Movies, American Slavery, and the Slave Trade

Between 1500 and the middle of the nineteenth century, some 12.5 million slaves were sent as bonded labor from Africa to the European settlements in the Americas. In his remarkable synthesis, Shaping the New World: African Slavery in the Americas, 1500-1888, Eric Nellis introduces readers to the origins, growth, and consolidation of African slavery in the Americas. In this post—coming in the wake of the Oscars and the airing of the acclaimed new mini-series The Book of Negroes—Nellis walks us through a fascinating history of how slavery and the slave trade have been depicted on the big screen. If you are an instructor tackling these issues in a current or future course, we hope this will provide a useful summary or spark some ideas for classroom discussion. 

Eric Nellis is Emeritus Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of British Columbia and the author of The Long Road to Change: America’s Revolution, 1750-1820 and An Empire of Regions: A Brief History of Colonial British America (2010), both published by University of Toronto Press. 

Over the last few decades American and British commercial movie makers have been busy with the 250 years of Anglo-American and United States slavery. Glory (1989), Amistad (1997), Amazing Grace (2006), Lincoln (2012), Twelve Years a Slave (2013), and Belle (2013) are earnest, audience-friendly, and well-made dramas (replete with “based on a true story/event”). From the whips, chains, and psychological terror in Twelve Years a Slave to the politics of emancipation in Lincoln each ends with an uplifting moment of hope. Each presents slavery from the perspective of the slave who is now the subject of rather than an object in the drama. Each is part of the cinematic legacy of the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s and the last fifty years of revisionist media attention to race, racism, and slavery in American history.

Shaping the New WorldMy major theme in Shaping the New World: African Slavery in the Americas, 1500-1888 is that by the early nineteenth century, African slavery had shaped the future United States and also emphatically the Caribbean and Brazil. The imprint remains deep. Some twenty times more African slaves were imported into Brazil and the Caribbean combined than to North America during the 350 years of the trade. And while historians may desire a wider movie or television lens for slavery in the Americas, we will wait a long time for English language movies about a Martinique plantation, a Brazilian engheno, or two hours set entirely on the slave trade. These will be left to foreign film makers or documentaries. Hollywood is not obliged to be educational but history is always seen from the present and over the last fifty years films dealing with slavery, civil rights, and race generally are in fact reflections of civil rights correctives to the first fifty years of movies dealing with slavery.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Life among the Lowly (1852) was a powerful indictment of slavery. Yet after the Civil War it became theatrical entertainment on stage (“Tom Shows”) and in silent movie versions from 1903 to 1927. Stowe’s melancholy plot, intended to arouse disgust with slavery, ended up drawing pity from the audiences rather than outrage. After all, wasn’t slavery ended in 1865? Sad to say, but the patient and dignified Uncle Tom did become symbolic slang for any accommodating African American male.

One hundred years ago, D.W.Griffith’s spectacular The Birth of a Nation invented cinematic “epic” with innovative production values and directorial panache. It left audiences in 1915 in awe of its scale, from its sets to its battle scenes. It ran for over three hours in an age of 10 minute “one reelers.” The screenplay (drawn in part from Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel The Clansman) argues that freeing millions of slaves fifty years earlier had been a colossal blunder. The pictures of slave docility and loyalty in the pre-war scenes give way to rampaging free blacks and the chaos, rapine, and plunder that follow their new political status. In the end, the purity of Southern women, the honor of Southern men, and Southern civilization itself are saved from vengeful black hordes by the Ku Klux Klan. This was made at the peak of Jim Crow segregation, when the horrific lynching of blacks was running at several dozen a year. The NAACP railed against the film but white audiences loved it. It was the first movie to be shown in the White House and was admired by Woodrow Wilson. It is blatantly racist; many of the black roles are played by white actors in blackface, especially in scenes with white women. It is very much a movie for its time.

Then there is Gone with the Wind (1939). This visually lush plantation saga was a popular and critical success and remains so. At its heart, however, it is not about slavery. Rather, the complex love stories tease and frustrate the leading characters as well as audiences. The flighty, childlike maid Prissy and the loyal slave field foreman Big Sam are among a set of stock slave characterizations. Yet one slave, Mammy, dominates large parts of the movie and Hattie McDaniel’s brilliant and definitive performance is a joy to watch. But when we hear Rhett Butler refer to Prissy as a “simple minded darky” we are in both 1860s and 1930s Georgia. And the freed African Americans’ roles don’t seem to change. Mammy is still Mammy. But McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award. She was introduced on Oscar night with a hopeful note on Hollywood’s commitment to racial fairness, a tenuous wish in 1939. Hattie’s eloquent acceptance, “I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race,” is a masterpiece of restraint. Racism persisted and in 1946 Walt Disney released Song of the South, a syrupy, musical serving of plantation cheeriness. Uncle Remus’s engaging parables are from the old slave days and the anthropomorphic cartoon characters are essentially folksy black stereotypes. It was condemned by the NAACP in 1946 as it “perpetuates a dangerously glorified picture of slavery… an idyllic master-slave relationship.” Disney has still not released it for home video. After Song of the South, American movies and their audiences acquired a more progressive racial temperament and we might reflect here on Sidney Poitier’s best actor Oscar in 1964 and his string of decisive roles that followed, paralleling the rise of the civil rights movement. Civil rights fueled the making of topical movies which in turn, along with television, hastened the movement for reform.

