by Dexter Gabriel
The recent release of “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained” has sparked renewed dialogue on American slavery, as all such films inevitably do. A full 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery remains a touchy subject for public discussion. When then-candidate Barack Obama dared mention it in his famous 2008 “race speech,” the rarity of the moment sent commentators into spasms of awe. As a nation, we seem unable to negotiate a working language for slavery into our popular discourse. So, naturally, we’ve outsourced the job to Hollywood.
But Hollywood’s depictions of slavery have never been solely grounded in the past; they are just as much about the present. They reveal each era’s memories of slavery, shaped by popular folklore, myths and contemporary constructions around race and national identity. “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained” present us with slaves that are, with few exceptions, voiceless spectators, or caricatures out of old plantation epics—byproducts more of the history of slave films, than of slavery itself.
Early Hollywood depicted an American past filled with loyal, contented slaves, a trend that would continue for decades.
In the silent films “Confederate Spy” (1910) and “For Massa’s Sake” (1911), faithful Uncles spy for the Confederacy, sell themselves back into slavery and sacrifice their lives, literally, “for massa’s sake.” No movie would capture these popular American mythologies like D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation.” In the film, slaves work, dance and sing happily for their masters—until emancipation. Spoiled with freedom, they turn haughty, violent and, worse still, oversexed. Only Mammy and Uncle remain loyal, fighting in defense of their former masters. In the film’s climax, the gallant Ku Klux Klan rides in to put the unruly blacks back in their place.
These early movies had little to do with slavery as it actually existed. Rather they depicted the slavery of Old South nostalgia, the slavery memorialized in minstrel shows and “Lost Cause” folklore that by the early 20th century had become a part of popular Americana. Hollywood helped promote this mythologized past, creating plantation epics filled with doting Mammies, loyal Uncles and happy, docile slaves.
These depictions of slavery were directly related to the times—a reaction to a new generation of African Americans, whose aspirations and assertive attitudes both frightened and enraged whites, leading to black codes, Jim Crow and repressive violence. The content slaves of the screen served as substitutes to the so-called Negro problem, rewriting both history and reality through movie magic.
In films like “The Little Colonel” (1935) and “The Littlest Rebel” (1935), child-star Shirley Temple danced through slavery with Uncle Billy (Bill “Bojangles” Robinson), while Willie Best shuffled his best Sleep ‘n’ Eat. The zenith of the plantation epics, “Gone with the Wind” (1939), promoted all the slave stereotypes of American folklore: the doting Mammy (Hattie McDaniel); the dutiful Uncle Peter (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson); the child-like Prissy (Butterfly McQueen). Black actors managed to humanize these roles (earlier depictions often featured whites in blackface), but could not transcend their limitations.
Hollywood’s turning point came with the social upheavals of the 1960s. As early as 1946, African Americans launched protests against Disney’s “Song of the South,” objecting to its caricature Uncle Remus, fashioned as the kindly Tom. Inspired in part by radical black playwrights, Hollywood created a new slave to meet the times. Movies like “Slaves” (1969), the Blaxploitation epic “The Legend of Nigger Charley” (1972) and “Mandingo” (1975), turned the old plantation epics on their heads, depicting slavery as brutal, the whites as functionally deranged and their chattel property simmering with all the militant (nearly always masculine) anger that set Watts and Detroit to flames. Slavery now mimicked Hollywood caricatures of Black Power, projecting new stereotypes of black manhood into the past. Slave women escaped their Mammy roles only to become sexual props, decorating celluloid plantations in lurid and salacious imagery.
When Blaxploitation died (or more accurately, devoured itself) slavery mostly disappeared from Hollywood. Television took up the slack, with groundbreaking miniseries like “Roots” (1977).
Far removed from the Old South epics and more sophisticated than Blaxploitation, “Roots” managed to humanize slavery more than any previous cinematic portrayal. The world the slaves made, separate and apart from their masters, was in full display. No one mistook Fiddler (Louis Gosset, Jr.) for a Tom, even if he wore that mask from time to time. Mammy disappeared, replaced with more complex roles like Belle (Madge Sinclair) and Kizzy (Leslie Uggams). Kunte Kinte (LeVar Burton and James Amos) became a symbol of black defiance, risking life and limb (literally) to reach freedom. Billed as “An American Saga,” Roots mirrored the attitudes of an emergent black middle class, providing a vision of African Americans as strong, moral, hard working and grounded in traditional family values. Sanitized and homogenized for mass consumption, slavery was no longer America’s original sin—it was just another immigrant story.
Hollywood did not return to slavery in a major feature until “Glory” (1989) and then “Amistad” (1999). In both films, slavery this time is revised to extol American patriotism and memorialize great white men. “Glory” recreates the all-black 54th Massachusetts as slaves (most were actually free black men from the North, even Canada and the West Indies) who are taken from bondage to manhood by their white commanding officer (Matthew Broderick). “Amistad,” ostensibly about a slave mutiny, turns into a courtroom drama where John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) delivers a fictionalized prelude to the Gettysburg Address. Hollywood was again willing to talk about slavery only as long as our perceptions of national pride remained intact.
This time, we’ve been given two films about slavery. The first, “Lincoln,” like its immediate predecessors, manages to make itself almost completely about great white men. Slavery here is a thing, both debated and settled by important white men while blacks await deliverance. Who comes out on top by the film’s end? America, of course.
The second film, “Django Unchained,” tells the story of a freed slave who embarks on a vengeful killing spree to save his wife. A kitschy farce steeped in violence and bravado, it is slavery in the era of the action hero, where black masculinity and swagger alone can overcome any obstacle. While Django (Jamie Foxx) takes his cues from Blaxploitation, his fellow slaves seem throwbacks to the old plantation epics. Dazed and voiceless, they stand around as backdrops to Django’s heroics. The one standout role, the sinister Stephen (Samuel Jackson), recycles “Lost Cause” caricatures of the faithful Tom stitched together with contemporary African-American folklore on so-called house versus field slaves. In this post-racial revision of American history, mythical Uncle Toms and sadistic whites collude to maintain slavery—a clever moral escape-hatch to negate white guilt and guarantee crossover appeal.
None of this should come as a surprise. In surrendering our public discourse on slavery to Hollywood, we’ve rendered it a marketable commodity (“Django Unchained” even comes with action figures) rather than an honest historical exploration.
In each instance, Hollywood alters the past to fit the present, feeding our myths and expectations back to us. Slavery becomes both tool and metaphor, revised and rewritten to fit contemporary perceptions of our national past. If “Birth of a Nation” tells us more about 1915 than Reconstruction, “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained” are mirrors for our times, rather than reflections of the slave experience.
Dexter Gabriel is a doctoral candidate at Stony Brook University. His areas of focus include slavery, emancipation and popular culture in the Black Atlantic.