You will be redirected back to your article in seconds
Back to IndieWire

One Explanation To Consider For All The Recent Slave-themed Movies…

One Explanation To Consider For All The Recent Slave-themed Movies...

With just about every post on this site announcing the production of a movie centered around stories of slavery in the United States, the inevitable question is asked by a few readers, that comes in the form of something like: what’s the deal with all these recent slave movies and TV shows?

Indeed… what’s the deal?

I’ll make this quick and painless as possible; the *trend* if you want to call it that, really started in late 2010/early 2011.

You might recall some of the following: Billy Brown landing a role in what was then an upcoming NBC pilot, for a post-Civil War drama titled Reconstruction, set in Missouri, and was to center on a soldier who crosses the country and settles into a complicated town where he is welcomed as its savior (he’s white naturally). Billy Brown was to play Sam, a former slave with “a hearty, life-affirming laugh who brings Jason up to speed on the happenings of their small Missouri town;” Secondly, Chiwetel Ejiofor joined James Caviezel in a drama titled Savannah, based on real events, set post-Civil War, in which Caviezel stars as the real-life, “well-educated, eccentric, larger-than-life hunter” named Ward Allen who develops a unique friendship with a freed slave named Christmas Moultrie, played by Ejiofor. The film is loosely based on a book by John Eugene Cay, Jr., titled,Ducks, Dogs and Friends, which tells the story of Christmas Moultrie (the last slave born on the historical Mulberry Grove Plantation, where the Cotton Gin was invented), who hunted on the Savannah River, together with Ward Allen, and his Chesapeake Bay Retrievers; Third, there was news of Common landing a lead role in the AMC period drama titled, Hell on Wheels, billed as a Western centered on “a former soldier in the Confederate Army who, in searching for the Union soldiers who killed his wife, finds his way to a lawless town called Hell on Wheels, and to the construction of the first transcontinental railroad.” Our man Common plays Elam, a freed bi-racial slave suffering from a routine case of the Tragic Mulatto syndrome. Elam heads west to work on the railroad, hoping to find his place in society, as he doesn’t feel that he fits squarely into either the “black world” or the “white world;” Fourth, ABC reunited with Lost executive producer Carlton Cuse, and writer/director Randall Wallace (SecretariatWe Were Soldiers) for what was then described as a “major event series… an ambitious drama project set during the Civil War,” titled, Point of Honor. Wallace and Cuse were to work on the script, with Wallace set to direct the pilot episode; Fifth, it was announced that Sir Ridley Scott was planning to direct an adaptation of the Civil War-Set slave revenge novel, The Color Of Lightning. The Oscar-winning screenwriters of Brokeback Mountain had been hired to adapt Paulette Jiles’ novel; Sixth, we know that Anthony Mackie co-starred as Abraham Lincoln’s vampire hunting buddy in the adaptation of the revisionist history novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter for 20th Century Fox; 7th, there’s Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which Daniel Day-Lewis stars in as the 16th President of the United States, which focuses on the political collision between Lincoln and the powerful men of his cabinet, on the road to the abolition of slavery, and the end of the Civil War; 8th, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which I’m sure doesn’t need an intro; 9th Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years A Slave, which I also don’t think needs an intro; 10th, Cuba Gooding Jr.’s next project, titled Something Whispered, which centers on a man named Samuel (Gooding), who attempts to free his family from the brutality of institutionalized slavery, intent on escaping from the tobacco plantation they have been forced to call their home for two generations; 11th, The North Star, an independent feature film based on true events, that tells the story of Big Ben Jones, a slave who makes a daring escape from a Virginia plantation to Buckingham, PA in 1848, and gets helped by local Quakers, starring Clifton PowellMichael RapaportLynn Whitfield , Michael Jai WhiteKeith David and others, including the Nicole Beharie project announced last night; and there are more projects that won’t be mentioned here, if only so I can finish this post!!

But you get the picture, I hope.

So what could be going here? Well, one thing that I wanted to make sure that you all are aware of is that, between 1861 and 1865, we saw what we could say were this country’s most concerted efforts to bring an end to the institution known as slavery, starting in April, 1861, when the American Civil War began, lasting 4 years, leading to over 500,000 deaths. 2 years later, in 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which proclaimed all slaves in Confederate territory, free, although it didn’t officially outlaw slavery in the USA. That would eventually come, after another 2 years, when slavery was made illegal everywhere in the USA by the Thirteenth Amendment, which took effect in December 1865.

