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Flashback – Could An African American Filmmaker Make A Serious Film About Slavery?

Flashback - Could An African American Filmmaker Make A Serious Film About Slavery?

Back in July I asked this question on S & A and after a conversation I had with a friend earlier today about Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained I thought maybe it’s time to revisit the question again. That is can a black filmmaker make a serious film about slavery?

It came up with my talk with my friend about Tarantino’s film and we pondered why didn’t a black filmmaker come up with the idea of “an ex-slave getting revenge on white slave masters” movie? My friend and I both agreed that it was because of those “psychic” wounds of slavery that are still too deep, too painful for black people, even in this day and age, to deal with. Safer to stick with rom-coms instead.

But like I said back in July:

Of course there have been a few attempts in the past such as: Beloved (which was a massive box office flop), Charles Burnett’s Nightjohn (a truly excellent, but little seen made-for-TV movie) and…oh yes there’s my favorite guiltiest of all guilty pleasures Mandingo (but that’s another subject for another time…) which was a big success in its day. But no doubt that taboo of forbidden lurid sex between the massa’s wife (Susan George) with her slave (Ken Norton) played a lot into the success of that film . And I don’t include Halle Gerima’s Sankofa on the list because it dealt with slavery in the West Indies. And also keep in mind that Gerima is not African-American, but an African born in Ethiopia. So there’s a “distance”, for lack of a better word, between himself and the subject of slavery.

But to get to the subject at hand, the answer to my question would have to be a responding NO!

And the reason is that simply that we, even in this day and age, still have way too much psychological and emotional pain and baggage still associated with it. The wounds are still too fresh, too raw. Or to put it bluntly there’s simply no way you can get a black audience to watch a film in which black people are dehumanized, degraded and brutalized by white people on the big screen.

And just as well there’s no way you can get white people to watch themselves dehumanizing, degrading and brutalizing black people on the big screen. It’s too painful, too disturbing, too many old hidden scars to be dealt with. Best that we ignore it and pretend it was all just a bad nightmare. But perhaps even worse, pretend that slavery really wasn’t all that bad as they say it was. And besides it gave full employment to black people so how could it have been as awful as they say?

Of course Tarantino’s film, dealing with black revenge on white slave owners with its “blaxplotation” movie undertones and vibe, is a different thing altogether and would definitely attract a black audience and a predominantly male one at that. And since Tarantino has the ‘aura” of cutting edge, geek boy coolness it will no doubt attract his usual devoted fanboy base. And you can be sure as well that it’s not going to be even remotely the most accurate depiction of slavery ever recorded on film.

But getting back to the subject at hand it reminds me of when I attended a screening of John Singleton’s Rosewood a few days before it opened to zero business at the box office. Watching the film and the grim response of the audience in the theater, which not surprisingly included a number of walks-out, I wondered who would want to see a 2 and half hour film of black genocide? (Aside from the fact that it was badly made and written film as well with a cowardly so-called hero who cuts out on his people right when they needed him the most)

No surprise therefore that practically all films that have dealt with slavery in some aspect from Birth of a Nation to Gone with the Wind to Song of the South to Raintree County to the TV mini-series Queen have totally distorted or eliminated completely the brutal realty of slavery altogether making it instead look rather romantic and quaint. Just a good time with happy devoted slaves.

Like, for example, that scene in Mel Gibson’s film The Patriot in which he played a South Carolina plantation owner who somehow had no slaves, but instead a lot of really friendly black neighbors always willing to lend a helping hand. As one black character said in the film that he worked Gibson’s land “willingly” . You know out of kindness of his heart because it’s the neighborly thing to do. Boy, those Southern plantations owners really had it good didn’t they? All those good black neighbors just helping out

Of course I can hear some saying about what about the 1977 TV mini-series Roots one of the most was watched TV programs ever in the history of television? True it was a huge success though keep in mind that it was broadcast in the midst of a brutal winter when everyone stayed home and this was before cable TV, computers, and video games. It didn’t take a lot to get an audience back then.

