Aiming for Freedom: Analyses of Films on American Slavery and Guidelines for Film Producers

Dedicated to Dr. Matthew J. Clavin, Dr. Trevor Boffone, My very close friends, Jabril Newton and Kyle Nash,  my loving family, my better-half, Emily. And to all my loyal readers. This is an essay I wrote recently for a final exam in my Slavery through Films and Books class and I think it’s the best paper I’ve written so far. Please enjoy. 

Creating Films, like most art, presents a challenge that even the most professional artists will struggle with. The essential goal of the filmmaker is to present a message to their viewer with an abstract presentation that may or may not be recognized or appreciated. In order to make the next great film, one must put themselves in the shoes of the modern moviegoer gathers who gathers his popcorn and best comrades to accompany him to the theater for promises of entertainment. And in the case of American Slavery, it is definitely going to be a challenge to provide something entertaining while possessing a message to audiences. In some of the most popular films on American Slavery, each film has displayed their own unique way of getting their message across: There needs to be a change in regards to how the United States deals with racial matters.

Starting with the 1915 silent film: Birth of a Nation, which tells the story of a dystopian United States where African Americans rise against the Caucasian Americans after the Civil War and Slavery is abolished and it is the rise of the Ku Klux Klan that aim to bring the country to its natural order as a result. With that said, the film wastes no time in portraying African Americans as incompetent, sexually aggressive, and even as comic relief for how bumbling they behave in the film. To add insult to injury, Black characters are mostly played in the film by White actors in black-face which caused much controversy after the film was produced. The film’s main antagonist in the film however, is a mulatto (half-black, half-white) played by a white actor in black-face as a depraved governor with the sole intent of eliminating the “pure white race.”

Essentially the filmmaker, D.W. Griffith’s message when producing this film was that bringing Africans to the United States was one of the worst things to happen to the United States as they were depraved individuals who would inevitably destroy our society. One could safely say that the film was pure propaganda, rather than entertaining, in the sense that its message catered to those that were already at the time xenophobic of African Americans. It pushed boundaries by having some Black actors in the film but the ones that were the most villainous in the film were, as stated earlier, White actors in black-face because Griffith himself knew that the xenophobia amongst white audiences would not allow them to accept an actual Black man to be so close to a White woman in certain scenes of the film; especially since those particular scenes were of a white woman that was to be sexually assaulted by the man of color. And by having a mulatto character portray the main antagonist, signifies that by having one drop of African blood would cause utter chaos. But it was that controversy nonetheless, that made the film such a box-office hit in the very end.

It was not until about two decades later that another film would take a similar but modified stance to Griffith’s theory with the film Gone with the Wind (1939), about a southern woman named Scarlett O’Hara, who is trying to woo a man who continuously refuses to marry her (because he is marrying someone else) during the Civil War and Reconstruction Era. The director, Victor Fleming, argues that African Americans being brought to the United States is not the tragedy, the Civil War was the tragedy. The entire film shows Southern citizens to have pride with the idea of them going to war against the North. However one soldier Rhett Butler, played by Clark Gable, does not buy into panegyrizing this war, even though he has earned an exceptional reputation as a soldier for the Confederate Army. However when asked by Scarlett if Rhett does not “believe in the cause” he responds, “I believe in Rhett Butler, he’s the only cause I know.” Because Rhett does not essentially take sides, thus presenting a mysterious, albeit “cool-guy” demeanor with quick wit, it makes it difficult for one to despise his character but in the film he is looked down upon for not agreeing with the views the others share around him; and that view is that the Southern way of life is being threatened and something must be done in order to stop it.

While the film is not as racist as Birth of a Nation, the film definitely glorifies slavery in a subtle way by showing that slaves in the household were like part of the family by having the house maid, “Mammy”, portray a grand-mother like figure in Scarlett’s life by giving advice and often times in the film, uttering phrases that most African Americans would not even think to say such as, “poor white trash.” Thereby showing the audience that slaves were not entirely mistreated because of the patriarchal analogy to display that slaves really were part of the family. And the only times slaves were mistreated, were when they “actually deserved it” such as the scene where the youngest female African American slave, Prissy, tells in great detail of how she is an expert on delivering babies but moments later when one of the female characters is giving birth, she looks dumbfounded and apologetically screaming, “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies.” And when she receives a slap on the face from Scarlett as a result of her lie, it plants the idea in the viewer’s head that Prissy got what she deserved. It then makes one question why slaves would desire to escape if they had such manageable lives.

In the late 1970’s a TV miniseries called, Roots (based on the book by Alex Haley) is made that brings to the audience, the cold dark truth of slavery and challenges both the arguments made by Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind.  And as opposed to the first two films, this story is told from the Slave’s point of view, where a young African teenager named Kunta Kinte, played by Levar Burton, is kidnapped and brought to the U.S. and sold into slavery where he is introduced to a black “House-Slave” named Fiddler, played by Louis Gossett, Jr.

