By Coshandra Dillard
There have been plenty of movies in the last few years depicting chattel slavery. With the recent re-imagining of Alex Haley’s Roots, some folks are tired of these movies and say it’s time to move on from slave narratives. They wonder why Hollywood must limit African American history to slavery, and why leading actors win awards only for portraying slaves.
I admit some of these films, such as “12 Years a Slave,” have been painful and redundant, but the new crop of so-called slave movies is different. It’s not all about the agony or the dignity-stealing institution of slavery. The messages of this wave of films are more victorious than downtrodden, more informative than exploitative. We learn something new, rather than the summation we received in grade school: We were captured, we were slaves, Abraham Lincoln saved us, and Martin Luther King, Jr. got us over the mountaintop.
There’s so much missing from that, from the innovations of early civilizations to modern day history-making triumphs, as evidenced by plenty of documents, texts and oral histories.
These days, audiences come away from the likes of the new “Roots” series and WGN’s “Underground” with more optimism and with pride in their African ancestry because the narratives are being told from the slaves’ points of view, and/or being written and produced by black directors and producers. With people of color telling their own stories, it’s missing the white savior-type as a central character charged with saving helpless black people. Viewers see that African slaves fought before their capture, during the journey on ships, and afterward to be free. They also fought to hold onto their ancestral roots and pass on rites, traditions and beliefs to their descendants.
If we pay attention, rather than scoff at the existence of “slave movies,” we’d see that we could learn plenty and be empowered.
For example, while we’ve obviously overcome so much in this country, there is still work to do to rid institutions and social structures of the residual effects of slavery.
These movies remind us that these systems were set up to prevent African slaves and their descendants from ever prospering or partaking of the American dream.
We learn that discrimination, pay disparities, colorism, broken family structures, mass incarceration and African American culture and traditions that bleed into mainstream American culture all have its roots in the institutions implemented during and following the slave trade.
In addition to slaves being stripped of their humanity—their names, families, culture and religions—they still made progress from the worst situations. Some learned to read, although it was illegal; some built schools, homes, and businesses, although many communities were burned and land later stolen; and others continued their traditions from back home, which led to innovations in farming, medicine, science, engineering, art, literature and music here in America and around the world.
Films dealing with slavery help us revisit some of the wounds that never healed. The problem is that many of us, of all ethnicities, rather look away or are shamed by it. There is no shame in acknowledging truth and doing all that we can to prevent horrid events from happening again. What is passed down over generations is often just wrong. It’s up to us to right those wrongs. That’s the reason we study history.
For those who still can’t bring themselves to watch Kunta Kinte being whipped into submission, there’s hope. While we should demand proper representation and stories we want to see about us in Hollywood, it is still up to us to educate ourselves about our history and invest in our own projects about them.