Kara Brown is damned tired of slavery movies. I am not, but I get that every other high-profile Oscar-nominated film about black lives is an exercise in filming black bodily trauma.
The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s Sundance darling period piece about the deadliest slave insurrection in American history, was purchased by Fox Searchlight on early Tuesday morning for $17.5 million. It was the largest deal in Sundance history, and coverage immediately suggested that The Birth of a Nation will function as some way through which the Academy can make up for this year’s diversity debacle.
Nat Turner’s Rebellion is a fascinating story, an important one, and an under-examined one. Nate Parker struggled for years to get the project made, and I have no doubt that—as with almost any film rooted in a black experience or with a mostly black cast—it was a frequently frustrating fight. I will certainly be buying a ticket to see The Birth of a Nation when it comes to theaters. But part of me is torn about sitting through yet another film that centers around the brutalization of black people.
Frankly, I’m tired of slavery movies.
It’s obvious at this point that Hollywood has a problem with only paying attention to non-white people when they’re playing a stereotype. Their love of the slave movie genre brings this issue out in the worst way. I’m tired of watching black people go through some of the worst pain in human history for entertainment, and I’m tired of white audiences falling over themselves to praise a film that has the courage and honesty to tell such a brutal story. When movies about slavery or, more broadly, other types of violence against black people are the only types of films regularly deemed “important” and “good” by white people, you wonder if white audiences are only capable of lauding a story where black people are subservient.
Of the six films actually produced by black people that have been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, three are about slavery or slavery-adjacent violence against black people (The Color Purple, Django Unchained and 12 Years A Slave). The fourth is Selma and the fifth is Precious, two movies that focus on black women being emotionally and physically beaten down in almost every way possible. The last is the The Blind Side, where a white woman who butts in and makes a black kid who was already a promising athlete into an even better athlete.
From a simple visual perspective, I’m tired of being told that I have to watch black actors in physical pain and endure mental abuse for two hours in order to be worthy of a distinction. I don’t want to watch a black body being lashed open so white people can finally “get it.” I’m tired of black actors not only having to live through the trauma of acting in those films, but for also having few other options in front of them.
I am very excited for The Birth of a Nation, and I love how it steals the name back from D.W. Griffith. But I do get this. However, in the trajectory of Hollywood, there have hardly been any serious discussions of slavery at all. 12 Years a Slave was the first since The Color Purple. What else is there? Amistad is ridiculous and really about white people anyway. Django Unchained is a cartoon. Beloved wasn’t very good. Glory is sort of about slavery, but is really a Civil War film that doesn’t explore slavery itself all that deeply. And then???? That’s through a century of film. We need a lot more slavery films precisely because American politics and the rise of overt racism once again is seeking to erase black voices from politics and black history from relevance to the present. Thus says Mychal Denzel Smith in his response:
And while I understand, I disagree. I want more films about slavery. I want a Marvel Universe of films about slavery. I want so many films about slavery that white actors start to complain that the only roles they’re being offered are those of slave owners.
I want more films about slavery because America would rather forget. We would rather pretend we know all there is to know about slavery and move on. We would rather act like we understand because we know it happened and that’s enough. But we don’t have any understanding of the economics of slavery, of how the racial caste system was built, of who was complicit in its maintenance, of how it defined our politics, of how it ended. The films about slavery that we have now barely scratch the surface on any of these issues. We basically just think it was a mean thing to do to people. Can a slate of slavery films completely solve this problem? Absolutely not. It would be foolish to think so. But as slavery gets pushed further and further out of our cultural memory by politicians and pundits who dismiss the institution as ancient history not worth discussing (while that history continues to be distorted), then a new cultural memory needs to come into place. I believe film is a place to build it.
Of course, let’s have black people making all kinds of movies. Let’s see black people in all kinds of roles, in front of and behind the camera, in pre- and post-production, in publicity and marketing, at award shows. I’m down for all of that. But films about slavery—lots and lots of films about slavery—should also find their place.
As a historian, this is I think a more useful response. Slavery needs to be driven home again and again to white Americans. They need to be confronted with it constantly. Right not, it’s far too easy to forget it happened, deny white privilege exists, and claim that only whites suffer real racism because something. That has to stop. A major strategy on how to do this is through cultural productions, including film, television, comic books, whatever.
For that matter, where’s the TV shows that center slavery? Or black history at all?