Where am I going with all this, you might be asking?

Those 4 years that saw the end of slavery in the USA as an explicit goal, were 150 years prior to when these slave narratives seemed to explode – 1861 to 1865 versus 2011 to 2015.

So, Hollywood seems to be in a *celebratory* mood, if we can call it that, honoring the 150 year anniversary of the Civil War, and those 4 years that would eventually lead to making slavery illegal in this country.

Most of the TV shows and films I mentioned above, have been/will be released between 2011 and 2015. Many will be released in 2013 (which would mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation).

And if you noticed, a handful of them center around the stories of freed slaves adjusting to life as freemen, or slaves escaping to find their freedom, and in some cases, defending or avenging something, someone, or some people. None of them actually focuses on the uglier, early years of slavery in America – not that there was anything particularly beautiful about slavery, whether at the start, or the end. But freedom, and revenge themes seem to dominate. 

So, in short, it’s in celebration of the 150th anniversary of events that led to making slavery officially against the law in the USA

No, I’m not saying that this is THE reason for why we’re seeing so many of these slave narratives (although I’d say it’s probably the case for some of them, and maybe others see that there’s an apparent trend forming, inspiring them to jump on the bandwagon; and there also might be some truth to those arguments that say there’s a kind of romance between Hollywood and that period in our history; but this isn’t Cold Mountain, which was accused of washing out black involvement in the Civil War. Black people are front and center in many of the recent crop of films); I’m just giving you something to consider, since, I don’t believe, this has really been mentioned in any of our posts, or in the comments sections following each post, while the question keeps coming up.

That’s it!

This Article is related to: News


Gerald Tyrone Kilomba

Slavery in Amerikka is PAINFUL for Blacks and Whites. Whites want to close the chapter to their DIRTY/FILTY/THIEVING/LYING/LYNCHING/KILLING/MAIMING/MURDERING History. So they change the History Books and only put a single paragraph to a history that started in 1630's to 1861. Add in the Chain Gangs, Convict Leasing, Black Codes, and it kept going from the 1630's to 1938!!! White people have Externalized all the Dirty/Filthy/nasty murderous/lying/brutal and scary things onto blacks. White people Changed the Narrative! In racism, denial is used to maintain and legitimate violent structures of racial exclusion: ‘They want to take what is Ours and therefore They have to be excluded.’ Although the plantation and its fruits do ‘morally’ belong to the colonized, the colonizer interprets it perversely reading it as a sign of robbery (i.e.) We (whites) are taking what is theirs becomes (They) (Blacks) are taking what is Ours. Moreover, The black subject turns into the intrusive enemy, the white subject becomes the sympathetic hero. In other words, the oppressor becomes the oppressed and the oppressed becomes the tyrant. The slaver the injured and the enslaved the injurious. We become then the mental representation of what the white master fears to acknowledge about her/himself: in this case, the violent thief, the indolent and malicious robber. Such dishonorable aspects whose intensity make them to unpleasant and shameful, are projected outside as a means of escaping them. (Grada Kilomba: Plantation Memories)

The One who Controls the Media, Controls your mind. Mention Racism or slavery and everybody wants to recoil into a "that was yesterday" "things have changed" "we practice diversity" when in reality The SHIT is still the same. Here is a hint: when they show Blacks in a NEGATIVE LIGHT on the news, that is the SlaveMaster trying to distance himself from his Slave Owing past. You see, if you crowd a bunch of POOR/MARGINALIZED/UNEDUCATED/UNEMPLOYED/AIMLESS young men together, then Toss in Drugs and Guns – what in the hell do you THINK you will get? Today's slavery is Drugs being ALLOWED in to MAIM a surplus population that the government cannot employ. Today, the Slavemaster will ONLY guarantee a Blackman a Jail cell.

It IS the Government of the U.S. that creates the Environment of Lack/Hate/Marginalization/Impoverished Thinking/ along with Environmentally Polluted neighborhoods. They can STOP IT. But why would they? They RISK poor white folks raising up and calling 'foul' or heaven forbid joining with Blacks to CHANGE thangs. After all, It was poor White folks (and it was a HELLEVA LOT OF EM during slavery) that felt good about themselves and their disgusting/stanky/funky lot during slavery. They always said then and still say today, "At least I'm NOT BLACK."


