The Problem With "Slavery Movies" That No One Is Talking About

Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures.
The Birth of a Nation is lackluster. The life of Nat Turner, who infamously led a violent slave uprising, is a compelling story. But Nate Parker's retelling is so wrapped up in lectures and dogma that its rendering of Turner isn't interesting enough to sustain an entire feature film. However, the movie's release does reveal something pretty interesting about Hollywood, and how it's created and maintained a particular genre of slave narratives.

When the TV remake of Roots debuted at the beginning of the summer, Snoop Dogg gave the series a hard pass. With his hair wrapped in a satin scarf, he posted a video on Instagram denouncing the series. He didn’t need more media focusing on the trauma of what it meant to be Black in the 1800s, he reasoned, when he could turn on the news and watch live updates of the trauma inflicted on people of color today. “They just want to keep showing the abuse that we took hundreds and hundreds of years ago. But guess what? We're taking the same abuse,” he said.

Snoop was wrong about Roots' quality and substance. But he was right about one thing: We've had enough of slavery being treated as an overarching genre of brutalization, rather than a varied series intimately rendered individual narratives.

Slavery is America’s origin story, and the movies, TV shows, and books that document its horrors serve a few necessary functions. Slave narratives can give Black people a way to make sense of our personal histories through art, and work through the effects of a system that divided our families and stole our ancestors’ biographies. It’s useful for some to see how the fault lines of color and class have persisted longer than our country's system of physical enslavement. Even blockbusters like Django Unchained — which is definitely a slavery-as-genre movie give us something to point to in conversations with people who can’t understand how the events of centuries ago still affect our lives today.

The Birth of a Nation is the latest title to be added to this debate. Outside of the controversy surrounding Nate Parker, one big question lingers: Should we continue seeing movies about slavery? It’s harrowing to witness that history on screen, leave a dark theater, reemerge into the world, and see the effects of the racism it engendered still playing out today.
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures.
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There’s a place for these stories, and they don’t have be all or nothing. Nuanced accounts of living in captivity in the antebellum South have artistic value as well as larger political resonance. It’s just that too many movies about slavery are only about slavery — focusing solely on captivity as their subject rather than on real, flesh-and-blood characters. Since the time my aunt sat me down to watch the original Roots in grade school, I’ve seen a handful of similar scenes over and over again — harsh whippings, backroom brutality, looming plantation homes — mostly from one perspective. Men are the ones given the chance to take a camera and work out Black masculinity in these slave narratives. So often the brutalization of slave women in movies serves to reinstate a man’s evolution as a hero.

The Birth of a Nation does that. This movie is less a story about Turner than a sermon delivered by Parker. Gabrielle Union gets one great scene that's marvelous and wrenching to watch. Her scene stands out from the rest of movie, in which every other woman plays a supporting role in Turner’s rebellion and Parker’s artistic vision. Nat Turner is certainly a hero to root for, but so are female abolitionists whose stories aren't revenge fantasies, like Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Jennings, Sojourner Truth, and women from countless activist groups across the country, like Boston's African American Female Intelligence Society.

Until the history of slavery is properly understood as responsible for an enduring affliction, there’s still a certain amount of catharsis in using a camera to show the inhumanity of Black people forced into shackles and asked to mute their personalities in service of white masters. There have been plenty of stories of honor, escape, and survival — Amistad, The North Star — in which men are challenged to reclaim their dignity, and some of these archetypal heroic journeys are certainly compelling to watch. But I’ve had enough of these movies showing slavery as an institution and the pain inflicted on Black bodies. I want more narratives that spend time recreating living, breathing characters, not just the the terror of a plantation.
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