Slavery on Screen

Slavery on Screen

The films about slavery that came out during the Obama years have given us more powerful and nuanced representations of slavery than we have seen before.

Director/Producer/Writer Nate Parker on the set of The Birth of a Nation. Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Long after the Civil War ended, the history of slavery—in both the academy and in popular culture—stayed wrapped in the moonlight-and-magnolia plantation myths of the Old South. Championed by Southern historians such as U.B. Phillips, the interpretation of slavery as an institution populated by faithful servants and benevolent, paternalistic masters was famously reflected in the multiple Oscar-winning blockbuster, Gone with the Wind (1939), based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell.

Abolitionists and African-American writers and historians had, of course, always told a very different story. Black and white abolitionists had uncovered the horrors of slavery and tried to combat the pervasive racism of their times. But it wasn’t until the Second World War that our contemporary understanding of slavery as oppressive became the dominant view in the academy. Following the civil rights movement and the rise of social history—or the attempt to write the history of ordinary people, blacks, women, labor, and immigrants from the “bottom up”—historians drew attention to the culture, community, and resistance of slaves.

Perhaps the most influential historian of slavery in the post–civil rights era was Eugene Genovese, who fused Phillips’s paternalism thesis with the new social history. Historians have since overturned Genovese’s interpretation of slavery as a feudal, pre-modern institution. Recent books emphasize the institution’s brutal exploitation, as well as its central place in the creation of a modern capitalist economy.

This shift in understanding has taken place in popular culture too. The 1977 television series Roots, based on Alex Haley’s novel, reflected the rise of a new black history. The series, which traced the history of an African-American family through generations, graphically depicted the terrors of the slave trade and slavery for the first time on television for a large audience. The year 2016 saw the release of a remake of Roots as well as Underground, a period drama based on the stories of fugitive slaves.

The election of the first African-American president prompted something of a renaissance for films about slavery and race as audiences became more receptive to this new history. During Obama’s presidency Lincoln, Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave, The Birth of a Nation, and 13th were released, a few of which even became box office hits. For the first time in recent history, millions of Americans bought tickets to see the history of slavery depicted on the big screen.

Each of these films presented different versions of the past. Steven Spielberg’s biopic Lincoln stayed faithful to the historical record, save for a few deliberate tweaks to heighten suspense, but the narrative showed Lincoln in isolated greatness rather than, as Frederick Douglass put it, at the head of a large antisl...

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