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.
“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:
Dr. King Schultz is the German bounty hunter who buys the freedom of Django, and trains him to be a bounty hunter. Some might think the character being of German heritage is ludicrous or taking way too much license, however many German Americans were against secession and served as abolitionists.
They viewed the secessionists the same way they would Germans involved with military coups in their home country in 1848. Germans also formed their own abolition society according to Cornelius Schnauber, emeritus associate professor of German Studies at USC.
The destruction of the fictional Candyland plantation by Django also appears to be a complete fantasy that was simply not the experience of the people who actually lived and died under slavery.
Enslaved Africans typically did not get to break their chains, kill the slavers, torch the plantations and ride off into the sunset.
There were a few exceptions—In 1836, during the Second Seminole War, more than 385 plantation slaves allied with the Black Seminoles, rose up in rebellion, murdering their captors and burning 21 Florida sugar plantations to the ground. According to the book “Black Seminoles” by J.B. Bird, the Black Seminoles were called Maroons. They were escaped African slaves and freemen living in the wilderness, who formed bi-racial alliances with the Seminole Indians, intermarrying and exchanging cultural traditions.
In “Django Unchained,” a dog scene appeared to be the most unbelievable and graphic incident of the entire movie according to researchers. In this scene, Monsieur Calvin J. Candie releases his canines, vicious animals called Dogo Cubanos, on a runaway slave who is torn to shreds and eaten alive. This breed of dog, believed to have originated from the English Bull Mastiff type, was very popular in Cuba. It was eventually used by American slavers in dealing with runaway African Slaves.
The usage of the dogs also became an experimental component of the French Army. Used against the Haitians during the slave uprising in Haiti, the dog’s average weight was 300 pounds, and they were imported to the Southern United States for the sole purpose of hunting runaway slaves.
Author and dog aficionado Hilary Harmar describes the Dogo Cubano in her “Bloodhound History” book as “extremely ferocious and savage creatures” with small ears, a pointed muzzle and very little connection to the true Bloodhounds.
This type of behavior, devouring human flesh was first recorded by 19th century Haitian historians Thomas Madiou and Beaubrun Ardouin, who collected oral histories from Haitian veterans of the Haitian Revolution against the French. Madiou and Ardouin recorded the following observation: A Black prisoner (former slave) was dragged into the arena and tied to a pole. Teams of dogs next made their entry, and although maddened by hunger and the public’s clamor, they could not understand what was expected of them and stood motionless. It took some prodding by their drivers and, according to Ardouin and Madiou, a French soldier began cutting open the African slave’s stomach. Then the dogs began smell the scent of blood. Suddenly, in a whirl of red dust, they devoured their hapless prey to the roar of the crowd and the blare of military music. The execution lasted but a few minutes.
The first published source describing the use of killer dogs against African slaves is Marcus Rainsford’s “A Historical Account of the Black Empire of Haiti (1805).” He wrote that the dogs would be locked in a kennel without food during the training period. A few feet away stood a wicker doll, filled with odorous animal innards, representing a Black rebel. After being starved for a few days, the dogs were unleashed and ravenously ate the entrails. This taught the animals to associate Blacks with food in a kind of Pavlovian reflex. They would then be released into the woods, where they attacked and devoured any Black person they found, including infants.
The slave chasing “Bloodhound was not present in the movie “12 Years A Slave,” however pursuing hounds were a concern of Northup, when he thought of running away as described in the following excerpt from his autobiography.
“For 30 or 40 miles, it is without habitants, save wild beasts–the bear, the wild-cat, the tiger, and great slimy reptiles that are crawling through it everywhere. I staggered on, fearing every instant I should feel the dreadful sting of the moccasin, or be crushed within the jaws of some disturbed alligator. The dread of them now almost equaled the fear of the pursuing hounds [“Twelve Years A Slave,” edited by Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon (1968), 103-104].”
Northup felt that the wild creatures did not frighten him as much as the possibility of the pursuing hounds. Such fears were not simply abolitionist propaganda; many former slaves interviewed in the 1930s reiterated the fact that, despite the large number of wild animals hiding in the night outside plantations, it was the slavers use of trained dogs that appears to have most concerned a slave contemplating a run for freedom.
It is difficult to gauge the impact of both movies on the public so far, but they appear to have provided ammunition for film critics as well as activists much like the 12-hour mini series “Roots,” which generated thousands of newspaper and magazine articles as well as many academic studies. Only time will tell whether Hollywood’s new interest in slavery will produce any social good or just bucks for Hollywood.