And many historians and scholars attacked the show afterward pointing out its glaring inaccuracies and criticizing the show for being basically just another Horacio Alger story of a poor guy doing good though hard work and luck, which was basically true. And of course the fact that at the end the lead character forgives his white master when he’s about to take his revenge on him for he had done to him and his family (maybe the greatest bullshit climax ever in a film or TV show) was intended to soften any rage and bitter feelings and especially to the appease the white viewing audience that everything was going to be fine

So I still stand my belief that there’s no way that a serious, thoughtful film on American slavery by a black filmmaker could be made, especially with our unresolved issues.

Then again if you disagree, please we would like to hear what you say. The floor is yours

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There was slavery in Africa before there was slavery in America. It still goes on in Africa.


I believe a great slave epic can be done by a black filmmaker. Can it have box office success? Yes! The enduring aspect of ROOTS was not just the story of what happended to this family but how this family, in spite of slavery, passed on its pride of being from Africa and dedication to making sure the story of the trials of its fore father, Kunta Kinte, was passed on to subsequent generations.

To just tell a story about the brutality of slavery is not enough. We need to tell the story of our TRIUMPH over/through slavery. All depictions of slavery do not have to be presented from the perspective of a victim but told in truth from the perspective of a captive, taken to a foreign land and forced to endure the worst of humanity, yet fights for survival and eventually finds freedom and continues to fight for diginity. It needs to be told through TERROR, TEARS, and TRIUMPH.
…On you comments about Sankofa. There was a similar film called BROTHER FUTURE that was told from an African-American perspective that I thought was pretty good and have shared with kids over the years.

Perivi John Katjavivi

I think one will be done simply because one has to be done. Whether it happens in the near or distant feature remains to be seen. I also think we have to find new ways to tell 'this' story. I totally disagree that Haile Gerima is too distant from the topic of slavery, As a Namibian, you have to remember that just because 'we' did not experience the African American experience of slavery, does not overshadow the fact that we experienced another kind in the forms of both colonialism and Apartheid where forms of slavery and genocide were in abundance. Also… we can actually account for specific family members that were taken during the cross Atlantic slave trade. This is painful to all people of African descent in various ways…

That being said I actually would argue that it might be more interesting to have someone make 'this' film who has an outside perspective of it all. There are plenty of stories about slavery besides the African-American experience. So why can't we take a bunch of filmmakers of African descent (regardless of locale) and give them random stories about slavery to direct:

So how about Spike Lee tackling Arab East-African slavery; or a Brazilian from Bahia adapting Ben Okri's Must Read 'Starbook; or Nigerian filmmaker Andrew Dowunso directing a film about Patrice L'Overture; or a Zimbabwean shooting a bio-pic of Nat Turner.

We need to expand the way we see the issue of slavery and 'who' is allowed to tell it. I think Tarantino's efforts will be successful commercially and somewhat critically. But we would do 'ourselves' a great disservice if we sulked and spent our energies lamenting over the inability of African-Americans to make these films or whether Quentin is 'allowed' to do his thing with the subject matter. So argument aside, perhaps I've found my next movie…


I'm looking forward to the following films about slavery:

John Brown–never understood why my history book referred to him as "fanatic" and "terrorist" seems like taking up arms to defeat the slave system made total sense
Harriet Tubman
Harriet Jacobs–who wrote "Our Nig"
Toussant L'Overture
Nat Turner
Octavia Butler's science fiction "Kindred"

Alison Gail

A little known feature documentary "Akwantu: the Journey," by Hollywood stuntman turned director Roy T. Anderson; which tells the story of the legendary Maroons of Jamaica (Roy's ancestors) and their gallant fight for freedom, may offer some hope. Not much is known about the Maroons outside of academic circles, but come next year the world will learn about a people who are often referred to as the Spartacus of their time – except these enslaved Africans were victorious in their fight for freedom. This fight would last some eighty-plus years (1655 – 1739) between the Maroons (enslaved Africans who fled the plantations) and the mighty British Empire; ending with the signing of a peace treaty which established Maroon self-government in Jamaica. Nowhere else in the New World had Africans attained such a degree of autonomy, coming almost 60-years before the Haitian Revolution. You can track the progress of ATJ on our Facebook page at


