By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act June 23, 2011 at 10:39AM
Sergio's post earlier today (Can A Serious Film Be Made About American Slavery?), reminded me of an editorial/survey I posted on the old Shadow And Act site, back in the fall of 2009, titled Was Roots Enough? Slavery And The Holocaust In American Movies. I reposted it below, since a lot of you weren't readers of the site at the time, as a companion piece to Sergio's, looking at the matter from a different angle. The title should give you some clues as to what my approach was.
Here ya go:
The "slavery" I'm of course referring to in this case is the transatlantic slave trade, during which primarily African people where shipped from West and Central Africa by Europeans, to the colonies of the then so-called "New World" (North and South America primarily), from the 16th to the 19th centuries, to work as unpaid labor - a Maafa, or holocaust, that led to the deaths of many millions of African men and women, who struggled under imperialism, colonialism, invasion, oppression, dehumanization and exploitation, with residual effects that are still evident today.
But don't call it a holocaust... that word seems apparently reserved for that other holocaust - the mass murder of millions of Jews by the Nazi regime during World War II, which has come to be known unequivocally as THE Holocaust.
Both were undeniably great, great tragedies, and a testament to the malevolence of man. Coincidentally (or maybe not) the word "malevolence" (which I use on purpose) reads almost like male-violence, even though that isn't the true origin of the word.
But I digress...
Was Roots enough? Is it just me, or is there a significant disparity between the number of movies made about, as well as overall interest in the Holocaust, than about slavery?
Some time ago, during a conversation about cinema and representation with a friend, we both wondered about the level of interest from black audiences, in films about some of those darker days in our history - specifically, films about slavery and its consequences. We compared "our" interest with Jewish interest in films about the Holocaust; which then led us to wonder if there was any similarity whatsoever in the number and kinds of films produced about slavery, and those produced about the Holocaust. Our conversation shifted around a lot, but, at the core of it all was the realization that there definitely don't seem to be anywhere near the number of films about slavery, as there have been about the Holocaust, nor overall interest.
We did a little research via IMDB, searching using keywords like "slavery," "Africa," "transatlantic," "holocaust," "nazi," "hitler," and more, plus combinations of 2 or more terms, and the results were mind-numbing, in huge favor of the holocaust and similar matters!
But IMDB aside, I don't think one has to dig so deeply to be made aware of the disparities. A quick thought-session, recalling films over the last 25 years that have touched in some way on each subject, will suffice. During our conversation, we could immediately name as many as 15 American-made films that touched on some aspect of the Holocaust and its effects. And there are likely many more we forgot or simply don't know about. On the other hand, we could only name three American-made films that dealt with slavery in any manner, released in the last 25 years - Steven Spielberg's Amistad, Jonathan Demme's Beloved, & Edward Zwick's Glory (although, really, Glory was more about Matthew Broderick's Robert Gould Shaw character, than about the infantry of black men he commanded). Lars Von Trier, a Dane, visited the subject matter in 2005's Manderlay. If there've been others that I'm not remembering, please let me know in the comments section below.
I should mention that I'm referring primarily to films produced, and/or distributed by a major or mini American film company, whether for a limited, or a wide audience. However, even if we went beyond that, and included independent filmmakers and distributors, I doubt the results would be all that different.
I should make it clear that my intent here is not necessarily to weigh the significance of either tragedy, alleging that one deserves more representation than the other, or vice-versa, or create conflict between Jews and blacks. I'm simply pointing out a fact that I think needs to be addressed, whether solely in discussion, or taken even further - and that is, frankly, there seems to be very little interest in ensuring that we remember our ancestors who lived under the oppression and dehumanization of the slave trade, while, the Jews, clearly and confidently, are doing everything they can to ensure that we DON'T forget the evils of the Holocaust.
There's very little interest from studio execs, certainly, but, and even more importantly, there seems to be very little interest from us (black people). Why? There just doesn't seem to be a similar kind of passion and insistence on keeping the memory of OUR holocaust alive and well, just as has been the case for Jewish people. We've seen a variety of stories told with some connection to the Holocaust - whether about the Holocaust itself, or about those who were directly affected by it in some way, negatively or positively, as it happened, or in the present-day.
I've heard that one reason why there's little interest from us in movies about slavery, is due to how difficult the subject matter is to watch on screen. Tough, I say! My concern here is that there's a danger in essentially suppressing, or not recognizing this history, and all those stories that haven't been told. Yes, it's not exactly "fun" to watch films on the matter, but, I think we forget that, just as films about the Holocaust haven't always been directly about the Holocaust itself, films about slavery don't necessarily have to be directly consumed with the human tragedy of it all. There were families during those 400 years; there was love, commitment, and even moments of joy and happiness; there was comedy; there was bravery; there were rebels, runaways; there was cowardice; there was intellect; there were mornings, afternoons and nights; there was sleep; there were dreams...
I think you get my point!
Quentin Tarantino has expressed interest in making a film about John Brown, the white abolitionist. Naturally, his interest is in telling the story of a white abolitionist, as fascinating as the account of Brown's life reads. But how about Frederick Douglass? I'll wager that we'll likely see a John Brown abolitionist film, before the Toussaint L'Ouverture pic that Danny Glover's been working on for what seems like forever, even though L'Ouverture's accomplishments were arguably far more impressive, and interesting than Brown's.
So, as I started off asking, was Roots enough for "us"? Was it so challenging to watch that after seeing it, we'd had our fill? Did that put the proverbial nail in the coffin on "slavery" movies? Further, why do you think "we" show little interest in movies about that unattractive part of our history? Or do you think I'm wrong in assuming that, and have proof otherwise? Do you recognize any importance in keeping that history alive - not necessarily clinging to it, but at least remembering it through the cinema, and ensuring that others don't forget?
It's quite ironic that the three films that immediately come to mind on the subject of slavery were directed by white men - two of them Jewish - given the context of this post. None of our more prominent black directors have demonstrated a desire to revisit that time in our history - to my knowledge anyway. Should they insist, whether pushing studios to finance, and distribute them, or find a way to get them done themselves? Recall Wendell B Harris Jr's pitch for a lynching retribution pic which fell on deaf ears? Would you see that film, in much the same way we all flocked to be entertained by Tarantino's revisionist Nazi comeuppance movie, Inglorious Basterds, the most recent studio picture on the Holocaust? Octavia Butler's Kindred has been optioned over and over, since its publishing, yet, no one has been able to raise the funds to get the book adapted, even though I think it's as commercial a property that touches on the subject of slavery, as any you'd find.
Questions... questions... questions... This is a very important part of this country's rather short history, and it seems as if we're already starting to sweep it underneath dirt, while the Jews are doing exactly the opposite with their own tragic historical account, with a significant difference being that slavery took place on American soil, at the bloody hands of the white men who ran this country, wrote its laws, and helped shape what it's become today; so, while the US of A joined Allied forces to fight Hitler and company, and help free the Jews from medical experiments at Auschwitz, back home, the same great US of A was carrying out its own medical experiments with black American men in Tuskegee, Alabama, all while Jim Crow laws were in full effect. Given all of those facts, one would expect that there'd be a lot more direct representation of slavery and its effects on film - dare I say, even moreso than of the Jewish Holocaust.
And to reiterate, I should make it clear again, that my intent here is not to create conflict between Jews and blacks, by implying one tragedy deserves recognition more than the other. No, I'm not anti-Semitic. This is bigger than all of that, and there's something at work here that needs to be addressed!
Chime in below if you dare...