Slavery remains American’s original sin, written into the original U.S. Constitution and responsible for the country’s ever-evolving, ever-complicated attitudes about race. So when a director like Quentin Tarantino decides to use slavery as the backdrop for his spaghetti Western revenge fantasia Django Unchained, it should not be exactly surprising that the film has come under a great deal of scrutiny.
What should be surprising — what should be at the center of any conversation about slavery and the movies — is how infrequently the words “slavery and the movies” are spoken in the same sentence.
Last month, Spike Lee declared he would not see Django Unchained, tweeting “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust” — a not so subtle implication that American slavery is too fraught to serve as a venue for Tarantino’s unique blend of genre-smashing, blood-splattering filmmaking. Training Day director Antoine Fuqua later admonished Lee for not airing his beef with Tarantino in private, declaring “I don’t think Quentin Tarantino has a racist bone in his body.” (When reached by EW, a rep for The Weinstein Company and Tarantino had no comment regarding either statement.) But Spike Lee is far from alone in expressing concerns about Tarantino’s tale of the titular freed slave (Jamie Foxx) who teams up with a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) to rescue his wife (Kerry Washington) from a nefarious slaveholder (Leonardo DiCaprio). The public handwringing over the film has included its profligate use of the N-word (sparking a most fascinating exchange between Samuel L. Jackson and a white journalist over speaking the word aloud); its impact among African-American cultural tastemakers and audiences; and its appropriateness for teenage audiences (as penned by EW’s Abby West).
None of the controversies have exactly harmed the film’s box office; quite the opposite, it just zoomed past $100 million this weekend, en route to becoming Tarantino’s biggest hit to date. But underlying all the din and disquiet is an uneasiness with how Tarantino has applied the same history twisting storytelling he used in Inglourious Basterds — where the Allies successfully assassinate Adolf Hitler — to the legacy of American slavery. As Jelani Cobb put it on The New Yorker‘s Culture Desk blog, what Tarantino is attempting with Django Unchained “is not a riff on history, it’s a riff on the mythology we’ve mistaken for history.”
And whereas World War II and the Holocaust have been thoroughly explored on the big screen — affording more cultural room for Tarantino to riff on our expectations — when it comes to slavery and American cinema, the pickings are terribly slim.
Type “slavery” as a keyword into IMDb, and 302 movie titles will be spit back at you, including wildly popular entertainments like The Matrix (cyber slavery), Gladiator (Roman slavery), 300 (Persian slavery), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Indian child slavery), and Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace (Tatooine slavery). Only a handful of these films, however, concern our common connotation for the word “slavery”: The American economic system by which generations of Africans were forcibly moved across the Atlantic and enslaved as a subjugated workforce, predominantly in the South, and which served as the primary cause of the American Civil War.
Even then, when American slavery does make it into movie theaters in a significant way, most often its not directly about the experience of slavery. It’s about how a white person interacts with it, or it’s about the Civil War, or it’s about the racially fraught decades after the Civil War. Occasionally, the film itself is riven with racism, like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation; sometimes, it’s fodder for the kind of exploitation cinema that has so inspired Tarantino, like the 1975 flick Mandingo. To find a watershed piece of storytelling about the institution of American slavery itself, in fact, you’ve got to turn to television, and ABC’s gripping, seminal, nine-and-a-half-hour miniseries Roots.
Still, there have been feature films that grapple with American slavery in one way or another, films that demand revisiting in the wake of all the (likely misplaced) concern that Django Unchained will now serve as slavery’s primary cinematic document. On the following pages, we’ll look at eight of them — and one due for release later this year.
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