Of course it can be made…are we serious?!?! Intelligence insulted. Its known the greenlight won't be given without "corrections" made to the script to appease studio owners. Are really having this discussion. Excuse me, but get off dude's d*%$#, for those in gallop. If I believed this, I would question black filmmakers in whole…

Maurice McGee

A film about Harriet Tubman, and the amazing story of her underground railroad, she smuggled slaves out of the south right under ol' massa feet hahaha and the story of how africans were obliged to convert to Islam or become slaves, many north American slaves were decendants of those who preferred chains rather than to abandon the way of worship of their ancestors


You answered your own question with Charles Burnett's "Nightjohn", a great and thoughtful film about slavery made by an African-American filmmaker. Will there be another one some day? I wouldn't doubt it.


It's a hard subject matter to sit through but I feel it's necessary to learn and never forget our history. Also growing up most films we saw were that of Black folks taking azz whippings and not fighting back and that's just not true. There were many slave revolts back in the day and I feel those stories needed to be told. Amistad was great but I've been waiting for a Nat Turner movie for years.

Darla & Mark

Enough with the slave movies, nobody and I mean nobody want to go into a dark theater for two hours and watch that shit, don't care who directed or star in it. Don't care looking at a movie about me being discriminated, I live it each and every time I walk out the door each morning for work.


I am actually developing one. I am not African American but I am creole. You know the ones who were repatriated to West Africa after the abolition of slavery and still don't know where they were taken from? :)


Also, a TYPICAL movie about black slavery will bomb at the box-office because…
Black people –> are either still recovering from "Precious", don't want to pay for black pathos/ demoralization (we can get that for free on the evening NEWS), they are craving empowering stories, younger generations are not respectful/knowlegeable of the sacrifices our ancestors went through (hell, they can't even relate to what Civil Rights Leaders went through and a lot of those fighters are still alive),…

White People –> Won't show up because they feel that black people should move the hell on (slavery was sooooo long ago), they don't want to be made into the enemy, they don't care about black suffering, they feel a lot has been given to us (???), they think things are hunky dory and that everyone has the same experience/access to justice in America.


I have now read the article. I agreee with Sergio, but I would add that NO film on American slavery by ANY filmmaker can give us what we're looking for if it comes out of the Hollywood studio. The perps will always come out of it smelling like roses.

A movie on the Jewish Holocaust is easier to make in the Hollywood system for obvious reasons. But also, the villain is a clear group: THE NAZIS. A movie about African-American Holocaust is more difficult because the enemy is at HOME!!!!!!!!!!!!! THEREIN LIES THE PROBLEM. How do we make a movie about a villainous subgroup and not an entire race (even though the majority including their pet parrot owned slaves)?????

As I said earlier, I'm not interested in the "regular" approach to slavery; it would have to be a revenge flick – ONLY. I don't see such a flick being made because the movie will be boycotted and the filmmaker, if he/she is black will be labelled militant, racist, and God knows what else.

Django Unchained is a Tarantino vehicle. He doesn't care about historical accuracies. The subject of slavery with take a VERY DISTANT backseat. It's JUST entertainment to the lowest common denominator. Tarantino's main concerns are his fetishes (look for lots of close-ups of the feet of females slaves) the cool look of the film, and the blackploitation soundtrack.

Charles Judson

The more important questions are: WHY would an African American filmmaker make a film about slavery? HOW would one tackle it? WHAT time period? WHAT part of the country?

In the abstract, slavery is a gargantuan beast in both length and scope. In impact, psychologically and physically on the American landscape, it's multi-leveled. If a filmmaker tackled slavery, it would have to likely stretch across three or more films, with each film exploring something very specific.

What makes the holocaust an easier, and I'll even say tempting, topic to tackle is that it's a much easier to define in time–15 to 20 years as opposed to 200–and focus–the extermination of all Jews. I hate to say it, but deep down, in the minds of many, as most owners did not want to kill their slaves, it puts slavery on a different philosophical plane than the holocaust, in which eradication was an explicit goal from the outset. Even the centuries long legacy of Jewish persecution* in Europe plays a role in reinforcing this thought process.