First and foremost, the miniseries pays special attention to how the slaves after being kidnapped are prepared to be sold such as tarring and feathering, meaning placing searing black tars on the skin of any potential slaves who bear scars or scratches so the slaves are in good condition to be purchased. The importance of Fiddler being a “House-Slave” is that even though he is a black slave, he is allowed special privileges since he has worked for the plantation owner, John Reynolds (played by Lorne Greene) for a very long time. These special privileges include: being able to live in the house of the plantation owner and in the miniseries’ case, having the ability to “break” Kunta of his African spirit (by giving him a new name, “Toby”) and his desire to escape and as a result, conduct himself as a docile slave.

The most powerful and most memorable scene of Roots is when Kunta is tied to be whipped after a failed attempt at escaping, much to Fiddler’s guilt for allowing him to escape and unsuccessful pleas to the plantation owner to not have Kunta flogged. While Kunta is receiving his punishment, the overseer named Ames (played by Vic Morrow) has one of the other slaves execute the flogging and repeatedly tell Kunta to accept his role as a slave and that his name is “Toby.” Kunta has a strong spirit at first and refuses to acquiesce. But it is only a matter of time before he can keep up his strength, leaving the viewer in a position where tears fall out uncontrollably from either admiration of Kunta being able to hold on for so long or minor disdain for the overseer for taking away Kunta’s identity.

Whippings such as these eventually play a great part in films on American Slavery and the more heart-wrenching wails the actor playing the slave lets out, the more powerful the scene becomes. Arguably, the screeching can make audience members more uncomfortable than emotionally moved however. One (and the only) whipping scene in the film Glory (1989), a film about former black slaves joining the Union army during the Civil War, does it perfectly. Denzel Washington’s character Trip, is caught trying to desert (later found out to be a misunderstanding) the war and as punishment, the colonel in charge of the army Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick) is forced to authorize a whipping. And although Shaw does not execute the flogging himself, the most tear-jerking part is the brief showing of scars on Trip’s back from his past beatings as a slave that are foudroyant and while Trip is receiving his punishment, he looks at Shaw with a scornful yet apathetic gaze and maintains eye-contact with Shaw, who does not try to conceal the look of guilt, but does not scream and shows almost no ounce of pain during the flogging but does allow one single tear to fall from his face.

Despite the sorrow that comes from watching a poor slave get beaten to death, it is important for one to note that the story being told is one that is supposed to be something positive. In Glory, it is the story of fighting a war with not white or black men but soldiers, and soldiers of war share a bond that only the closest of friends would only know. So with that in mind, one can expect some positivity in such a film. The essential goal for the filmmaker is to touch the audience with a film that can empathize with the anguish of the slave and their hardship they must endure day in and day out and also shed some light that will get the viewer to see that there is hope for the slave that things will get better.

Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997), tries to do just that by telling the story of a number of Africans kidnapped in 1839 by Spanish Slave-Traders and break free from their chains and cause a revolt against their assailants but later find themselves in the U.S. where the courts must decide if they are citizens of Africa that were illegally ascertained or were they to be sold into the U.S. as merchandise. The film does a great job of recognizing the ineptitude of the court case, as the lives of people are at stake and how appalling it is to waste time debating whether or not they are property at the very beginning of the trial. Nevertheless, the film had to show the trials and tribulations before getting to the ultimate happy ending.

Amistad has audiences at the edge of their seats with inspiring speeches (like John Adams, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, comparing slave-ownership to the oppressive British government during the American Revolution and essentially questioned why revolting against the British seemed logical but a Black slave being oppressed had to be pondered) and moving dialogue such as the main character, Cinque (played by Djimon Hounsou) speaking English for the first time, repeating “Give us, us free!” louder and louder in the court-room.  And while viewers will feel a great sense of satisfaction from the film, historians may criticize the film for its, for lack of a better word, “false advertising.”Especially bearing in mind that the events taken in the film are years before the Civil War and slaves actually are granted their freedom as opposed to more than a handful.

The main fact at hand is that Slavery is in many words, evil. No matter how much film-makers want to present a bright-side to one of the darkest parts of U.S. history, no amount of light can illuminate this. For some, there will always be a deep disdain and burning desire to seek revenge for all the wrong that was done but one has to be careful due to the risk of causing controversy or censorship. That being said, along comes Quentin Tarantino, who has already earned the reputation for causing controversy and pushing boundaries, with Django Unchained (2012).

