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 (Secretariat, We 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 Powell, Michael Rapaport, Lynn Whitfield , Michael Jai White, Keith 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.