Ironically, it's Jim Crow and not slavery that has the ability to illicit a stronger response in non-Black folks because it was blatant, targeted and lacks slavery's economic basis.

NOTE: I'm not justifying slavery, just pointing out that in America, making money is considered a justifiable rationalization, even when in retrospect we know those actions were to be wrong or counterproductive–i.e. union busting, anti-child labor laws, ant-food safety acts, etc.

Back to Jim Crow. Like the holocaust, there's also more of a visual record of what was done during Jim Crow, i.e. lynchings, beatings, torching houses, for colored only signs, etc. Even the majority of the "pseudo-science" on racial purity comes out during the Jim Crow era–which like the many books on the "Jewish problem" written in Europe during the 19th and early 20th century–is further proof of the ignorance, fear and dangerous climate Black folk lived in.

One of the pitfalls of American cinema is that it at times mirrors our country's love of the binary. It can't be just black hats and white hats, the story has to literally be about evil vs. good. In the minds of many, slavery was a terrible institution, but it wasn't evil, not like the holocaust and not like Jim Crow.

If someone is to tackle Slavery, unless they want to do a straight Django Unchained film, they've got their work cut out for them if they want to cut through this.

I'll end on this thought. I remember reading a story MLK once told. When he was a kid, he used to be able to play with the white kids all the time. Then when they got around 10 or 11, that's when things started to change. They couldn't play together anymore. The white parents told their kids point blank, you can't play with the black kids anymore. It confused and bothered King, because it didn't make much sense.

As we all know, in any culture, you're starting to became a man around about that time. That white kid will one day be MLK's "superior" and society was preparing him for that role by separating him out.

It's curious how that mirrors: One, the stories of slaves who remember how they could freely play with the white kids up until about that age. Two, psychologically, how in 2011, 10 or 11 is about the age many young black boys start to fall behind, even if they were A students prior to that. That's something that's changing in some places, but remains intact in way too many others.

There are definite throughlines, and parallels, from Slavery to today. Again, the questions are HOW and WHY does an African American filmmaker explore those connections?

*This actually mirrors the United States a bit, because just as it is here, it's easier to think of 1933 to 1945 as a self contained point in time, and to not consider that period as a culmination of hundreds of years of policies and societal attitudes.

Why didn't more people step up to defend their Jewish neighbors in pre-WWII? Well why didn't someone do that 200 years earlier when a Jewish shop keeper was beaten up or cheated out of his money? Why didn't some speak up against Jim Crow? Well why didn't more folks speak up when a ship lost 100% of it's "cargo" and they had to dump that cargo overboard 150 years earlier? Or, when a family was broken up and the father was shipped hundreds of miles a way, who really had the courage to point out that splitting up a family is just plain wrong?


On another note Sergio, you have to stop pimp slapping black folks and stop stratifying white folks above them. You implied that Black Americans can not handle the pain of their past, yet the descendants of the Holocaust can. That makes no sense to me. Listen, the Holocaust happened in the 1940’s, so lets do the math of how long it’s taken white folks to address their psychological and emotional pain and baggage. But wait, they are obviously a more resilient, intelligent and thoughtful group than black Americans, right? I mean, they’ve had less than 70 years to resolve their issues, but those poor dumb darkies are not ready to address their 400 years of suppression, pain and slavery which ended nearly 150 years ago…. Sergio, perhaps you were being factious in a way to inspire conversation, if not, you have a bit of explaining to do. On another note, you said… “And just as well there's no way you can get white people to watch themselves dehumanizing, degrading and brutalizing black people on the big screen. It's too painful, too disturbing, too many old hidden scars to be dealt with”. I say, who gives a rat’s ass about white folk’s feelings?!!! That’s what is wrong with some negroes…they worry tooooo much about what the white man is saying, doing and feeling… “We’s wouldn’t want to disturb massa”…”woe is we if’n we’s make him mad”. Miss me with that BS.