The film Django Unchained is about a slave named Django, played by Jamie Foxx, that is recruited by a German bounty hunter Dr. Shultz, played by Christoph Waltz, in order to hunt down slave owners and kill them in order to collect their bounty in exchange for his freedom. That plot line alone, grabs the potential viewer’s attention and when they do actually watch the movie, they get so involved in the film because of how something that may have been pictured in ordinary individual’s minds is being brought to a silver screen. The twist however is that Django wants to find and rescue his wife and so as a result, the film becomes more of a love story as opposed to a story about Slavery and Dr. Schultz is willing to help him, so in addition to it being a love story about a hero wanting to rescue his bride, it is peppered with a fraternal element between mentor and pupil.

This is permissible due to the fact that Django Unchained is an entirely fictional movie, although the film does make efforts to be as real as possible for example, reiterating Dr. Shultz’s role as a bounty hunter multiple times upon killing a slave owner to essentially justify his actions as “a man of the law” and not a murderer.  Yet because the film falls into the genre of “Revenge-Fantasy”, it has the volition to go in any direction the writer chooses. Tarantino essentially has full control over what his characters say and that includes horrifying things such as a former slave owner telling Django in a flashback scene, “I like the way you beg, Boy”; and Tarantino uses that to his advantage by making the dialogue from the antagonists so fierce that it may boil the blood of the viewer and root for the hero in the film when Django finally silences his enemies with, “I like the way you die, Boy.”

Injustice, however is the foundation of Slavery in its entirety. And 12 Years a Slave (2013), the most recently released film about Slavery by Steve McQueen based on the memoir from Solomon Northup, illustrates this injustice with a film about a black man that is born a free man, but kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery and finally rescued in 1853. Because this film is based on a true story, and historians will attest that incidents such as this were not uncommon, demonstrate how prejudice the white population in the U.S. was to all African Americans free or not.

The film essentially tries to send the same message the book did which was disclose how people in the North were ignorant of slave conditions in the South and when their affliction was surfaced, it gradually made people want to do something about it. 12 Years a Slave as a film itself is very powerful in taking to account how being kidnapped and sold into slavery as a freeman is horrendous as it is, but the truly deplorable aspect of it all is the fact that one is taken away from their family and other loved ones. And much like Django Unchained, the film does its best to inspire animosity in the hearts of the viewers towards the antagonists of the film such as Edwin Epps, an inhumane slave master of the main character’s played by Michael Fassbender, reading a verse from the bible to show a divine precedent that slave owners have amongst slaves:

“’And that servant which knew his Lord’s will… which knew his Lord’s will and prepared not himself… prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes…’ D’ye hear that? ‘Stripes.’ That nigger that don’t take care, that don’t obey his lord – that’s his master – d’ye see? – that ‘ere nigger shall be beaten with many stripes. Now, ‘many’ signifies a great many. Forty, a hundred, a hundred and fifty lashes… That’s scripture!”

The film however does not follow everything that was written in the memoir. The reason for that could be because the book shows that Solomon Northup’s experiences as a slave were not entirely difficult due to his vast intelligence and discretion about his freedom enables him to avoid commotion. If the film were to follow the book to its entirety, it may take away from the overall message that the director is trying to send and that message is that no person of color was safe from the cruelties of slavery and though Solomon spent most of his life as a free man he states in the film that “slavery is an evil that should befall no one.”

The level of melancholy in this film is increased because the film wants to ignore the fact that Solomon in the end regains his freedom because those 12 years that were seized from him will never be regained which is why the film ends with Solomon holding his newborn grandson with tearful eyes and like a soldier returning from war, is unable to come to terms with what he has gone through, so the use of a “happy ending” would be almost a mockery of the entire film. It bears a similar effect with Roots in the sense that in the beginning of 12 Years a Slave, Solomon is whipped within inches of his life until he (like Kunta Kinte) submits and accepts his role as a slave.

However as stated earlier, the amount of whipping in the films can almost become too unbearable to watch for some audiences, because the deafening screams and petrifying scars on their back would cause even the most stoic of individuals to draw in their teeth. Contrasting to that, Denzel Washington’s nonvocal yet award winning performance in Glory when getting whipped show that the mood the actor displays are what help draw the viewer into the movie and essentially forget they are watching a film. Excellent dialogue in a script is one thing but without the right tone in the actor’s voice, makes the film not worth watching. And even the dialogue is not so important, the performance is what says it all, and one can see that from Birth of a Nation, because no one speaks in the film, yet the acting is so intense, portraying Black characters with sinister looks in their eyes and giant lips, that for such a film in that time a controversy was inevitable.

