African Slavery: The New Hollywood Renaissance

William Covington | 11/14/2013, midnight
With the recent release of “12 Years A Slave” and “Django Unchained” and numerous slave genre movies awaiting release, it ...

With the recent release of “12 Years A Slave” and “Django Unchained” and numerous slave genre movies awaiting release, it appears the slavery motif is possibly generating a new African American Renaissance in Hollywood.

According to Pasadena screenwriter Herman James, “Hollywood doesn’t care about educating the nation on the institution that built this country. They are taking the pulse and following the money.

Movies about slavery have become a niche genre that has a strong possibility of making money, and James says this has nothing to do with a Black president in the White House or the fact that the Civil War took place 150 years ago. Instead, he thinks the proliferation may be attributed to the fact that recently Hollywood discovered that movies about slavery and plantations are profitable. “They are the new race movies. However, if they flop they will vanish as easy as they have become big-screen entertainment.”

The race movies that James refers to are early movies produced between 1915 and 1950 for Black audiences.

Although James believes “Django” is a race movie, writer and critic Ishmael Reed thinks just the opposite due to the involvement of the Weinstein Company and the presence of actors Leonardo DiCaprio and German-Austrian actor Christoph Waltz. However, James may be correct because he thinks these movies will primarily be of interest to Blacks. A number of African American-slave themed movies are in production or have been recently released (some direct to video) since “Django Unchained” and “12 Years A Slave.” The following movies are reintroducing the saga of slavery to the big screen.

“Something Whispered” features Cuba Gooding Jr., who plays a tobacco plantation slave in the 1850s struggling to free his family from institutionalized slavery. The story follows the family as they attempt to make their way north to Canada using the legendary Underground Railroad system while they are pursued by hired slave hunters. It was finished in 2013 and was in post production.

In “The North Star,” the character Big Ben escapes a southern plantation and makes his way north to freedom by following the North Star. He ends up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where he is helped by local Quakers who are part of the Underground Railroad, a system of hiding places and trails for those escaping the horrors of slavery. This movie is currently in post production.

“Belle” is inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mabatha-Raw), the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral. Raised by her aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson), Belle’s lineage affords her certain privileges, yet the color of her skin prevents her from fully participating in the traditions of her social standing. Expected to be released in 2014.

In “The Keeping Room,” three Southern women—two sisters and one African American slave—left without men in the dying days of the Civil War, are forced to defend their home from the onslaught of a band of soldiers who have broken off from the fast-approaching Union Army. It is scheduled for release in 2014.