The 1977 TV blockbuster “Roots” features a scene in which the slave Kunta Kinte, played by LeVar Burton, is whipped unmercifully until he acknowledges that his name in captivity will be Toby. The sequence is not only distinguished by its brutality, but also because it is one of a very few movie or TV representations of “the peculiar institution,” both before it and since, that acknowledged the violence and depravity of slavery. And never before had an audience of 130 million been treated to such an unflinching spectacle.
“Slavery has been whitewashed [in Hollywood]; you don’t get the cruelty, you don’t get the savagery,” says film historian and author Donald Bogle, who teaches at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “Hollywood did not want to deal with that, and the studios did not want to alienate the Southern audience. The point of identification was the noble white master.”
That began to change by the late ‘90s with Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad,” the 1997 film about a slave revolt, and Jonathan Demme’s 1998 offering, “Beloved,” in which a woman kills her daughter to prevent her from ever being enslaved. And now there’s “12 Years a Slave” from British director Steve McQueen, which makes the brutal reality of the antebellum South almost tangible.
“Slavery in the past has been regarded with a certain level of distance and fear of getting into it,” says John Ridley, who wrote the “12 Years” screenplay, which tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C., in 1841 and sold into slavery in New Orleans. You can “look at a romanticized viewpoint, in terms of ‘Gone With the Wind,’” Ridley adds, “or Uncle Remus telling stories to the white kids. There’s a certain distance, a certain remove.”
Certainly, slavery has been a cinematic subject almost since the advent of the medium — a stereotypical version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” featuring happy slaves dancing at a slave auction, was first filmed in 1903, and D.W. Griffith’s classic 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation,” although mostly about the Civil War and its aftermath, romanticized the Ku Klux Klan while featuring slavery as a major subtext.
These images, and others that followed over the years, demonstrate that “any representation of slavery, whether strictly historical or visual, says as much about the politics of society at the time than the actual institution,” says Hilary J. Moss, who teaches a course called Slavery and the American Imagination at Amherst College.
Case in point: Films such as “Mandingo,” “Drum” and “Slaves,” which popped up during the blaxploitation era of the late 1960s and ‘70s, focused on master-slave sexual shenanigans. "['Mandingo’] was released at the height of the blaxploitation era, and those films were consciously over the top, dwelling in the more explicit examples that applied to slavery and sexuality, and the racial taboos that grew out of those circumstances,” says Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies in USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.
Films like these were more “the blaxploitation, women-in-chains kind of things,” agrees Ridley. “That’s the lineage of ‘Django Unchained’ — it’s a black guy with a gun giving it to whitey. It’s a continuation of a certain mind-set, not a historical piece,” he says of Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-winning revisionist history film.
In fact, early film depictions of slavery largely shied away from any sort of accuracy, often wallowing instead in all sorts of stereotypes and historical clichés — like the mammy figure played by Hattie McDaniel in “Gone With the Wind,” Ken Norton’s black stud in “Mandingo” or benevolent plantation owner Clark Gable falling for his beautiful mulatto slave Yvonne De Carlo in 1957’s “Band of Angels.” Many films portrayed the more lurid aspects of the institution, which generally involved the familiar Hollywood staples of sex and violence.
“That’s understandable,” says Natalie Zemon Davis, author of “Slaves on Screen.” “It’s what easily creates a good story, and one that’s visually interesting. As the abolitionists knew, talking about sexual abuse and violence was sure to engender support for their movement, and that’s the take you bring to film.”
Yet except for “Django,” a box-office hit that is a rousing mashup of spaghetti western, blaxploitation film and slave flick, many of those previous releases concerned with slave sex and violence were exploitation movies that played only to a limited audience.
When it comes to more mainstream productions and how they were received by moviegoers, the story is a mixed one. Despite their pedigrees, “Amistad” and “Beloved” were not commercial successes. Even “Glory,” the Oscar-winning 1989 Denzel Washington film about a regiment of black soldiers — freemen and former slaves — during the Civil War, failed to gain much box-office traction. In limited release, “12 Years” had earned about $9 million in its first two weeks, putting it on track for a solid end-of-the season showing.
But last year’s “Lincoln,” also from Spielberg, was a box-office hit, pulling in $275 million worldwide. That could be, in part at least, because, even though the focus of the film was on President Lincoln’s efforts to emancipate the slaves, signs of slavery itself were nearly absent from the screen.
“There are ways of making a story about slavery feel more appealing,” says Moss. “Stories that tend to have emancipation at the center or have racial reconciliation seem to have more appeal than a film like ‘Beloved,’ which is more uncomfortable because it deals with infanticide and the less savory aspects of slavery.”
Yet “12 Years a Slave,” which was filmed once before in 1984 by Gordon Parks for the PBS movie “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey,” doesn’t shy from slavery’s inhumanity and puts it front and center. Everything from the horrors of the slave auctions and plantation working conditions to whippings, beatings, rapes, humiliations and other forms of brutality make their appearance in an uncompromising film that refuses to avert its eyes from the truth of the institution.
Ridley says he was attracted to the story because it is about “what slavery means, what freedom means.” In the past, he says, “the totality” of what slavery meant, “the brutality of it, how whites were indoctrinated into this belief, that slavery was so pervasive at that time,” had never really been represented on screen. “But now I think audiences in general, what they can handle story-wise, there’s an audience that can understand it. Our reality is heightened right now.”