'Django Unchained': Hollywood and slavery
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.
NEXT PAGE: Gone with the Wind
GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)
For nearly three decades, this sprawling historical epic about the Civil War and Reconstruction from the Southern perspective was the country’s most popular film. (Adjusting for inflation, it still is.) Based on Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling book, the film largely follows the soapy romantic exploits of white Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), but several of the African American slaves who work on her plantation figure prominently in the story. Alas, to the modern eye, they’re also cringe-inducing stereotypes: Docile, often simple-minded, and content to stick with Scarlett after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War. Hattie McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress for her performance as a character named, yes, Mammy, the first black actor to win an Oscar — and the only one for 24 years.
Denzel Washington won his first Oscar for his gripping performance as a headstrong escaped slave who signs up to the first African-American army regiment to fight in the Civil War. He’s joined by fellow acting heavyweights Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher, and long stretches of the film focus on their stories and struggles. But the film is ultimately seen through the eyes of their white commander, Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), whose real-life letters served as the basis for the screenplay.
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is currently winning audiences and awards-season plaudits for its brilliant depiction of the passage of the 13th Amendment banning slavery. But it’s Spielberg’s earlier film that actually depicts the experience of being kidnapped from your homeland and sold an ocean away into bondage. The plot concerns the complicated legal case involving a group of West Africans led by Cinqué (Djimon Hounsou) who forcibly take over the slave ship, only to find themselves in a Connecticut jail in 1839. (Anthony Hopkins was nominated for an Oscar largely for his 11-minute long speech as former president John Quincy Adams in defense of the Africans’ freedom.) But Spielberg does take the time to document the horrifying cruelty of the international slave trade — which had been outlawed by 1839 — and Hounsou’s performance is not to be missed.
NEXT: C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America
C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA (2005)
What if the South won the Civil War? That’s the provocative premise of the Ken Burns-ian mockumentary that spins an unnervingly plausible alternative American history all the way up to modern day. By placing slavery in a contemporary context — like a home shopping network for buying slaves — the film makes the institution more “relatable” to lasting, chilling effect. Check out the trailer to get a taste of what I mean:
NEXT: The Adventures of Huck Finn
THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN (1993)
There have been several feature films based on Mark Twain’s celebrated novel about how a runaway slave named Jim coaxes the learned racism out of willful Missouri youth Huckleberry Finn as they travel together on a raft down the Mississippi river. The most recent version — starring a young Elijah Wood as Huck and Courtney B. Vance as Jim — denudes the story of its most controversial element, Twain’s habitual use of the N-word, and focuses instead on the “Adventures” of the title. (Disney produced it; try not to be shocked.) Still, Huck’s horror at realizing just how wrong slavery is after getting a look at Jim’s scarred back, and Vance’s quietly rich performance as Jim, give the film a thoughtful resonance beyond its rootin’, tootin’ thrills.
Oprah Winfrey believed so fully in this big screen adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel that she cast herself as its heroine, Sethe, a former slave living in Ohio who is quite literally haunted by a harrowing decision she made before the Civil War, when she was still a slave. Director Jonathan Demme embraced the mythical, time-jumping undercurrents of Morrison’s prose, how the wicked specter of slavery tormented the women and men who lived through it. That left the film not as accessible to a wide audience, which ultimately dampened its box office and led to a feeling that the film was a failure. (Its only Oscar nomination was for its costumes.) But the film also remains one of the only major motion pictures that strives to reproduce the experience of slavery from the point of view of the slaves themselves.
A superficial African American fashion model (Oyafunmike Ogunlano) signs up for a photo shoot in Ghana not realizing that the specific location used to be a castle built for the slave trade. Thanks to an encounter with the titular elderly man, she’s magically transported into the life of a house slave in the antebellum South, and witnesses first-hand what it was like to live through slavery, eventually joining a slave rebellion.
Never heard of it? Not surprising. Despite a warm reception at the Berlin Film Festival, writer-director Haile Gerima could not get a single American distributor interested in his film, so he screened the film himself on a road show across the country.
NEXT: Uncle Tom’s Cabin
UNCLE TOM’S CABIN (1927)
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel about a group of slaves including the eponymous Uncle Tom was nothing less than a literary phenomenon when it was published, and is widely credited for boosting the abolitionist movement in the North — and presaging the Civil War. But there has not been a major American big screen adaptation of the film since the 1927 production, one of the biggest and most expensive of the silent film era. (It was exhibited well into the 1950s.) “Uncle Tom” has become an epithet of self-hating subservience, and as historically relevant as Stowe’s novel remains to this day for helping to end slavery, it’s nonetheless criticized for also perpetuating ugly stereotypes of African Americans.
As it happens, however, another 19th century book could prove to be source for a definitive major motion picture about slavey…
NEXT: Twelve Years a Slave
TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE (2013)
In 1841, Solomon Northrup, a free black man living in New York, was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery in New Orleans. He toiled as a slave, bouncing from owner to owner, for 12 years, until he was eventually freed. His account of his experiences became something of a best seller during the time of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but his story is comparatively little known today.
That is, until later this year, when director Steve McQueen (Shame) brings his feature adaptation to theaters, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (2012, Salt, Children of Men) as Northrup and one of the most impressive casts of the year: Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Kenneth Williams, Paul Dano, and Sarah Paulson. In an interview with Collider, Giamatti says that McQueen, who penned the script with John Ridley (Red Tails, Undercover Brother), wanted to “take any kind of modern sensibility off of it and just create a world in which it’s completely normal that people get chained up and beaten and sold to each other.” We’ll have to wait to see McQueen’s film to discover how successful his efforts ultimately were, but at least, finally, we’ll be able to witness a film about slavery that is actually, fully about slavery.