Films About Slavery Are Important, Even If You’re Tired of Them

roots A&E remake L-R: Fiddler (Forest Whitaker) and Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby)- Night 1 Photo by  Copyright 2016

Steve Dietl

History Channel’s Roots reboot premiered this week, and despite its critical acclaim and high ratings, I must confess it’s hard for me to watch films and television shows about slavery.

Every time I see such projects it makes me think, “Man, I really hate white people,” and as a Black man who grew up in suburbia with a slew of white friends whom I still hold dear to this day, that’s a harsh and surprising statement for this writer to make.

But, here we are.

There are a couple reasons for my visceral reaction to narratives from the antebellum South, even though they can be necessary vehicles that tell the truth about America’s biggest sin.

One of the main reasons I’m not a fan of most projects dealing with slavery is because white filmmakers are often behind these stories. Despite Hollywood’s diversity problem, white writers, directors, and executives helmed many of the most popular films on the subject, such as Glory, Amistad, and Django Unchained. And while this is not a dis to talented auteurs like Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarrantino, the sheer notion of a Black person telling an unapologetically Black story in Hollywood is refreshing.

My hesitation about films dealing with slavery also stems from the idea that the Hollywood establishment seems to celebrate Black actors when they play roles that cast African Americans in a negative light. Granted, strides have certainly been made over the years—just look at primetime TV lineup, for example— but I find the recent popularity of slavery-themed projects to be extremely curious.

Over the years, 15 Black actors have won an Academy Award—three of them portrayed slaves (Hattie McDaniels, Denzel Washington and Lupita Nyong’o). It may not seem like a huge number, but when you also factor the winning roles of others—a crooked cop (Washington), an abusive mother (Mo’nique), a maid (Octavia Spencer), a waitress (Halle Berry) and a psychic (Whoopi Goldberg)—then that’s when things seem fishier and fishier. Content aside, however, these role have allowed actors to display their impeccable acting chops before a mass audience that may not have otherwise notice then before.

Black actors may shine in these projects, but the most obvious reason I can’t stand films about slavery is the sight of white men brutalizing enslaved Black people is both painful and infuriating to watch. Now, I accept that many white people today do not condone the tenants that supported slavery, however, the venomous principles and prejudices that created the institution of slavery still exists. Many people who saw the original Roots in 1977 experienced the same rage when it first aired on ABC. The scenes of white slave catchers and Black turncoats kidnapping a defiant Kunta Kinte only to brutalize him in America ignited fury in the hearts of many who were unaware of the sheer brutality of the intuition of slavery—and it’s stuck with me until this day.

To be clear, pictures about slavery are not new. Films like MandingoA Woman Called Moses and Beloved have all tackled the subject. However, over the past four years, there appears to be a growing fascination with slavery-related projects produced by major studios and television networks. Along with the Roots reboot and Django Unchained, there has been 12 Years a Slave (Fox Searchlight, 2013), Belle (Fox Searchlight, 2014), The Book of Negroes (BET, 2015), Underground (WGN, 2016) and the forthcoming Nat Turner biopic, The Birth of a Nation (Fox Searchlight).

Despite my personal feelings on the topic, the fact that Black creatives are taking the lead on the current crop of projects is an important statement of Black individuality and ownership. Black filmmakers, such as Steve McQueen, Amma Asante, Clement Virgo and Nate Parker, can provide a certain level of nuance that can only come from those who have been breathing the fumes of Jim and Jane Crow, be it blatant or indirect.

Parker is especially interesting, as he is producing, writing, directing and starring in The Birth of a Nation. The film tells the story of Nat Turner, an abolitionist who led the most notorious slave revolt in American history. While we’ve explored several facets of slavery in the past, this is exactly the kind of tale that has yet to be told so completely and unapologetically. Best of all, unlike like Glory or Amistad, Parker’s film does not include a “white savior” who shows up to rescue the poor, downtrodden slaves.

Films about Black Americans who overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to create change on their own are too far and few in between. In Selma, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. forced the issue of voting rights to the forefront of President Johnson’s agenda rather than wait his turn; and in Roots, Kunta Kinte, and later his daughter Kizzy and grandson Chicken George, keep their families alive and mostly intact by relying on the strength and wisdom of their ancestors. Such stories exist throughout the annals of Black history, and yet we rarely hear about them. Though stories of Black excellence abound, Hollywood seems insistent on mining the horrors of slavery. And while I might disagree with this creative choice, I can’t deny the fact that these films can serve an important purpose.

The story of Nat Turner did happen, even though you may not have read about it in school. While educational intuitions may not purposely hide stories of rebellion, the omission of the truth is almost as bad as a lie. Because of this, films often serve to fill the gaps and tell the stories that are too raw, and too real for the classroom.

Although the chief goal of a motion picture, television show or miniseries is to entertain rather than educate, these projects can spark intellectual curiosity, which is a catalyst to learn even more. After all, Nat Turner, Solomon Northup, Joseph Cinque, and Harriet Tubman are American heroes with stories so compelling they warrant being immortalized on screen.

Despite my personal opinion on films about slavery, I must concede that such projects are necessary. While we are no longer slaves, Black Americans are still branded, whipped, raped and demoralized by the same unseen terrors that justified slavery to begin with (i.e. corrupted school systems, government sanctions, real estate protocols, and business practices). Moreover, the institution of slavery not only helped America become an empire, but it is also why Black Americans have continued to fight for freedom through things like the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movements, while dealing with a host of social ills that are a direct result of the centuries our ancestors were enslaved and terrorized.

Regardless of my own disgust for slavery-themed films, I recognize it’s crucial these stories continue to be told because history and truth have a way of depreciating over time. Don’t believe me? Just ask all the people who still believe we live in a post-racial society simply because we have a Black President and First Lady in the White House.


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