"And the reason is that simply that we, even in this day and age, still have way too much psychological and emotional pain and baggage still associated with it. The wounds are still too fresh, too raw" ~Sergio, I am officially calling BULLSHIT. Let me put it like this…"How does a person know when they have arrived"? Well, short answer, they have to know their starting point, their route/direction, and their destination. So I am suggesting the psychological and emotional pain and baggage you're referring (if there is such a thing) will never be resolved if one does not identify it, find it's roots, and then deal with the journey of getting through the storm to arrive at the other side. Running away from a problem seldom solves said problem. More importantly, as I mentioned, if you believe we have this emotional pain and baggage, shouldn't it behoove you to clarify exactly what that "baggage" is? I mean, that question goes back to my basic point…HOW CAN YOU FIX "IT", IF YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT IS BROKE?

that dude

This is a very naive question. The question assumes that the problem is that a black filmmaker didn't think of making such a film, as opposed to who has the ability to get it made. Most Black American filmmakers can't get any movies made, let alone a subject as risky as black revenge in any context. When is the last time time you saw a black man on screen kicking some white people's asses? Denzel in MAN ON FIRE? You got to go back to Wesley Snipes "bet on black" before that. Hollywood, like white America, is scared of strong black men.

That's why black films today are made for the black female audience. Tyler, Lee Daniels, etc.

So now a powerful filmmaker is using his clout to make a black western/slave revenge movie. And instead of being happy that an alternative to all these films where black men are at best absent or typically the root of the problem, folks are complaining because a black person didn't make it. Well, the most successful black filmmakers are the ones making all the movies villifying black men, so would that be better?

The system isn't fair because it's not our system. Until we build our own we will continue to be frustrated.


Steve McQueen is making 12 years a slave his next film.


I liked Nightjohn,I remember reading the book in school.I also remember Sarny the sequel.That was a great book that needs a film adaptation.

Harriet Tubman

Django Unchained is going to be epic. Apparently, he is writing a kick-ass female character into the film. I'm going to see it. Can't wait on Negroes to give me what I've been asking for years to see. I don't care if they're white, black, Native American or Asian…just do the damn thing and do it right. To answer the question posed…yes, a black filmmaker can make a seriously killer (pun intended) slave film.


Typo – should read "head off"


Haven't read the article yet… just had to quickly jump in to say right off the bat, any film dealing with slavery will get my money ONLY IF IT TAKES AN EMPOWERING APPROACH. We know the topic of slavery (and its ramifications) represent an orgy/buffet of calamities that many clueless/perverted filmmakers cannot resist. That's why I'm turned off by Django Unchained. Like JMAC said, it would have to be a revenge flick/thriller. There were several examples of kick-ass individuals running for their freedom who were ready to die/chop a mofo's heaf off for it. They were brave men and women fleeing hell to northern states/Canada , encountering more hell/hair-raising situations/close-calls along the way and interacting with a variety of people on their thrilling journey to freedom.

I'm not interested in the typical fare…
Random Slave: I is so tir'd. Lawwwwwd, my bones be breakin and my fingers be bleddin'…
Slave Master: (cracking whip against slave's back) Git back to work you lazy no good niggra.
Random Slave: Yessa Massa.
Slave Master shares a conspiratory laugh with his fellow slave masters and his children

Jewish people have their empowering/revenge films: Munich, The Debt, Inglorious Basterds, Defiance,… It's clear to all that NAZIS were the bad guys who had to get what was coming to them. Same with slaveowners. They never got their just deserts. Since a lot of their children/grandchildren now work as Hollywood execs, getting such a film made through the regular system will be a little tricky. LOL

We must stop with the torture porn and take control. Yes, horrific things happened to our people. How are we honoring them and how are we preventing this from happening to us again?


**A slave talking with a mysterious man**…..

"That smell is death! That man chained next to you died several days ago. The man laying above you is dying of dysentery. That substance on your chest and the rest of your body is his bowel movement and the feces of several slaves in the tiers above him. Lay still, that pain in your back is your flesh being rubbed off by the movement of the ship. Please hold on. Only one third of you will make it through this middle passage. You are not even half way there. STAY ALIVE!"

"But where am I, and where am I going?"……

"you are in a place that some would call a living hell and you are traveling to an evil land"….

**Hundreds of days later**….

Weak and dying slave: “Why have we stopped and what is that sound hitting the ship?"….