**CareyCarey's head hangs low as he walks back in S & A to make a confession of sorts**… After reading Whitney's and AccidentalVistor's wonderful debate (Each of them came straight from the hip and did an excellent job of supporting their positions, imo) I continued reading to see what else I may have missed. Well, quite naturally I read my own jibber jabber one more time – and there it was. I must have been drunk or out of my mind. Once was not enough for me … I had to repeat myself with the.. well… this "If my memory serves me well, I believe he, Charles Judson said over 150,000 (ONE HUNDRED FIFTY THOUSAND Y'ALL!) movies are made each year". WHAT!? Now com'on, I wasn't drunk, I was simply – LAZY. There is no way that many movies are made each year. But in my defense, I did say I was depending on my dilapidated memory, which has seen it's better days. Anyway, one day later after having a good bowel movement (hey, don't laugh, that's not guaranteed when your past your prime. And filling up the bowl does free up the mind, don't you know) I saw that number again and thought – no way that can be true. So I searched for Charles' post and came up empty handed. So it was google time. Well … after finding a … how should I say this … a mishmosh of numbers, Mr. Lazy came back to visit me, and I said fu*k it. However, I think I am safe by saying 150,000 is WAAAAAAAAY too much. I now believe counting backwards from twenty thousand, might be a better bet . But check this … in respect to the core subject of this post (why Slave movies … are they necessary … who does, and does not wants to see – and why?) I'm gonna sample my memory one more time. \BELOW//


AccidentalVisitor, have you read The Book of Night Women? The story and characters are anything but what Hollywood would feel comfortable filming or exploring. And, however it may sound, there is a way to create compelling characters with flaws and nuances that you don't necessarily support. Is that all you got from it, that is was a "love story" about a slave and a slave master? I couldn't disagree more. You think whites were glamorized in the book? That slaves sleeping with white men weren't heavily critiqued? How could you walk away from the book thinking slavery was in any way romanticized? You're bludgeoned with horror after horror, and a "sympathetic" white character does nothing to offset the brutality described. I don't think it as a love story and I don't consider the slave/master relationship as a focal point. Homer, Lillith and the other black slave women were complex, fascinating characters; the Caribbean slave revolt described left me breathless. That's what primarily think about when I reflect on the book. Don't presume to know what I'd like to see in a movie. I've read few stories that more clearly showed the dehumanizing nature of slavery on both the slave and master. White characters were not the saviors. Many people liked Wench and were excited to hear about its adaptation, but I was in the minority who didn't enjoy the book. If I had a choice, they'd scrap that project and let Kasi Lemmons do The Book of Night Women.

I do think a bigger role could have been given to black men in the book; besides Tantalus (who had his own issues), I can't think of many. That was a criticism I had of the book myself. But I don't see an absence of black male slaves in Hollywood storylines. If anything, as one poster already pointed out, the black female slave doesn't get enough exposure. Most of the slave movies being made now are all about male characters, which is why I think TBONW's focus on women would be a good change of pace.


They're adapted the Wench novel, too.

I would absolutely LOVE to see The Book of Night Women become a film, but I think Hollywood is too cowardly to show that story. A slave revolt, strong black females, even an interracial love story between slave and slave master. It would challenge audiences, but could be brilliant if it's like the book.


There is a surge of these types of films in recent years. To be honest, there aren't many films about slavery to begin with. There are many more about Nazis/Holocaust/WWII than slavery. I just think that filmmakers are now attempting to be more politically correct. We've seen films about that era before and plenty of them excluded African Americans ( who were an integral part of that Era). Maybe because of the subject matter, IDK. Now filmmakers are attempting to be more politically correct. You can's have a film about Whites during that time (particularly in the South) without featuring " a slave or two". The film would be seen as unrealistic. So now they add "a slave or two" to make it a politically correct.


