Slavery Films Reflect Our New Views

On Colorlines, Dexter Gabriel argues that works like Django and Roots are more about how contemporary culture sees itself, rather than history.

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As critics tussle over what Django Unchained and Lincoln say about black people's history in America, Colorlines contributor Dexter Gabriel writes that the depictions are more a reflection of how African Americans see ourselves in this day and age.

Hollywood's turning point came with the social upheavals of the 1960s. As early as 1946, African Americans launched protests against Disney's "Song of the South," objecting to its caricature Uncle Remus, fashioned as the kindly Tom. Inspired in part by radical black playwrights, Hollywood created a new slave to meet the times. Movies like "Slaves" (1969), the Blaxploitation epic "The Legend of Nigger Charley" (1972) and "Mandingo" (1975), turned the old plantation epics on their heads, depicting slavery as brutal, the whites as functionally deranged and their chattel property simmering with all the militant (nearly always masculine) anger that set Watts and Detroit to flames. Slavery now mimicked Hollywood caricatures of Black Power, projecting new stereotypes of black manhood into the past. Slave women escaped their Mammy roles only to become sexual props, decorating celluloid plantations in lurid and salacious imagery.

When Blaxploitation died (or more accurately, devoured itself) slavery mostly disappeared from Hollywood. Television took up the slack, with groundbreaking miniseries like "Roots" (1977).

Far removed from the Old South epics and more sophisticated than Blaxploitation, "Roots" managed to humanize slavery more than any previous cinematic portrayal. The world the slaves made, separate and apart from their masters, was in full display. No one mistook Fiddler (Louis Gossett, Jr.) for a Tom, even if he wore that mask from time to time. Mammy disappeared, replaced with more complex roles like Belle (Madge Sinclair) and Kizzy (Leslie Uggams). Kunte Kinte (LeVar Burton and James Amos) became a symbol of black defiance, risking life and limb (literally) to reach freedom. Billed as "An American Saga," Roots mirrored the attitudes of an emerging black middle class, providing a vision of African Americans as strong, moral, hard working and grounded in traditional family values. Sanitized and homogenized for mass consumption, slavery was no longer America's original sin—it was just another immigrant story.

Read Dexter Gabriel's entire piece at Colorlines.

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