"You have arrived at your new home. It is a place called America. You are a slave. You are chattel that will soon be owned by an exploiter of black humans. Your wife is on another ship. Your sister died in the middle passage. While your brother was being lead to the top deck of his dungeon, he jump into the sea. He could no longer bare his pain. You may never see your wife again. It's possible that she may not want to see you because she will be raped and brutalized by her new slave masters. The product of those brutal attacks… her children by her new master, will also be slaves to be sold or used to produce more slaves. Those sounds that you hear outside of the ship are the bodies of slaves that were thrown overboard from several miles out to sea. They died in the final leg of the journey and their bodies have drifted inland. The Governor of the state of South Carolina is appalled at the sight of those bodies. Not because of the death of humans but because of the stench of the bodies floating in his harbor"…..

…”How many of my people have died"….
…."You asked how many have died on this journey? MILLIONS! This has been going on for hundreds of years. The Holocaust lasted a few years. There will be a severe price to pay for your freedom, if you ever achieve it!"…

…. "I will run, I'd rather die trying to gain my freedom, than to live a life that's less than a dog's"….

…Several years later, the man was seen withering in pain. He tried to escape his bondage. He has been branded like cattle and castrated for his repeated attempts to run to freedom"…

… Could A Black Filmmaker Make A Serious Film About Slavery? MOST CERTAINLY. To suggest that we are a bunch of weak lemmings who couldn't bare to see our history is preposterous. The movies that were listed were simply poor movies. Amistad was a white man's story. Roots was soft-soap TV, and Rosewood was campy crap (Singleton did it, so that says it all)


We've written serious novels about slavery, so why not a movie? Song Yet Sung by James McBride could be made into a great film.


As JAMC said: "He's not insulting Sankofa but asking whether an African American can produce the same quality of film for and about African Americans. Yes, you'd have to read the article to find that distinction"

Exactly. I'm not talking about a film on slavery in the West Indies made by a African born filmmaker. I'm talking about a film about slavery in America made by an African-American filmmaker. HUGE difference. Don't think that will happen or rather it's extremely rare for it to happen. Goes back to what I'm saying, the scars still run too deep.


In all honesty, I've always thought this is because the movie would only appeal to black folk. White people are uncomfortable with slavery, and if its portrayed as brutally as it was in Beloved, you can bet people won't be happy, will criticize it, and bury it. Assuming it gets enough funding from Oprah and Melvin and Mario and a 1960s Cosby to even be made in the first place.


He's not insulting Sankofa but asking whether an African American can produce the same quality of film for and about African Americans. Yes, you'd have to read the article to find that distinction. I would say with my limited experience with caribbean blacks (specifically Barbados and Martinique) they aren't as afraid or shamed by slavery as AAs but also don't notice hidden racism as much as AAs. Just a couple of advantages growing up in a predominantly black country I guess. That probably does affect how slavery/race may be represented by these types of individuals. Don't remember what I said when this was originally posted but I believe it's possible but it would have to be an indie revenge flick (successful slave uprising). However it still probably wouldn't make much money. Even with Speilberg behind Amistad, I think a lot of blacks avoided it not only for its subject matter but on principle. I bought the book instead of watching the film


I"ll just say this: Nightjohn was one of my favorite films growing up. Carl Lumbly was so good and I've been a fan of his ever since. Folks, if you have not seen that movie, you need to get on it ASAP!


So you won't count Halle Gerima's Sankofa because it was about slavery in the West Indies. Was it not real slavery because it didn't happen in the good ole USA? A person has to be a descendant of Black US slaves to be able to learn about, understand, and create a serious film about slavery. Oh okay.

Your question should be then, "Could an African-American filmaker make a serious film about American slavery?"


Wait . . . hold up!! Why would you exclude "Sankofa" from the list, again? There is not much difference between Slavery in the States and in the West Indies besides the regions and the products that African slaves were forced to toil upon.

As a West Indian myself, I kind of feel insulted that "Sankofa" and it's director is not recognized as worthy as other African-American slavery films (i.e., "Beloved," or "Roots.")

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