Despite the fact that I previously debunked (May, 2016) the perception many of us apparently have that the majority of films starring black actors financed, produced, and released by American film companies, have centered around slavery, a lot us (black people) continue to express an exhaustion over slavery-era films and TV series, even though, as I’ve proven, there’s frankly very little reason to feel exhausted.
“When is Hollywood going to tell stories about black people that aren’t about slavery?” is a common question that comes up whenever we write about a project that is set during that period in our history; “All we ever get are movies about slavery. This is BS! I’m tired of this. I’m not watching the ‘Roots!’ remake”… or whatever the title is.
Praise for Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” was near-deafening, with critics and audiences alike, appreciative of its attempts to capture, honestly, the realism and brutality of slavery in this country. And while I found it a certainly well-made, frank film, I’ll also say that there’s still an even more brutally honest film about slavery to be made.
In fact, I’ll add that there are still countless stories about that grave period in American history to be told on screen, and we all should be curious and interested in seeing them realized. This is after all not just black history, but American history; world history!
I don’t think it’s hyperbole for me to say that slavery is the foundation upon which this country, these United States of America, was built. And yet, in the 100 year history of cinema, it was in 2013 that a film of the scale and caliber of “12 Years a Slave,” made for the big screen, that honestly captured the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery without any sensationalism, finally became a reality.
The problem here as I see it, is that, unlike the volume of films made about the Jewish Holocaust on an annual basis (a comparison some might not like, but is the most immediate other historical human tragedy that most of us are familiar with, and one that often draws comparison), films that tackle slavery in the USA in any capacity (especially at a high profile level, given the names involved in front of and behind the camera) are still very few and far between. And so praise for “12 Years a Slave,” while I won’t say was completely undeserved, could also have been influenced by the fact that, up until it was made, there just hadn’t been anything else to compare it to, because, once again, films that tell stories about that period in our history, and that do so frankly, aren’t exactly in abundance; even though some of us seem to think so.
So when a film like “12 Years A Slave” comes around, it’s of course going to attract a lot of attention, and all it really needs to do is be competent. If we saw a similar volume of slave narratives on screen as we’ve seen Holocaust-set tales over the decades, “12 Years a Slave” wouldn’t necessarily be this seemingly momentous, groundbreaking occurrence. Alas, it really ought not be.
Some of us (black audiences specifically) groan when we hear of new productions of slave-themed films. But to be fair, for those perplexed by these objections, these are laments that are rooted more in the fact that there has been very little variety in terms of the representation of black lives in mainstream American cinema throughout the years, than a genuine aversion to slave narratives – a long-standing matter that’s been discussed ad naseam on this site and others. However, there has to be a realization among all of us that slavery-set stories don’t necessarily have to make slavery absolutely central to the narrative, nor do they have to always cause distress. Even though black people weren’t considered human beings at the time, we of course, were. Amongst the many tales of incomprehensible inhumanity and savagery our ancestors experienced during the period, there were also stories of courage, of bravery, conviction, insurrection, and even genuine happiness, laughter and love, no matter how fleeting those moments were. After all, they had to find a way to just simply survive.
There are still those stories to be told about that period in our history, whether looking at slavery broadly as an institution, and the economics of it, or putting a magnifying glass over one person’s very specific narrative, taking place over a day, or an entire life, or examining a single moment in time. And they don’t all have to be wholly agonizing. Although, even if they were, we shouldn’t turn our backs on them. They were still someone’s story, whether it’s a story we all want to see told on film or not. They actually experienced slavery; today, we are simply watching fictionalized (or documentary) accounts of their stories. I think we at least owe them that.
An important understanding that Hollywood studio executives, production companies, film financiers, etc apparently don’t seem to grasp – or maybe they do, but choose to ignore – is that black audiences long to see films in which black characters take complete control of their own destinies, absent of any, shall we say, *outsider* influence, no matter what period in our history the films or TV series are set. Although maybe that’s more of a reflection of a reality that suggests whites consider themselves superior (whether consciously or not), and thus responsible for the progress of others they consider pitiable, meaning that they can’t even envision a work of fiction in which blacks, and blacks only, are in charge of their very own lives.
Would the financial backers of “12 Years a Slave” have considered Nat Turner’s revolt as the basis for a film (before Nate Parker’s 2016 release), if director Steve McQueen had brought that idea to them?
Also worth considering are those narratives that aren’t necessarily based on historical fact. One can certainly set a story within that period, creating a fictionalized account of a life, or many lives, getting as creative and imaginative as one wants to be. Take Octavia Butler’s “Kindred” for example. It’s certainly not what we’d call a typical slave narrative, but she smartly incorporates slavery into this time travel tale that gives readers something of a history lesson, without the didacticism, all wrapped up in a thrilling adventure story – one that many of you have wanted to see adapted for the screen (and attempts have certainly been made).
And while I found “Django Unchained” problematic, it’s also very much a fictional slave narrative, whose main purpose is to entertain, and not necessarily edify.
Another recent example is the well-made though not-very-well-known indie drama titled “The Retrieval,” previously highlighted on this blog, which centers on a young black boy who, along with his uncle, works for a gang of bounty hunters in slavery-era USA, recapturing runaway slaves and tracking down wanted criminals. Any similarities to “Django Unchained” are superficial and coincidental.
And of course since the above mentioned films, we’ve seen slavery tackled in fresh ways in TV series like “Underground,” which unfolds more like an action-thriller than any film or TV series on slavery that came before it. There are also plans for films on Harriett Tubman, with MACRO ventures chief Charles D. King producing one of them, promising what he described as an “epic and sweeping” action, adventure movie that will “show what an incredible badass Harriet Tubman was.” The possibilities excited some, while turned off others. So it goes.
My point here is that the possibilities are near-endless, and can be of any genre – drama, science fiction, thriller, horror, action, even comedy. Use your imagination, which should be boundless. Flip the script, as the saying goes. Author Steven Barnes’ “Zulu Heart,” for example, is set in an alternate universe where an Islamic Africa is the dominant world power, with Europe remaining primitive, and it follows a young African nobleman and his former slave, who’s an Irishman. The slave narrative doesn’t necessarily have to be capitalized. There’s a rich history here (of black history – in this case; of the Transatlantic Slave Trade), full of a myriad of tales of all kinds, mostly untapped, which could be fodder for countless films to last many lifetimes. If only there were more brave souls willing to see even a fraction of them realized.
I’m obviously not arguing that the majority of movie or TV series about black life should be set during that very ugly and devastating period in our history; but, again, I’ve already proven that this is far from the case. I believe that these stories should continue to be told, helping to ensure that America never forgets, while encouraging diverse examinations and conversations of those many momentous years in American (actually, global) history, where numerous untold tales are currently buried – tales of the inhumanity endured for sure, but also of the triumphs, the loves, traditions and mythologies rooted in the cultures from which our ancestors were removed, and everything else between the extremes, whether historical fact, or creative fiction.
Maybe one of them will inspire your next film… maybe not.