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Is There An Audience For A Serious Film About Slavery?

Is There An Audience For A Serious Film About Slavery?

Hmmmm…Let me think about this for a minute…NO

I’ve been waiting to get to this since I knew we were going to post the item below about a reader’s take on 12 Years A Slave and the reaction it got from black members of the audience.

I’ve been waiting since I wrote a piece over a year and half ago (I’m always ahead of the curve) about whether a serious, realistic film about slavery could attract a huge audience and be a success at the box office, and how I felt that was basically an impossible task.

The reaction I got from most people agreed with me so I decided to repost that piece but with some major additions Such as, of course,  Django Unchained.

Some of you will say, but look at Django and how phenomenally well that film did, and is still doing, at the box office all over the world, so films about slavery can attract an audience

True, except that Django, which I absolutely loved and does deal with aspects of slavery, one could argue, is not really a film about slavery, but is really a commercial revenge action western.

It’s a fantasy, as are most Hollywood films, of what one wishes could have happened. It is the complete opposite of the reality of slavery. As one S & A commenter in my original slavery film article said about Django: “… blacks would get all over that. Nobody wants to see the hardships, the degradation, the exploitation, the raping, the lynching, the maiming, the beating, the powerlessness, the hopelessness unless there’s a huge dose of comeuppance,” which is what exactly happens in the film.

And no doubt 12 Years is going to be far from that.

Now, of course, there have been a few serious 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), Barbara Allen’s dramatic short Morning Due  and… oh yes, there’s my favorite guiltiest of all guilty pleasures, Mandingo, which I’ve been meaning to write about and I will another day, and which was a big b.o. success in its day.

But no doubt the taboo of forbidden, lurid sex between massa’ wife with her slave Mead played a lot into the success of that film. And for this piece, I don’t include Halle Gerima’s Sankofa on the list because it dealt with slavery in the West Indies, and I want to concentrate instead on films about slavery in the USA.

However, the reason why a serious film on the subject is going to have a tough time is because we, even in this day and age, still have way too much psychological and emotional pain and mental baggage, associated with slavery.

The psychic 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?

It reminds me of years ago 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 about black genocide? (Aside from the fact that it was a badly-made and written film, with a cowardly so-called hero who cuts out on his own people right before the slaughter begins. No Django here).

It’s no surprise 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, just to name a few, 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, he worked Gibson’s land “willingly” – you know, out of the 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, friendly neighbors being all neighborly.

Of course I can hear some asking, 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 particularly brutal winter that year across the country, when everyone stayed home, and this was before cable TV, computers, and video games. It didn’t take a lot to attract a huge audience back then.

And many black historians and scholars attacked the show afterward, pointing out its glaring inaccuracies and criticizing it for being basically just another Horacio Alger story of a poor guy eventually succeeding through 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 for what 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 and that black people are so forgiving. Something that Django once again had NO problems with.

So I still stand my belief that there’s no way that a serious and honest film on American slavery with all its brutal ugliness can be a success and that’s the bottom line isn’t it?  It always comes down to the box office.

And to all those people who argue for serious films about slavery, I agree with you. But then again, what is the point of demanding something that the mass public is afraid of, and doesn’t want to face? It all goes back to my “castor oil” movie argument that so many black films fall into. Those serious important movies that are good for you but hard to take down. People keep demanding that “we must go and support these films to send Hollywood a message” and of course we NEVER do.

As I always say, people go see a film, because they WANT to, not because they’re OBLIGATED to, and that’s not going to change

Who wants to finance a film that’s going to bomb at the box office? That’s the main reason why 12 Years hedges its bets by having box office stars like Brad Pitt (whose production company Plan B co-financed and co-produced the film) in the film. Yes Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays in the lead of Solomon Northup in 12 Years, is a fine actor, but he’s not going to pull people into the theater on his name alone.

And I’m also sure that people will bring up movies about the Holocaust, and say they’re always making films about that, and some have done well, like Schindler’s List, and that’s true. But keep in mind that the Holocaust took place not here, but over there – 2000 miles away in Europe. People can look at that and say to themselves, that was so horrible and “we could never do anything like that here”. Which, of course, is conveniently forgetting about slavery, which goes back to my main point.. It’s all too painful and ugly. Better to ignore it and pretend nothing like that happened over here, where we believe in freedom and democracy

Though I will argue that 12 Years will probably do very well overseas, since films that make America look bad, always seem do well overseas, since they give foreigners a sense of superiority (The film opens in Brazil on Sept 6th and in Europe starting in November).

