Slaves films: Some weary, others want more history
Philadelphia – — Monica Mingo had sworn off watching slave movies after seeing the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave”: The horrifying depictions of black people being beaten, raped, and dehumanized became all too much.
“That was the pinnacle of what it meant to be a slave — the feelings, the brutality. That one for me was it,” said the 47-year-old Gautier, Mississippi, resident about the 2013 film.
But at the Sundance Film Festival in January, when she heard about the buzz created by Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation,” she broke her vow and saw the film, about the gruesome, two-day Virginia slave rebellion led by Nat Turner. It, too, includes the rape and murder of slaves, and in one scene, a slave’s teeth are knocked out.
It only served to cement her earlier view.
“I’m really sick of the slave narrative,” Mingo said. “Because of my parents, I knew my history. If you want to keep talking about (slavery), pick up a book.”
Yet the narrative continues in Hollywood. This year in particular, slavery projects have been particularly prominent. Besides “Birth of a Nation,” which opened Friday, there was the reboot of the groundbreaking TV miniseries “Roots” this spring; WGN’s new series “Underground” was a ratings success and renewed for a second season; and there was the movie “Free State of Jones,” starring Matthew McConaughey, which included slavery as a main plot point.
Last year, BET aired the miniseries “The Book of Negroes”; in 2013, there was movie “Belle,” about a free black woman in a time of slavery along with “12 Years a Slave,” and 2012’s “Django: Unchained” became a blockbuster and an Oscar-nominee.
Some observers note the context in which the recent films have emerged. The election of the first black president, Barack Obama, could represent for some a racial victory in the enduring battle against American racism that allows for a look at slavery that feels cathartic. That the country is marking the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War means that no one alive today experienced the cruelties of slavery. And a recent trailer for “Birth of a Nation” splices scenes from the film with footage from the front lines of the Black Lives Matter protests.
“Slave films tend to reflect the politics of the moment,” said Dexter Gabriel, a historian at the University of Connecticut. “We have a hard time talking about slavery to each other, so films become the surrogate. But we want to see it in ways that make us feel better in the present.”
Gabriel said there will be some people who are tired of seeing slave films, but added that it may also be a certain type of story that the public has grown weary of seeing: one too steeped in a “white savior” narrative, or the “Mammy” or “Uncle Tom” character.
“We’re in an era now where we’re seeing people look for more diverse ways slavery can be depicted,” he said. “’Birth of a Nation’ is definitely attempting to appeal to this era of black resistance.”
Other projects have appealed to this as well. Quentin Tarantino’s “Django: Unchained” was a Spaghetti Western-inspired revenge flick where a slave kills white oppressors in a bid to save his love, a fellow slave. In the new version of “Roots,” one of the major slave characters, Fiddler, dies trying to fight off whites as he tries to help slave Kunta Kinte run away; in the original version that aired in the 1970s, the character died of old age, still a slave. “Underground” is based on slave rebellion, and Viola Davis is working on the biopic of one of the most famous slave liberators, Harriet Tubman.
The depiction of slaves as more than just defeated and abused is what made Khalil Johnson see “Django: Unchained” and an early screening of “Birth of a Nation.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m tired of slave films, especially now that they’re being told honestly,” the 36-year-old Beltsville, Maryland, resident said. “’Twelve Years a Slave’ was a hit because … it was something you did not know about. I think untold stories are good, and not just ‘master bad, master sees the light’ stories.”
These latest films can help counter long-standing stereotypes about black people, said University of Pennsylvania’s English professor and cultural critic Salamishah Tillet.
“We should not be exhausted by these stories,” Tillet said. “Slavery is in the DNA of so many parts of our life … To deny that story is to deny us. The idea that we’re over it is impossible.”
Johnson expects he’ll be interested in whatever the next film about slavery is, no matter how soon it comes out.
“Digging up the past is something that always drives entertainment,” he said. “That will continue no matter what.”
But Mingo said she would rather see other types of stories that reflect the black experience more broadly.
“People are comfortable keeping us in that slave narrative,” she said. “I want people to know the full range of who we are.”