I'll admit, it did feel as though there were an abundance of slavery era films as of late, and even though it may not be true as the post below states, it still rubbed me the wrong way. This is because of the narratives being told here. Yes, there are sooo many stories not being told, and that is the main problem. If there were more black writers, directors, producers involved, there would be more justice done to these stories and more diversity and less revisionist history. And maybe once upon a time these roles opened up doors, but today it just reenforces that black people have to be in roles *in hollywood* that are explicitly about being black, and every issue they discuss has to be about their blackness more than character development. Just started watching Happy Endings as a current example, and while talking about the black experience/issues is necessary and not talked about nearly enough, it doesn't sit right when everyone else is talking about, well, everything else and non-black writers seem to have a hard time understanding that or worse, portraying that.


OH LORD AND FEET… DON'T FAIL ME NOW! Here comes the evil boogieman, slave catcher and the S-word. Please get me to the other side of the mountain because here comes another *cough*-SLAVERY-*cough* film! Listen y'all, every time I read one of these posts on the alleged evils of films centered on the Civil War & Slavery, I am going to continue to say "The devil is only in the details. But I am satisfied that DAVID FISKE got the memo. I knew he was looking at this issue with an open mind, when he said these words–> "there are wonderful stories from the slavery era about free (or freed) blacks who worked hard as anti-slavery activists (at great risk to themselves), and these stories are remaining untold". And where is Charles Judson when I need him? I remember a post in which he listed the number of films that were produced each year. So in reference to "balance", I know he can dispel the myth that we are being inundated with an over-balance of films on slavery and the Civil War. If my memory serves me well, I believe he said over 150,000 (ONE HUNDRED FIFTY THOUSAND Y'ALL!) movies are produced each year – so y'all do the math. Hell, if it wasn't for the details of a slavery and Civil War story that I am familiar with, you guys wouldn't be reading this post because it's highly possible I wouldn't be here. And, it's highly possible that Red Foxx would have never appeared in Sanford and Son. Short story and short details: My grandfather was a slave who wanted his freedom (yeah, I've said this before, sue me)… he fought for his freedom in the Civil War. Now stop the story. He could have stayed on that plantation, but the details continue. While serving his country he met a black woman up north where he was stationed. Had there not been a Civil War he probably would have remained on that plantation as the slave who cared for the farm animals, and thus, not met his wife and they not have children. But the details continue. One of their offspring had 12 children, one being the man who played "Kingfish" in the Amos & Andy television series. Wait… should I stop this story or give the rest of the DETAILS – of THIS story? I'll continue. Red Foxx, Bill Cosby and many other prominent black entertainers said they were inspired by the actors in that series, and "we" owe them a debt of gratitude for knocking down barriers. After Amos & Andy was taken off the air, the next black cast sitcom was – you guessed it – Sanford & Son. There you go y'all, a slave story of triumph, perseverance and inspiration. So stop bitchin' and moanin' every damn time the words "slave"/slavery and Civil War appears. Look at the facts and all the details.


Interesting what you posit, Tambay but celebratory I don't see it. Remember back in the 70s/early 80s there were a number of books written by various authors (Kyle Onstott, Lance Horner, Ashley Carter, et al) that dealt with "the Old South"??? These books spurned films like "Mandingo" and "Drum". Why the influx then of sentimental historical tales of life betwixt black and white in the southern U S of A? Why did those books flourish even before they were adapted to film? For YT to re-live the glorious days of yore? I don't know. It's a possible thesis topic I’ve pondered for a while. Was Hollywood being apologetic or just in creating those works in the 70s and 80s for the masses? Were those films to appease us or to satisfy a corner of historical features that should be made? Maybe the surge with slavery tales now has to do with wanting to do them better than in the past. Maybe the stories to be told now will contain in them a different viewpoint or nuance of character that wasn’t in place before in those older flicks? Or maybe this is how Hollywood interprets American History in what is or was our “best of times and worst of times” much in the same way historical France might make one think of King Louis and Marie Antoinette, or historical England and the Tudors, or historical Ireland and its potato famine and IRA, or historical Russia and the Romanov dynasty, etc. Maybe it’s a bankable historical era that will sell and hence the re-occurrence of flicks timed in that era of our history. I don’t know. Just my ramblings here.


