By Benjamin Akpan
There are many topics today that make lots of people squirm with discomfort: rape, abortion, sexuality, vaccinations, and of course, slavery. It is a dark chapter in North American history and is practically ineffable in the public sphere. For the longest time, Hollywood has attempted to address the issue of slavery. With the 400th anniversary of slaves in America looming, it is important to evaluate the depiction of slavery in film, and whether these films are even necessary at all.
One of the earliest portrayals of slavery came in the form of 1915’s silent epic Birth of a Nation. It was a groundbreaking movie, pioneering a lot of filming techniques that have become fundamental in modern film. However, it presented slavery as a great thing that America lost, portraying slaves as happy and accepting of their situation. 1939’s Gone with the Wind was nothing but stereotypical, painting a picture of slaves living in harmony with their owners. Sure, it led to the first African-American Oscar win, but it also romanticized the relationship between slave and slave-owner.
The 1977 miniseries Roots was the first honest depiction of slavery, and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad did a good job of looking into slavery, even though it depended heavily on the White saviour trope. The 2010’s saw an increased interest in slavery, bringing Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), which portrayed a slave take revenge on his white owners. But it was basically a Blaxploitation movie.
2013’s 12 Years a Slave, however, was an extremely accurate, harsh and painful rendering of the conditions of slaves. No better person could’ve directed this film than Steve McQueen, who’s been known to make emotionally objective films that tackle tough subjects. Although it eventually relies on the White saviour trope, its critical and commercial success suggest that people are willing to pay attention to these honest portrayals.
See, I’m not a huge fan of slavery narratives. Quite frankly, I would rather spend my time staring directly at the bright afternoon sun than subject myself to the pain of rehashing the brutal events under which my ancestors were subdued. But it’s hard to deny the didactic power of these movies. They educate people, especially the White masses, about the horrors of slavery, and they strike up a conversation. After all, the best way to deal with any issue is to confront it. A proper understanding of slavery and its effects is essential to combat current injustices. The brutality of slavery has been greatly underplayed in the classrooms, and film is an effective form of enlightenment, forcing people to observe slavery as the true horror that it was.
But I sometimes can’t help but wonder if these movies are counterproductive. Movies about slavery have become a staple in themselves. Make a film about slavery, and one is certain to receive the stamp of approval from the Hollywood elite – old, White men who strive to take any and every opportunity to make up for their ‘White guilt’. This translated into countless awards for 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained.
But this obsession with slavery clearly reflects Hollywood’s false sense of progressiveness, giving themselves a pat on the back for how ‘improved’ times have become. Such a glamorized view only creates an impression that what once was, is better than what is. Yet, contrary to what you might’ve thought, the past is not better than the present; although, given the constant cases of gun violence and brutality against Black people, one might rightfully contest the truth of that statement.
In the age of social media, where we get to witness racial violence take place in real time, we do not need horrid depictions of slavery so that White people can finally “get it.” As important as they may be, there is something wholly unsettling about the fact that these slavery narratives outpace other Black stories. Slavery was a full system of human subjugation, and it says a lot about White culture if the only movies about Black people they’re willing to see are the ones where Black people are in a subservient position, enduring physical and emotional abuse.
Even though it is an essential part of our history, Black people aren’t defined by slavery or racism, just as much as White people aren’t defined by the KKK or Holocaust. If White people get to tell stories in Hollywood that are beyond their horrid history, why can’t we? Sometimes, we just want to see Black people be superheroes, as in 2018’s Black Panther. We want to see Black people in love, as in 2016’s Moonlight. And, as in the upcoming live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, we just want to see Black people be mermaids, no matter how mad it makes the rest of the world.
If 400 years of slavery has taught us anything, it is that reliving slavery through film has done nothing but reinforce stereotypes about the current condition of the Black populace. Hollywood can help dismantle said stereotypes by making movies that change the narrative of Black people and movies that portray Black people as what we really are: just people. Let us, for once, heal from the past by living in the present.
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