With "12 Years A Slave" finally receiving its theatrical release this weekend, we thought it might be interesting to point readers in the direction of some other slavery-related narratives. Shadow and Act has been covering the film extensively and Tambay recently posted this interview with Steve McQueen.
Overall, the film is garnering fairly widespread acclaim, with The New Yorker's David Denby even calling it "...easily the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery." Frances Bodomo reviewed the film for Shadow and Act as well, and Leonard Maltin recently wrote about the original, 1984 television adaptation of Solomon Northup's memoir on which McQueen’s film is also based.
I have been a fan of McQueen's work since seeing his initial video projects, and speaking of those, Film.com's Calum Marsh recently took a look back at the director's earlier work in this piece. They're not often covered and it's a good read.
For this particular list I wanted to avoid well-known work like "Roots" or "Amistad" and include lesser-seen, possibly very different, films instead.
Richard Fleischer's film was probably a bigger influence on "Django Unchained" than "12 Years A Slave" due to the focus on “mandingo” slave fighters. Referencing the film in “Quentin Tarantino: Interviews,” the director said “that only one other time in the last twenty years has a major studio made a full-on, gigantic, big-budget exploitation movie." The other was Paul Verhoeven's "Showgirls."
“Mandingo” has always been divisive, with Roger Ebert brutally panning it and Dave Kehr calling it "Fleischer’s last great crime film, in which the role of the faceless killer is played by an entire social system."
It was followed by a sequel, "Drum," in 1976, which is notable mostly for starring Pam Grier and the great Warren Oates (even Yaphet Kotto shows up!), but Fleischer did not direct. He later directed "Ashanti" in 1979, which had a focus on slave-trading, but star Michael Caine isn't too fond of that one so we'll leave it at that.
“Blacksnake” was, more or less, skin flick auteur Russ Meyer’s attempt at the blaxploitation genre. He was coming off a deal with 20th Century Fox that produced “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” (his infamous collaboration with Roger Ebert) and “The Seven Minutes,” an Irving Wallace adaptation. “Blacksnake” saw Meyer back in independent production mode, and he opted with a Caribbean-set slave revolt picture. Last minute replacement Anouska Hempel plays a ruthless, but not particularly intimidating, plantation owner who eventually pushes the native workers too hard. Needless to say, she and a few others learn their lesson the hard way.
It’s not a very easy movie to get ahold of (Anthology Film Archives ran it twice in August during a Meyer retrospective) and is primarily worth seeing if you’re an enthusiast of the director. I found the opening credits sequence stylish and fascinating (again, I bet Tarantino has seen it) and Hempel’s comeuppance is memorably bloody and deserved, but the movie mostly functions as a curiosity.
“Cobra Verde” (1987):
“Cobra Verde” was the last pairing of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, and remains the most underseen of their five collaborations. Based on Bruce Chatwin’s novel, “The Viceroy of Ouidah,” it concerns a bandit who ends up overseeing slaves on a sugar plantation before being pushed into the role of slave-trader due to some particularly self-serving decisions he decides to make. The movie is probably better known for the behind the scenes drama between Kinski and well… everyone, than anything else, but it’s a strong piece of filmmaking. The cinematographer had to be replaced after leaving the film due to Kinski’s antics (Kinski actually died four years after its release), but it contains a typically titanic performance by the mad German and Herzog is as committed to the material as always.
Lars von Trier’s take on slavery sets itself apart from the get-go by setting the action in 1933 on a plantation where slavery somehow still exists. It’s the second in his “Land of Opportunity” trilogy (preceded by “Dogville” and followed by a movie that is yet to be produced) that take place in the US and feature a deliberately artificial style that includes shooting on soundstages. The approach here makes “Manderlay” more interesting as a political statement and parable than as an actual cinematic experience.
It didn’t make as much noise as you might think when it was released (most of its controversy stemmed from John C. Reilly exiting the film when he found out a donkey was going to be slaughtered on set), but I find it hard to imagine a scenario where its ideas don’t provoke a fair amount of conversation. Now, whether or not one agrees that von Trier is the best person to make a movie on the topic of slavery is a different story altogether.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927):
Known for being one of the most expensive films of the silent film era, this adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel is notable because it was the first time to feature a black actor in the role of Uncle Tom. Generally the character would be played by a white actor in blackface, and not only did African-American James B. Lowe play the role, he was also reportedly held in high-esteem at Universal Studios. There have been a number of other film versions of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” including one in 1913 where the screenplay was adapted by Allen Dwan (but not directed by), who was recently the subject of an extensive retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.
There have been various other films about slavery, ranging from D.W. Griffith’s landmark “The Birth of a Nation” to the Fred Williamson starring “The Legend of Nigger Charley” (which spawned two sequels) that the site touched on a while back.