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 ...

“The Retrieval,” set in 1864 in the midst of the Civil War, centers on young teenage Will (Ashton Sanders), who along with his uncle Marcus (Keston John) works for a gang of bounty hunters led by the character Burrell (Bill Oberst Jr.), recapturing runaway slaves and tracking down wanted criminals. It was screened at the South By Southwest Film Festival this year.

The movie “12 Years A Slave” is based on a slave narrative by Solomon Northup. In an interview with Our Weekly, Harvard University professor and author Annette Gordon-Reed, who wrote “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy” and “The Hemings of Monticello: An American Family,” talks as about how some historians have issues with the slave narratives being used as items of historical evidence.

“There are a few movies (coming down the pipeline) based on slave interviews conducted by the Works Project Administration (WPA). A common complaint historians voice is the fact that during the (WPA) project, which took place in the 1930s, all the interviewees (adult slaves) were children during their lives as slaves, and a number of them painted almost benign descriptions of the institution of slavery because of their age. Historians fear that often adult individuals will suffer from memory suppression when attempting to recall the childhood experience of being a slave. Another issue is the (question of whether) former child slaves attempted to please his or her White interviewer, or were they just reminiscing about a childhood they experienced through the innocent eyes of children, not really understanding the heavy burdens that their parents had endured,” said Gordon-Reed.

The Harvard professor adds, “Historians also believe that White abolitionists, who were directly involved with transcribing and collecting information for the narratives, had a hidden agenda to destroy slavery as opposed to recording it by highlighting the more inhumane aspects of the institution.

“The usual tragedies of 19th century slavery are clearly evident—whippings resulting in split skin; the splitting up of families resulting in heartache; and the rape of African American female slaves.”

As a result, the argument continues, the narratives consist of literary convention in which all of these events are classic examples of what is expected when dealing with the past. Consequently this raises questions about the veracity of the stories.

Gordon-Reed goes on, “This seems a rather odd complaint, given that we know from other sources that whippings, separation of families, and sexual abuse were endemic to the institution. It would be more incredible, quite frankly, if Solomon Northup had spent 12 years on a slave plantation in Louisiana without encountering all of these things.”

When both movies are compared, of course “12 Years A Slave” has more historical significance. The only fictional element found in the entire movie was a scene depicting a southern U.S.-bound ship where one of the slave traders murdered one of the slaves being smuggled out of Washington, D.C., with Northup. The incident was not mentioned in Northup’s narrative.

In “Django Unchained,” there are several characters or scenes you might immediately try to dismiss as fiction, but when researching certain aspects of the movie, historic significance is actually found in some of the following scenes or characters: