain’t I A Woman? So why has Hollywood slept on any real attempt to breathe cinematic life into our most treasured icons outside of being a tasteless joke or the sidekick to a vampire hunting, slave-freeing president?

Unfortunately, this is Hollywood, and black Hollywood too. We can cite line and verse all the reasons why we are unlikely to see these narratives make it to either the big or small screen. But these stories are no less an important part of the fabric of this country, and they have an audience too.

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