This is not to dismiss the importance of dialogue, however. And films on American Slavery often recall how slaves would talk once upon a time in an almost fractured Southern dialect that if used today, would be very offensive.  Hattie McDaniel’s portrayal of Mammy in Gone with the Wind is the perfect example of that dialect when she says things like: “po’ white trash” and “it jus’ ain’t fittin’.”  Akin to that, Django Unchained has Jamie Foxx (as Django) oversimplify his vocabulary because many slaves were uneducated and if they were educated, had to keep their intelligence to themselves or else it was viewed as a threat to their master as explained by Frederick Douglass in his narrative, “if you teach [a] nigger… how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.” (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 20) Though having to speak with a certain accent may seem trivial to some, even Glory shows the disrespectful nature of such a dialect. Before the whipping to Denzel Washington’s character is authorized, Major Forbes played by Cary Elwes, the second in command to Broderick’s character, Colonel Shaw, mocks Shaw after informing Forbes not to question his authority when allowing Washington’s character to be flogged in front of the other soldiers by speaking in aforementioned dialect: “Well I is sorry, mas’sa. You be the boss-man now and all us chill’ins must learn your ways.”

That unfortunately, was the cold hard truth of how a slave must remain docile with his master and feign happiness or consequences could be dire. That is why Gone with the Wind allowed slaves to portray as (to some extent) part of the family because that is how slaves behaved amongst others but it was not because the slaves wanted to, but because they had no other choice. To quote Frederick Douglass again, who in his narrative explained how it was difficult to trust others as a slave, especially White people because one could never be certain if the person he was talking to was his master, a friend of his master, an overseer, or just someone wanting to get the slave in trouble. In this excerpt from his narrative, Douglass tells the reader briefly a story on how a slave was approached by a White man asking how his master was treating him and the truth was that his master would not feed him that much, unbeknownst to the slave, the White man who he confessed that to was his master and as a result:

“The poor man was then informed by his overseer that, for having found fault with his master, he was now to be sold to a Georgia trader. He was immediately chained and handcuffed; and thus, without a moment’s warning, he was snatched away, and forever sundered, from his family and friends, by a hand more unrelenting than death. This is the penalty of telling the truth, of telling the simple truth, in answer to a series of plain questions.” (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 11)

It was not simply just White Americans that slaves had to fear, even fellow slaves or House Negroes like Fiddler (in Roots) whose job it was to “break” Kunta Kinte were potential threats, despite them sharing the same skin color. To put it another way, the object of Slavery was survival and the only means of survival was everyone was to look out for themselves and once they reached that level of superiority as a slave where they earned special privileges, certain Black slaves like Tarantino’s character in Django Unchained, Stephen (a house negro played by Samuel L. Jackson), obtained a moderate case of Stockholm syndrome, meaning that since he grew up with special privileges by the antagonist, Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his parents and even grandparents, he identified as a White person. However Stephen’s skin color bears an appearance that is much darker, almost as it is meant to be ironic to the viewer, that Stephen is so bigoted towards Django after first meeting him by muttering under his breath to Candie, “Cain’t believe you brought a nigger to stay in the Big House. Yo daddy’s rollin’ over in his goddamn grave, right now. Brought a nigger to stay with us. What kinda shit is that?” Because even with special privileges, the house-negroes were still slaves nevertheless. Even though Mammy and Stephen earned the right to speak freely, it was their masters that had the last words and in order to keep their privileges, it behooved them to comply with their master’s orders.

So taking into account all the films listed, the message in each film, while possessing unparalleled ways of getting their point across, bear the same message that a change is necessary to be made in regards to matters of ethnicity. The best way to illustrate that would be to draw specific points from different films. Those points would be the mood the filmmaker wants their audience to leave the theater in, the dialogue used, and how historically accurate the film must be.

In regards to mood, there needs to be a way to combine the level of misery the slave encounters like 12 Years a Slave to some extent, with a level of optimism that things will change for the slave akin to the films, Roots, Glory, and Amistad. And the dialogue and acting has to be fierce but perhaps not with the extremity one may find from Django Unchained and Birth of a Nation. As for the historical accuracy, because it is a film on Slavery one has to be careful to make sure they do not cause too much controversy like Django Unchained however simultaneously avoiding the risk of glorifying slavery as done in Gone with the Wind.

Perhaps the most important part of making a film is that it has to be a piece of art and obtain some abstrusity because the film has to be a reflection of the filmmaker’s voice and conjointly be entertaining for the viewer. That being said, such an art must require an exceptional artist, and one becomes an exceptional artist with a vast knowledge on their subject. And being that the subject at hand is American Slavery, one should expect mixed reactions as Slavery is a controversial topic. Nevertheless, it is a piece of art that hopefully will get the message across that matters of race should change and if no film is able to convince anyone to do something about it, the filmmaker can at least keep repeating the message until their voice is hoarse.

-Mr. Writer

Originally written on the 5th of December, 2015



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