Now, I must say that I want nothing more than to be completely wrong about the success of McQueen’s film. I love both his previous films – Hunger and Shame – and I truly hope that I’m wrong about 12 years. I hope that it’s a hit at the box office and that audiences will come out to see the film and the gain something from it.

But I doubt it.

Then again, if you disagree and I’m sure some of you do and are just itching to cuss me out (like I say I feed on your hate), please, we would like to hear what you say.

The floor is yours.

This Article is related to: Features



As a young, educated, African American who lives in charleston, the beginning location for American slavery and who has taken many classes on African American History and visited slave plantations here and in Barbados, I still don't understand the point of rehashing the brutality and ugliness of slavery over and over again. We get it. We were beaten, raped, extorted, tricked, dehumanized. There's a million slave stories of triumph, failure, love, loss and everything in between. You cannot expect anyone black nor white nor any ethnicity to want to continuosly be reminded of the atrocities that took place. It serves no purpose in my eyes. It's already happened and there's nothing we can do to change that. However I can understand movies that cleverly, entertainingly and interestingly document the modern day plight of the Afro American struggle here in the U.S and how we are still considered inequal, less capable and less worthy than caucasians. Now this is a relevant topic and starter of discussion that would be more useful in "healing" the "wounds" and "psychological damage" that was placed upon us. Racism, classism, colorism are issues that still exists in our society today. Enough with the gorey images of lynching and whipping. It serves no purpose. We've seen it a thousands times, we get it. On to the issues that really matter.


Is There An Audience For A Serious Film About Slavery?

Without question, the obvious and right answer is YES THERE IS. However, the begging question is, who are the faces in that crowd and why are they there? Well, when I look at the faces of any black "themed" movie with a predominately black cast and directed by a black man, something is glaringly obvious to me. By golly, for the most part, the pigment in those faces are absent of color.

So Sergio, although you've made a very compelling argument, I couldn't disagree more with its premise. I don't believe the "problem" is remotely connected to "us" still having way too much psychological and emotional pain and mental baggage, associated with slavery. Nor does it have anything to do with "us" and "them" having psychic wounds that are still too fresh and too raw.

Now look at what you said: "As I always say, people go see a film, because they WANT to, not because they're OBLIGATED to, and that’s not going to change". Well hell, in reference to white folks, why would they want to see a movie such as "Twelve Years" with its black cast, black director and slavery theme? Since I am not a psychologist who spends my time psychoanalyzing the ways of white folks, it does not behoove me to come up with an answer to that question. All I know is the facts. THEY ( the overwhelming majority of white people) have proven that they DON'T spend their time nor money on movies I've outlined above.

So now that the theater is absent of white faces other than a few "good white folks", we're left with the potential of 40 million black faces busting through the door. UT OH! Should I even broach the subject of the dreaded and ambiguous "average black audience"? Should I… as you defined it, talk about their alleged inability to discharge their pain and suffering, and thus, move forward on a healing path? I mean, if I am not mistaken, we've proven that we are the epitome of those who have endured in spite of our pain, struggles and the history of our past. So again, I vehemently disagree with your assumption that we're not ready to look slavery right in its ugly eye.

I think it all boils down to an individual's need, and taste, in their movie watching experience. For example, I believe it's safe to say I am not in the average movie goer crowd, but I will not go out of my way to see Shame, slasher flicks or movies with a "gay" theme. So am I suppressing some deep dark internal struggles? Am I a prude? Can I not stand the sight of blood? The answer to all those questions is, I don't think so. I — let me repeat that — "I" just cannot find any redeeming qualities from watching those types of movies. They don't hit MY groove zone.

Reece X

I could not more strongly disagree with your statement "probably do very well overseas, since films that make America look bad, always seem do well overseas, since they give foreigners a sense of superiority". What a horrible ill informed thing to say! I'm a Londoner and I will say this about British and European cinema taste…It's way more grown up then American cinema taste. In the way that our film selection is WAY more vast then you have on any given weekend and we want to be challenged by what we see on the screen. This business about making America look bad is bullocks because America does a fine job of that on it's own. I love Shadow and Act and read it often.

David Fiske

Wouldn't be surprised if Sergio ends up being right on this, though I hope 12 Years will manage to break through the "serious slavery movie" barrier (it has that potential, with a clever and manipulative black protagonist who is able to survive on his own until a white savior rescues him from slavery–thereby offering something for all viewers). Consider that, even with McQueen and John Ridley's involvement, the high quality of the acting talent, and Pitt's sponsorship, the project garnered a mere $20 million in financing. Not exactly a vote of confidence on the part of those with the deep pockets, who expect to more than make their money back.


Are we sure that studios always know that they will make their money back? I do not think so. So why not taking the risk of making a film about slavery. The French film about Toussaint Louverture took years to be made however it is out there and as far as I know even the Chinese would like to see it and pay for it. If we remain with this insular perspective regarding the stories of the human experience of slave descendants in the Americas we will turn into very dehumanized individuals not capable of understanding much of the value of suffering and pain. The wealth in our communities is solid enough to accept the risk of making a film of that nature. The City of New York has a new theater that is mission driven. What is the mission? Showing films about the Human Experience of People of Color. The MIST THEATER opened its doors in Harlem so we already have the venue.


Not sure the purpose of this rant/article. Django was one of the worst movies ever made, but that is what Hollywood has reduced the institution of slavery to a fictional western. But can you really blame them? The issue at hand is not whether or not there is an audience for this subject the issue really is there an audience educated enough to comprehend the subject matter being presented. Hollywood's business is to present watered down glossed over fiction for profit. It is no different than the music industry. It is a business. It is not designed to inform or educate and to rely on a system to educate either yourself or society is irresponsible. A serious movie presented would be accepted and supported. The question Sergio should have posed is who is going to make it?

Mark and Darla

Slavery movie told to real is just too harsh for me to look it.


This post tell more about your DEARTH of American History, knowledge, educational system and Media. You FAIL to ask Questions. You failed to see the PROGRAMMING of the Media, the Governmental institutions which REFUSE to address the Fierce Brutality of WHITENESS.

WHITENESS is in charge. Whiteness control the Agenda. It is Whiteness that says "that was so long ago, things have changed" They have not.

Black Americans cannot stand looking at Africa because Africa reminds them of SLAVERY and they are Glad they are NOT African.

That too is an American Construction. You see, America like to show Africa, in all its blightedness. So Black Americans get grateful. Then tell Africans to stay away from African Americans.

Then again, you are apparently TOO INCOMPETENT to see how the game is played.

go on Youtube and see the conscious Blacks.


I agree 100% with Sergio. Nobody wants to see or be reminded of the pain & humiliation of slavery, unless there is some serious payback coming (like Django). Make a film about Nat Turner,(even though he got caught) Toussaint, or any "alternate history" where Black folk get to whoop ol Massa's ass and we'll support it big time.


1) i'm reminded of something i once heard about ella fitzgerald and other blk entertainers of her era: when asked to talk about how they were treated when they toured the south, they would fall silent and refuse to talk about it.
2) i can't quite figure out if "rick" (elsewhere in this thread, who calls himself "white") is simply lacking in empathy, a racist or an anti-semite or some configuration of all three.
3) i wonder if a "realistic" depiction of slavery is hampered by the lack of a "happy ending". a toussaint l'ouverture movie has been percolating (yeah it was haiti, but stay with me), but no one will finance it, perhaps precisely BECAUSE it has a victorious resolution. likewise, a movie about a more or less successful slave rebellion (were there any?) might meet a similar resistance from the moneymen (ie, more of the jew problem, rick?). which leads me to LINCOLN, which MIGHT have been a movie about slavery with a happy ending but WASN'T for many reasons, not least of which being it's near absence of blk people. which, in turn, leads me to FREDERICK DOUGLAS, HARRIET TUBMAN or any number of similar historical figures whose stories could serve as models for a realistic movie about slavery with ALL it's horrors fully on display yet provides the uplift that redeems all/some of that suffering (at least on the part of the audience). maybe 12 YEARS will do something similar. i certainly intend to see for myself (note: i admire mcqueen, but i wouldn't call myself a fan.)
4) finally, i DID NOT love django: too jokey, too cartoony and the story of a blk man seeking his wife/revenge was too peripheral to what seemed like the more central story of a wht man growing a conscience. perhaps it wouldn't be anymore realistic, but i, for one, would love to see the film django purports to be, but isn't: THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY with an angry blk guy as "blondie".


