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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