Hey everyone, I came across an interesting article on Race Wire entitled, “Hollywood’s Slavery Films Tell Us More About the Present Than the Past,” by Dexter Gabriel. I’ll get you started here, but you really need to read the whole thing.
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.