AT THE MOVIES: Hollywood and Slavery


I AM EAGERLY awaiting the release of “Twelve Years A Slave” (things take long to reach over here in the UK) for many reasons: it comes with enormous pre-Oscar buzz; I’ve always admired the work of Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Inside Man”, “Love Actually”, “Dirty Pretty Things” etc. and who actually was ‘discovered’ by Spielberg and cast in that director’s first slavery themed movie – “Amistad”); Steve McQueen is one of the outstanding young British directors who made big news with “Shame” two years ago; and I admire Brad Pitt for having the drive to get the movie produced.

2012/13 were clearly big years for Hollywood. They were the years Hollywood discovered that slavery existed. In 2012, Spielberg in “Lincoln” ennobled a President for ending it (hooray for the White guys); Tarantino pulled off a miracle by exploiting the grammar of Blaxploitation movies without trivializing the subject, to conjure up a slave hero (the kind that can only exist in a Hollywood imagination), and now in 2013, a British director along with an Irishman (Michael Fassbender) and an Anglo Nigerian (Ejiofor) have come together to offer a story about American slavery.

But unlike “Lincoln” with revenues of $270M and “Django Unchained” with revenues of $425M, even the big name of Brad Pitt, and the enormous critical acclaim of “Twelve Years a Slave” haven’t been enough to get people into the cinemas (In the US, it pulled in a meager $38M… which was probably about the size of at Tarantino’s catering budget…but at least $3M more than “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”).

Hollywood has never shown much interest in slavery. Which is extraordinary: since slavery underscores so fundamentally the foundation of Southern wealth and the very nature of US race relations, you’d think there’d be more grist for the artistic imagination there.

But these three films are a recent cultural high point. Even if you went back twenty years, the number of slavery related movies up to 2012 is all of five! (Compare this with something Hollywood is much more interested in: money. In the last twenty years, there have been 19 movies about banking and Wall Street. Hollywood is, understandably, inextricably enmeshed with and deeply fascinated by money-makers and money– how it’s made, gambled, stolen and adored.)

And if Hollywood’s output is a cultural barometer, what does this say about the US and its relationship with slavery? There are no shortage of films about the conquest of the American West (the Cowboy movie – the Western – has been a staple of Hollywood since the beginning of time); but where are the slaves? It’s as if either there’s been up to now a sort of cultural amnesia about this institution (too dark, too much without heroes), or that Hollywood, unaware of how to mass market and fully monetize movies about the topic (indeed, on African Americans as a whole), has simply shut the door on it.

2014 may see an evolution, and may actually be the year when the nation remembers that slavery existed. ( Indeed, there was a spate of slavery-related movies produced in 2013, such as “Belle”, “Savannah” “Tula” etc, most of which nobody saw and some of which are to be re-released this year)

And yet, even the applauded “Twelve Years A Slave” may itself offer a dubious proposition: It’s a terrible thing for someone to have been kidnapped and sold into slavery FOR TWELVE YEARS. But it’s important to remember that for most slaves, this wasn’t a twelve-year punishment: it was a punishment for life.

By the time slavery ended in the US, via the thirteenth amendment in 1865 (30 years after British Emancipation), there were four million slaves suffering under the lash. From the day the first nineteen landed in Jamestown in 1619, those freed (like Tarantino’s Django) were the exception rather than the rule. Let’s look forward to “Twelve Years…” as a major contribution to the topic and not a Hollywood cop-out.


2 thoughts on “AT THE MOVIES: Hollywood and Slavery

  1. Like you, I am looking forward eagerly to this film. Amazing that it has taken a British director to make such a movie.
    I recall the television series “Roots” and the impact that it made. It would be a good time to reshow it.
    Meanwhile i suppose that we should welcome films that have addressed contemporary discrimination on the bias of colour such as “The Help” and “The Butler” even if both had their flaws.


    • Lee Johnson says:

      I agree… especially interesting is McQueen’s comment on the feelings of shame associated with slavery by Blacks; may account for its cinematic invisibility at a time when there are more mainstream Black directors than ever before… and truth be told, I suspect they simply can’t find the financing


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