Among the earliest revisionist attacks on slavery stereotypes was a parody. In the largely forgotten Skin Game (1971), the image of the helpless and simple slave is turned on its head when a white entrepreneur (James Garner) and a literate and self-assured free black from New Jersey (Louis Gossett Jr) team up in the ante-bellum South for a comedic confidence trick. Gossett is sold as a slave and Garner arranges his escape so as to continue the scam elsewhere. Gossett’s character shifts beautifully from shrewd business/con man to a shuffling, downbeat, ignorant slave, for the benefit of the new master. The pairing here is an odd precursor to the interracial “buddy” formula that bloomed in the 1980s and beyond where the black and white roles are often race neutral. But if the race specific comedy in Skin Game is flippant, it makes a statement about America’s awful internal slave trade. There is an echo of the “collaboration” theme in the otherwise lurid and violent Django Unchained (2012).

A seminal treatment of slavery appeared on television in 1977 with the mini-series Roots. This media landmark is the story of a slave captured in Africa in the eighteenth century, his life in the plantation culture of the American South, and the creation of a genealogy. Kunta Kinte (based on a real life Gambian slave) personifies the trials and tenacity of the individual slave, the slave family and community. A serious history of American slavery reached into millions of homes each week and a media line was crossed.

Like Roots, the new mini-series The Book of Negroes (2015), from the 2007 novel, begins in Africa but this time with a girl, Aminata Diallo, being sold into slavery. In America, her literacy and midwifery sustain an odyssey that will take her back to Africa. She is instrumental in helping with the removal of 3,000 free pro-British blacks (the documentary basis of the novel) from New York to Nova Scotia after American independence. She returns to her African village, finds the slave trade still thriving, and then is shown persuading the British Parliament to pass the bill ending the slave trade. She is reunited with a lost daughter and the series ends in warmth as she watches the liberated Atlantic from the African shore. The mix of fiction and historical context is effective in carrying the story of redemption and includes one of the better cinematic renderings of the slave trade in Africa, on the Atlantic, and in America itself. Her personal and political travails take viewers through the misery of slavery and the triumph of spirit over deprivation. Despite the fictions and the melodrama this series is wide in its scope and careful in its historical settings (the African role in the African slave trade is an especially useful point). It is a fiction but audiences will approve as they do at the end of Twelve Years a Slave because justice is seen to be done. Film critics will find fault with plot, topic, or directorial affectation and while historians are invariably consulted, other historians and pedants will certainly raise issues about accuracy and evidence, of elision in some cases and embellishment in others.

By now an American audience (a “market”?) exists and there appear to be projects in the works on the brilliant ex-slave Frederick Douglass and the white radical abolitionist John Brown. But Hollywood is not about to do a theatrical film about one of the most spectacular events in the history of slavery, the world-shaking slave-driven Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) and the tragic charismatic revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture because, as I explain in Shaping the New World, the savagery, confusion, and catastrophic aftermath of the uprising does not translate into an uplifting outcome. Nor will Hollywood present audiences with a dramatized version of the Stono Rebellion (South Carolina, 1739) or Nat Turner’s Rebellion (Virginia, 1831), each of which ended in disaster for the rebels and led to harsher, tighter slave regimes. Slave revolts were frequent in colonial America and the Caribbean and endemic to Brazil, and while they demonstrate slave empowerment they end ambiguously or in clear futility and violent reprisal. As for Brazil, there is the remarkable autobiography of the Muslim Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua. He was captured in Africa, enslaved in Brazil, and later escaped to New York and Boston where he converted to Christianity. He went to Canada, then to Haiti, and finally to England hoping to return to Africa in the 1850s. There his trail goes cold. His is a dynamic, exotic individual slave experience on the broadest geographical plane. But his story, like so many others, will fall to documentary filmmakers, their selective audiences, and to college courses in history. American commercial movies and television will continue with optimistic outcomes of Anglo American topics for British and American (and Canadian) audiences. The redemption of Solomon Northup in Twelve Years a Slave is certainly a more gratifying subject than Nat Turner’s failure. Still, audiences might welcome a Hollywood or HBO production of Baquaqua’s story. Meanwhile, I applaud the trend over the last fifty years to engage American audiences in the deep and complex presence of race based slavery in their national history.


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