Shame's box office = $4,002,293. Hunger's box office = $154,084. 12 Years a Slave's box office, who knows? Somewhere thereabouts or maybe the foreign box office will do Life of Pi numbers. 12 Years a Slave may prove more than some are able to handle, as Shame and Hunger were more than some can handle. Not everyone can handle McQueen. The emotional stress of viewing psychological torture (not the cartoon, hipster, cool kind of torture with a rap/rock soundtrack) is difficult for the normal or average viewer. I had difficulty with Sankofa, Beloved, and The Passion of the Christ. Maybe some other movies that I watched once and promised myself never again. Real life is hard. Movies are sometimes a means of escape from real life–hence, Jumping the Broom, Soul Plane, Think Like a Man. However, the historical value of 12 Years a Slave cannot be underestimated. I cannot think of another major movie released based upon a narrative written by an African-American slave held in North America, with a script written by an African-American, starring a Nigerian-Brit as the true and unmistakable lead, and directed by an Afro-Brit of Caribbean descent. It's fascinating to consider in the abstract and for those who can handle a true story, likely fascinating to watch. Solomon Northrup's book is a great read for those who wish to face the truth of North American antebellum society and culture and economics. 12 Years a Slave has the same historical value as The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. So I would say that fans of these autobiographies; fans of history; and fans of McQueen, Ejiofer, and Fassbender will find themselves in the audience for 12 Years a Slave. Will there be slave dolls and video games and graphic novels based upon this movie? Who knows?


I've read the script and it is incredible – I cannot wait to see this film.
It is based on the actual circumstances of a prosperous free man abducted into slavery.
The story also puts into perspective that the average white slave owner wasn't an aristocrat living at Monticello, Mount Vernon, or even Tara for that matter, but an uneducated farmer dependent upon forced labor and that there have always been educated accomplished blacks even at the height of slavery. It is important that the true stories
finally be told and woven into our understanding of the United States. Django is entertaining but not much more.

evie mazzone

Funny u should mention that. I, a black female writer have written a screenplay about our past connecting it to our present from a black woman's point of view. The white men who read it liked it. Of course the two black women one ancestor one 140's later decendant a love story not all confederates were assholes. It will get made eventually. Takes place in mountains of west virginia end of civil war. MISCEGENATION.


I was sent a copy of the film "The City of Death" by a friend a few years back.
(about 1937' Rape of Nanking' by the Japanese)
Watched it one time and never intend to ever watch it again, loan it our or recommend it to anyone.No happy ending..or cartoon because there was none…

And I'm NOT Chinese and it "only covers" an occupation not over 400 years of inhuman brutality.

Slavery was a hellish experience from birth to death…born into it..die in it.

unless a film is focusing on an escape or uprising, then it's just covering 24/7 lifelong hell if it's going to be an honest film.

I had a hard time watching fact based film about people that I don't identify with, so I'd probably not make it through a similarly honest film about the slave trade.

*Schindler's List was a "Gentile/Goyim Savior film"….otherwise it wouldn't have allegedly made so much money. Mainstream audience was only able to sit through the brutality because they identified with the "Good white, in this case Good German character" and the film ultimately was about those that were able to escape

Dankwa Brooks

What Sergio said in the first sentence.


First let me say that I'm white. I was surprised to see this on the home page of indiewire and gotta say that if this is true of black moviegoers then that's very sad of black moviegoers. It reflects very poorly on black people that you can't embrace your own true history. While you're busy trying to avoid it the Jews who run Hollywood and Wall Street are making sure that we never forget about the holocaust. Don't matter one bit whether it happened here or there. They're owning their history and making sure everybody remembers. So keep on being a bunch of punks black people and ignoring your history. Eventually nobody'll remember slavery but I guarantee you we'll always remember the Holocaust.


I can't account for others and won't try to, but I will go and see the film.


If you can have a Schindler's List, you can have a movie about slavery.


Come on Medea…NeNe… yaw..let's jump on this Broom and go make us Soul Plane 2 and use Congo Square[New Orleans] or Drum Island [South Carolina Slave Import] as a backdrops and pop us some Orville Redenbacher popcorn and sip on some Jack Daniels, we be alright then;-[

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