How many movies about slavery can you think of? Specifically slavery in the U.S. Off of the top of my head, I can think of any of a number of adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Huckleberry Finn, Django Unchained (my review), Amistad, Beloved, Amazing Grace, Glory, Gone with the Wind, and Lincoln. If you do some digging, there’s also Mandingo, Drum, Skin Game,and Manderlay. (And if you want to go the pro-slavery route, there’s always Birth of a Nation.)
How many of these films had black directors?
Not a one.
In fact, I can think of only one movie about slavery that did have a black director, the self-distributed feature Sankofa by Haile Gerima (and that depicts slavery in the West Indies, if we’re getting picky). And I can think of one upcoming film about slavery that has a black director, 12 Years a Slave, by Steve McQueen. It’s worth noting that neither of these directors are American (Gerima is Ethiopian, McQueen is British).
This leads me to a simple question, which as an African American filmmaker has bugged me for a while now, and is resurging with the mild controversy over Django Unchained (especially in the context of Spike Lee’s objections).
Why in the course of 100+ years of cinema history have we not had a single instance of an African American filmmaker composing a work about one of the most seminal African American experiences? Let’s look at some of the obvious culprits.
Up until recently, it has not been easy to make a feature film. Period. It’s not exactly easy now, but it’s much much much easier than it used to be. Therefore to justify the expense of making a movie on any subject, one had to demonstrate a reasonable chance of return on investment. And there are not a lot of people who will tell you that a film about slavery is a sure-fire win at the box office.
That having been said, with the rise of independent film, the reasonable margins on how much you have to make back to justify an expense, especially an artistic one, have lowered considerably as the cost of production has lowered. Which is another way of saying there’s less excuse than ever to not make a movie about something you care about, regardless of its marketability.
We’ll come back to this one.
There’s a reason, perhaps, that the best known films about slavery—Amistad, Beloved, Lincoln, Glory, Django Unchained—all had high profile white directors—Spielberg, Demme, Spielberg again, Tarantino. They have the clout to push through projects that might not otherwise seem profitable and, not to put too fine a point on it, there are more opportunities for white directors than black in the studio system (arguably in the independent system—as much as you can call it a system—as well).
So, the argument goes, sure, white directors have been able to make films about slavery because it’s too hard for black directors to get films made on such an unpleasant topic. This argument would hold more water if there was no such thing as prominent black directors. Which brings us back to Spike Lee’s objections, which in turn beg the question as to why he has not made a film about slavery. This is, of course, an unfair question in that it presupposes that it is every high profile black filmmaker’s obligation to make at least one movie about slavery. This is, on its face, absurd (not to mention racist). But putting that aside, there’s still the “it’s easier to make movies than ever” argument. Not epics, perhaps, but a movie about slavery doesn’t need to be an epic. A movie about slavery can be about a handful of characters over the course of a day.
Put simply, being black should no longer be an impediment to making a movie about slavery.
So what would be the motive for a black filmmaker to make a movie about slavery? It seems obvious. Slavery was a black experience. It only makes sense that a black filmmaker would want to tackle it. Right? In much the same way that a Jewish filmmaker would want to depict the Holocaust, as many have. But let’s unpack that for a second.
I’m going to argue that the Jewish relationship to the Holocaust is different than the black relationship to slavery. The similarity is obvious. Wholesale atrocity inflicted by one group on another on a grand scale. The difference lies in the relationship between the present ancestors of the atrocity and the atrocity itself.
One of the most commonly heard phrases heard in relation to the Holocaust is “never again.” This exhortation suggests that the atrocity isn’t just something that happened in the past and could never happen again. Quite the opposite. It suggests an ever present threat. A threat only punctuated by the fact that the homeland of the victims of the atrocity is under constant threat. Punctuated again by persistent questioning of the veracity of accounts of the atrocity. To my knowledge there are no heads of state questioning whether or not slavery actually happened. So there is a survival imperative attached to telling and retelling the story of the Holocaust. There are stakes. This isn’t just a history lesson. It’s a survival tactic.
The black relationship to slavery isn’t the same. We don’t think slavery is going to happen again. Many of us still feel oppressed, but few of us actually think we’re going to be taken from our homes and forced to work under threat of murder or torture while our families are separated from us and taken to other parts of the country. Additionally, no one in Africa thinks they’re going to be beaten, kidnapped, and shipped to America to work under threat of murder or torture. So, what is the imperative to tell that story?
If it’s to highlight subjugation now, our preference has been to simply tell the story of that subjugation. If Spike Lee wants to tell a story about racism, he’ll generally set it in the present day (or not far off). He wants to talk about racism today, not racism 200 years ago.
The other, more abstract, and possibly far more wrong reason I suspect is the male ego. The setting for a story about slavery (as is largely understood, we’ll question that in a minute) is one where the black man is systematically emasculated and humiliated. It’s one where we have to rely on the white man to save us. It paints the black man—hell, the whole black race—as weak.
What black man wants to tell that story?
Here’s the thing. In some cases, in a lot of cases, apparently, that’s not the story.
In his excellent piece for the New Yorker, Jermaine Spradley points out:
The slaveholding class existed in a state of constant paranoia about slave rebellions, escapes, and a litany of more subtle attempts to undermine the institution. Nearly two hundred thousand black men, most of them former slaves, enlisted in the Union Army in order to accomplish en masse precisely what Django attempts to do alone: risk death in order to free those whom they loved. Tarantino’s attempt to craft a hero who stands apart from the other men—black and white—of his time is not a riff on history, it’s a riff on the mythology we’ve mistaken for history.
(emphasis mine) Plus…
On the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, it’s worth recalling that slavery was made unsustainable largely through the efforts of those who were enslaved. The record is replete with enslaved blacks—even so-called house slaves—who poisoned slaveholders, destroyed crops, “accidentally” burned down buildings, and ran away in such large numbers their lost labor crippled the Confederate economy.
Any one of those stories might make an empowering tale to tell about black Americans. But that’s probably not what most black American filmmakers think of when they think of a movie about slavery.
Furthermore, even if we were to tell a tale focusing on the subjugation of the black race, it might still be a story worth telling, because if we never face up to what happened, we’ll never move forward. We’ve managed to tell this story in any number of other media, but film, one of the most popular, is still untested water.
I single out men, perhaps unfairly, because slavery presents a fairly unique challenge to black manhood. Sadly, there is nothing unique about the subjugation women faced during slavery. It was simply another iteration of a horrifying cycle that continues to this day. And female directors have grappled with these issues before, if not specifically around American slavery. This is why I’d wager that the first film by an African American about slavery will come from a woman.
Of course, the fact that I am an African American filmmaker begs the question why haven’t I done it yet? The fact of the matter is (and perhaps this is the case with the other black filmmakers out there), I have 40 or so movies I want to make before I die, and some of them are about slavery (in particular I’d love to tell the Frederick Douglass story). What intrigues me is that no one has yet beat me to the punch.