One of the problems with all these slavery movies is the white person is always the saviour and helps the black person. During slavery there were white abolitionists everyone knows that.
I notice a lot of these movies about slavery usually have a black male as the protagonist or one of the main central characters. Why doesn't Hollywood make a slave movie from a black woman's perspective? I think the last movie I saw about a black woman's perspective about slavery was the tv movie Queen with Halle Berry in the lead back in the 1990s.
However, there were courageous black people such as Harriett Tubman, Frederick Douglas, and Harriett Jacobs the author of the book incidents in the life of a slave girl. Incidents of a slave girl was one of the first books written by a black woman about how race, gender, and sexuality conflate during the time of slavery.

Yes the contributions of African Americans to end slavery in the United States often doesn't get told from their point of view. I would love to see a film adaptation of the book Incidents in the life of a slave girl it was one of the first books written by a former black female slave. Incidents of a slave girl explored the difficulties black women encountered during slavery such as trying to protect themselves from being raped by the slave master, dealing with jealous wives of the slave master, trying to get their children manumitted to freedom.

David Fiske

What I think is unfortunate is that there are wonderful stories from the slavery era about free (or freed) blacks who worked hard as anti-slavery activists (at great risk to themselves), and these stories are remaining untold cinematically. Frederick Douglass is the most well-known of these, but there were plenty of others: David Ruggles, James W. C. Pennington, William Still, Stephen F. Myers, Tabbs Gross (and those are just the ones off the top of my head). I've researched Twelve Years a Slave's Northup, and his life did not end with the restoration of his freedom: he lectured widely and later worked on the underground railroad. The story of the underground railroad that I learned growing up was that kindly white people ran it to help the helpless fugitve blacks. That does not reflect reality: probably half of those helping fugitives were either free blacks or former fugitive slaves. Why can't Hollywood portray one of these black heroes?


It is curious as to why people like Steven Spielberg, say, continue to make such movies. He has one or two adopted black children, yet, aside from Amistad and I guess The Color Purple, he seems oblivious to the fact that, maybe, his kids might want to see a contemporary representation of black life? Call Me Crazy! As for Tarentino, he's just stupidly naive and wants to be down with blacks — or thinks he is down with them. Either way, clearly white Hollywood executives are more interested in living in the past, as opposed to dealing with the present and future of race relations in this country — at least on the big screen.


Where's Spike Lee? , where's Denzil Washington? where's the Hughes brothers? where's F.Gary Gray? where's Prince? where's Ice Cube? where's P.Diddy;-), where's Jay(fu@#@)-Z? oh where oh where can they be?


If filmmakers want to acknowledge or celebrate the 150th anniversary of the end of slavery, then why not produce a documentary like the BBC's "Racisim: A History" which aired in 2007 (the 200th anniversary of the British abolition of slavery)? Artistic re-imagining or retelling of slave stories helps to romanticize the myths about slavery – it doesn't challenge us to look at the lasting effects of slavery like structural racism which exists today. Even the bio-pics are problematic b/c they tell "the same story." I think a "Racism" type doc series on network tv, Mon – Fri, would be great. I'm aware that there is a PBS series called "Slavery in the Making of American" that aired back in 2004. And then…. there was Roots back in 1977. I'm just saying that there should be a better way to celebrate emancipation other than "Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter."

D.C. Kirkwood

It's just been announced the Kasi Lemmons is directing a movie that focuses on a Apartheid story, about a white couple who owned and mistreated a black african girl who was their maid/slash slave. The girl was sexually abused and mistreated which is a recurring theme going on in Hollywood as well. Precious was enough for me. She says she excited about the project so what can you do? There needs to be more balance it the type of films and characters we are depicted in. In summary, people comment all the time how roles are scarce for African Americans. It's embarrassing to admit but maybe they believe slave, butler, maid, type movies will provide alot of roles for black actors. It is what it is. It bothers me when you have so called veteran black actors taking these roles. I can see some of the new and upcoming talent taking slave roles to get their foot in the door, but when people like Cuba and Forest Whitaker take these roles I just have a blank stare.


My family acknowledges the signing of the Emacipation Proclamation as part of our New Years celebration. But I don't know of many other African American families that do. I wonder why?


I am confused, some body explain who is the audience for these films. And there seems to be a strong amount going into production. That takes money and a lot of agreements. I don't get it!


Chile, please. :)


The pessimist in me thinks this has to do with Hollywood not caring to show black people in any other character but a slave or a maid or something else condescending. But I don't really care because I think more and more black producers, writers, and directors are getting their own content out there, and they sure as hell are not focusing on slavery.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *