Slavery in Film
America has had a dark history, with one of the issues that are clouding its history being the slave trade that spanned over 245 years and saw millions of Africans being captured to go and work in the New World. Many scholars, artists, journalists, and critics have written a lot about the slave trade, debates have been conducted, and films made. The best representation of the time is through film. Film helps in contesting known truths, raising questions about certain accounts, and compelling people to evaluate the reactions to what is happening on the screen. While there is no ‘good’ movie that can depict all the truth, a film should be accurate and inspire critical thought on a particular subject. America is short of films on slavery, and their accuracies and the way they are shown has been a topic of debate over years. This paper aims to look at the representation of slavery in the American films and how the view has changed over the years. What does Hollywood portray as the truth about slavery, and what is the world made to believe by watching these movies? This paper posits that Hollywood has deliberately controlled the manner in which slavery is depicted on the screen, but this has been changing since the Civil Rights Movement.
History of the Slave Trade
The first African slaves to land in America arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 to aid in farming. The slaves helped to build the economic foundations of the new American nation. Even after the formation of the new nation that guaranteed freedom and equal rights for all, slavery was still being practiced. In the 1800’s, however, a growing abolition movement in the North together with other causes led to the American civil war of 1861-65 that saw over 4 million slaves freed. The legacy, however, continued until the civil rights movement of the 60’s brought equality to all.
Slaves were treated to a system of restrictive codes; their movement was restricted, they were forbidden from learning to read and write, and were tortured physically and mentally. Some women were taken by the masters as sex toys, and it was not uncommon for them to be killed. Slave revolts occurred as a result, but most turned out unsuccessful.
After the adoption of the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery, a lot was expected to change, but little did, especially in the South. The 14th Amendment gave equal protection and rights of citizenship to the free slaves, and the 15th gave them the right to vote, but these provisions were largely ignored or violated. The Civil rights movement ensured that these rights were upheld, but even in today’s new world the effects are being felt, and African Americans still do not enjoy the same services as their white counterparts do.
There are numerous topics that are considered taboo in movies, such as the genocide of Native Americans, homosexuality, and slavery. The Hollywood film industry has gone global; hence, most of the films produced are viewed globally. Film is a large distributor of values, lifestyles, and cultures, and plays a pivotal role in shaping cultural memory and the future. The American society thus borrows much of its self-understanding from visuals fed to them through films, which makes topics like slavery very controversial. Films hold the power to shape what people think and what they do.
Michel-Rolph Trouillot in his work, Silencing the Past gives an account of how history is manipulated by those in power to create a past that favors some idea. He identifies the four various silences as being in the making of sources, the creation of archives, a silencing by the narrators themselves, and an abandonment of some things. Only a few parts of history become history, or in our case, become narrated. Going by Trouillot’s work, the silences through film will include silencing of some ideas and omit themselves from the screen altogether, giving false details, manipulating events, and sources, and choosing what to show. In her book, ‘Slaves on Screen, Film, and Historical Vision,’ Zemon Davis gives five categories for writing on history that even though hard for film to replicate, should aim to uphold. These deal with avoiding bias, evidence collection, additional inventions, an understanding of historical figures, and not falsifying events or holding back evidence.
Racism and stereotyping of black Americans reached its peak in 1915 with the release of Birth of a Nation. Most of the films then were made by whites, with the few made by blacks, such as Birth of a Race being largely unsuccessful. Many of the films were thus created from a white man’s perspective, and more often than not tried to depict the whites as victims. In Birth of a Nation, for example, the white southerners are portrayed as victims, suffering from being defeated by the North and also being terrorized by their former slaves. The scenes were also manipulated to convey different meanings. Blacks are depicted as being too dumb to understand what is going on. To further accentuate the fact that the films were made for the benefit of white people, we see that the films of the time depicted the Ku Klux Klan as being necessary to protect the white people from the blacks, an honorable organization fighting for a just cause. It was this portrayal that led to the Ku Klux Klan movement forming once again. The films were not about slavery against the black but as a means of justifying white oppression.
The films also show the blacks as inferior to the whites and contented with working for the whites, a trend that continues for decades. In Birth of a Nation, the blacks are content in their servitude. In the same film, we see that while those cast for the white roles are pretty people, those in the black roles are ugly, uncharming, and can be considered fat and dirty. Even the film shots themselves make the whites appear favorable while those of blacks show grimaced and oddly illuminated faces. Most of these films lack historical accuracies as they are one-sided, and fail to show the whole truth. These films have nothing to do with the real slavery; they dwell too much on the nostalgia of slavery that became a myth of ignorant, docile, loyal, and happy slaves. These depictions were a reaction to the new generations of African Americans whose aspirations threatened the whites. New codes were implemented, and one of those was the Hays Code.
The Hays Code
The Hays Code of 1934 is perhaps one of the most controversial codes on production, and one that affected the depiction of slavery immensely. The code, developed by the Hays Commission, intended to keep cinema pure and censor content as needed. Some clauses that touched on slavery include:
- Pictures should not lower the moral principles and standards of those watching them
- Law shall not be ridiculed, or sympathy created for its violation
- White slavery shall not be treated
- Miscegenation is forbidden
The code also put limits on vulgarity, obscenity, profanity, religion, and the depiction of repellent subjects such as hanging, brutality, cruelty to children and animals, and the sale of women. While this code, which lasted from 1934 to 1968 was intended to safeguard the morality of those watching, and since cinema was considered as entertainment and not a means of learning per se, it did affect how slavery was treated. Failing to depict the conditions as they were accurate leads to an erosion of the meaning of films.
Post- Civil Rights Movement
It was not until after 100 years after the abolition of slavery that African Americans stood up for the right to be recognized and treated as equal members of society. The movement marked a critical turn of events, and in cinemas blacks were no longer portrayed as emblematic figures of liberal ideas, they began playing a role in the plot. Other factors such as the scrapping of the studio system, feminist ideas, and a hippie culture contributed to the change in how films were made. Suddenly, taboo topics were open for debate. A massive film revolution called blaxploitation emerged that saw films for black audiences and about black problems being created. The new films now showed slavery as brutal, and the whites as functionally deranged. The emancipation movement, however, devoured itself by trying to show black power. The black slaves became too masculine, and slave women now became sexual props. With the death of blaxploitation came the disappearance of slavery from Hollywood.
Slavery only returned to Hollywood with the making of films such as Glory (1989) and Amistad (1999). A lot had changed, as the new movies seemed to extol American patriotism and memorialize white men. The most important thing had now become about the perception of the American people and the restoration of national pride.
Films on Slavery
Steven Spielberg’s film depicting the 1839 slave revolt aboard a Spanish ship, the La Amistad, is one of the best English-language films on slavery. The slaves, who had been captured in Sierra Leone, were aboard a slave headed for the other side of Cuba when they revolted and took over control of the ship, killing most of the crew in the process. The two Spanish crew left manage to direct the ship towards North America, however, and it is boarded by U.S. naval troops who arrest the mutineers and take them to a New London prison. They are then put on trial in a media spectacle that changes the discourse on slavery.
La Amistad ironically means friendship in Spanish, and may have been used to depict the friends of the slaves, the abolitionists. Even before the civil war, the story of the Amistad was utilized in mobilizing abolitionists. It is said that abolitionists, novelists, playwrights, songwriters, and journalists wrote extensively on the Amistad rebellion, but until the making of the film, the story had been largely forgotten. Spielberg thus managed to awaken one of the emotions that led to the civil war and the abolition of slavery.
The film depicts most of the tribulations of the era, chief among them being miscommunication. The African slaves can hardly communicate amongst themselves, or with the Spanish, or the Americans who capture them afterward. The miscommunication is also evident in the trials, but this is resolved through understanding. Amistad here tries to show that the slaves were human, and even though illiterate or unknowing of Western culture, were humans as well. We also see that the abolitionist U.S. allies work to enable the safe return of the rebellious slaves to Africa, indicating that the slaves had allies, and not everyone during the time was pro-slavery.
The film also shows the racial disparities between the slaves and the landowners. Six weeks after the rebellion, the slaves are hungry, weary, and short of water when they arrive in New York. The contrasting images of rich Americans enjoying dinner and classical music while being attended to by black servants show the disparities in class, wealth, and fortunes for the two groups. One is about to be caught while the other is enjoying a quiet evening.
The issue of humans as property is also depicted well in the film, as argued by the slave’s lawyer, who brings an interesting discussion of whether the rebels belonged to the ship owners. Eventually, the law and constitution prevail, but the question here is, how many times did the law prevail? At the time, it was perfectly okay to ban the importation of new slaves from Africa, and still defend the thriving slavery in America. In the film, women are also resigned to the periphery. The film is dominated by men, both free and slaves, and there is little action from the females, even though we know that they had a role to play.
12 Years a Slave
Perhaps one of the most widely known films on slavery, 12 Years a Slave is a story of Solomon Northup, the son of an emancipated slave who was born free, but who is conned into traveling to Washington, DC where he is drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. For 12 years he remains a slave of Edwin Epps, a Sothern planter. Northup is finally freed in 1853 with the help of some Northern friends and returns home to his family where he writes his account in 12 Years a Slave.
The movie is accurate in detail, mostly due to the meticulous detail with which Solomon recorded his memoirs. It portrays resilience in the face of tribulations. The movie is individualism. We see that Northup is more concerned about the welfare of his family than with anything else. The film also shows one heroic survivor, Northup, rather than the collective struggle depicted in Amistad. At the end, when Northup is freed, we see him looking at the other dejected slaves and hugging Patsey before leaving for freedom. The movie tries to show how some stories and people stood out even in the enveloping shroud of slavery. The slave trade era is filled with individuals who alone contributed greatly in changing the discourse of abolition. In 12 years a slave, Northup is that guy, and the movie does not disappoint, it focuses almost solely on him while the other slaves are given a small place or no voice at all.
The film is articulate, modernistic, and presents an aesthetic image of the struggle. It does not spare us of the horrors of slavery like in other films before it. It reveals a world of suffering where resilience, generosity, and morality are far removed from what we know as normal. It is due to these excesses in imagery of work and torture that has led many to label it as ‘torture porn.’ Critics state that in the age of Obama, blacks should be moving away from the dubious psychological association with slavery. This is very telling, as it depicts the Hollywood notion all along, that showing images of slavery only allows blacks to play the victim, and brings disharmony in the community. At an age when there is mass imprisonment of blacks that seem to accentuate modern day slavery, it is easy to tell why Hollywood wants such images suppressed.
The movie has faced a lot of criticism, largely due to the movie itself, and also due to its producer, Quentin Tarantino. Many critics have mixed feelings about the movie, referring to some of it as nonsense mixed with the brutalities of slavery. Tarantino, however, deviates from the norm in his depiction of slavery, bringing a newness in style.
The movie centers on the interactions of Django, a freed slave, and Dr. Schultz, a white German ex-dentist. Dr. Schultz dies while trying to help Django retrieve his wife, and it is left to Django, who has some language skills, to face the whole plantation. He manages to free his wife and rides off with her, a free and proud man. The movie shows two sides of the slavery narrative. One shows a dejected Django along with a bunch of other slaves walking dejectedly for many days until they result to limping along as their strength has been depleted. The power of the white people is well presented in the movie, as can be seen by the cruel torture exhibited and the harrowing tales of oppression narrated by the slaves. We see Calvin Candie setting his dogs to rip up a Mandingo fighter who beat and swollen, refuses to go another round. We also see scar marks on the backs of almost every slave, depicting the horrors of slavery.
The movie, however, makes no effort at being politically and historically correct. It is meant as entertainment, but for people who have little knowledge of the events of the slavery period, they might think that the plot is fact. The language used in the movie is also too refined as compared to the one used in the period. All the same, the movie manages to raise awareness about the period, hence fulfilling one of the needs of a ‘good’ movie.
The surrender of public discourse on slavery to Hollywood has led to the commercialization of the idea, instead of it being an honest exploration into the past of what makes America what it is today. Through these films the past is altered to fit the present and its needs, feeding the society with what it needs to know, and keeping the past hidden. The historical inaccuracies of past films lend credence to the belief that Hollywood has deliberately manipulated the slavery issue. The films on slavery fail to meet the criteria laid down by Zimon Davis. When it comes to sources, it is dismaying to see that of over 200 accounts of slavery documented by fugitive slaves; only two have been put to film (Amistad and 12 Years). These are the only two accurate accounts ever put to film; the rest are fiction. The public opinion on slavery in America is thus based on only two real accounts, signaling underrepresentation.