Why We Need More Films About Slavery

The buzz around Nate Parker’s slave-rebellion flick, The Birth of a Nation, has some people saying, “Enough with the slave movies.” I say keep them coming. 

Scene from The Birth of a Nation
Scene from The Birth of a Nation Elliot Davis

I was prepared to dislike Kara Brown’s Jezebel article, “I’m So Damn Tired of Slave Movies,” based on the title alone. That sentiment has been popular lately, given all the attention garnered at the Sundance Film Festival for actor-turned-director-producer-screenwriter Nate Parker’s upcoming film, The Birth of a Nation. Reports from Utah say the movie—a biography of Nat Turner’s life and the slave revolt he led through Southampton County, Va., in 1831—received a standing ovation after its debut screening. Fox Searchlight quickly snatched up the film for $17.5 million, a new sales record for the festival.

But it seems for every person like me, who anticipates showing up to a Magic Johnson theater (because you know they’re showing it) on opening night, there’s another person asking, “Really? Another slave film?”

I actually don’t think there are enough films about slavery. I mean, it was a roughly 397-year stretch of American history (indeed, older than the formation of the country itself). Considering the length of time, all the people involved, all their varied stories and how deeply embedded the “peculiar institution” is in America’s history (and present), there should be way more films than those that currently exist. We’re just now getting a mainstream film about Nat Turner. Do we want to throw in the towel before we get a theatrical release about Harriet Tubman or the Haitian revolution? 

That said, I understand the counter perspective that says “enough already.” Movies about slavery are emotionally brutal, as Brown points out. The more historically accurate, the worse you probably feel while you watch people who look like you being dehumanized. After seeing 12 Years a Slave on opening night, I wandered around Manhattan for 20 blocks to “process” before heading home. I get it. And I get why people would opt out.

I also think there’s a lot of shame that some people—not necessarily Brown; I’m speaking of people in general—carry around because their ancestors were enslaved, trapped and dehumanized. That’s a lot to unpack. That’s also understandable.   

Then there are those who do feel like Brown, whose article actually doesn’t loathe movies about slavery as much as the title suggests. Brown’s core argument opposing slave films isn’t so much about the content but, rather, how films about slavery are unduly lauded by mainstream viewers and perceived as more important, how they function to assuage white guilt and that there aren’t enough films about other topics reflecting black lives.

“I want stories about Solomon Northup and Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman to be told,” Brown writes. “But I also want to watch movies about black debutante balls and the Great Migration and a coming-of-age movie about a black teenager in Houston who loves to skateboard and gets into trouble with her Desi best friend.”

All of those points are valid, though I don’t think films about slavery are getting in the way of other stories being told. It’s not as if movies set on plantations are being churned out with the regularity of Madea films. But there’s an unquestionable void in Hollywood for movies featuring black people just being random and regular. And yes, Hollywood should celebrate more than slave films. Duly noted.  

And still, I argue in favor of the slave-film genre (and more mainstream content about slavery, in general). The more realistic—even if that means horrible—the better. Even though slavery is the foundation of American economics, citizens tend to be pretty ignorant about it, at best, and completely disrespectful, at worst.

Brown points out, “The complicated, harrowing, lasting history of slavery should be taught in classrooms.” It should. But last year, Texas school textbooks were comfortable downplaying the horror of slavery, even emphasizing an upside and calling people stolen from Africa “workers,” as if the only difference between people unwillingly taken from their homes and then shipped overseas to provide free labor and people who apply for jobs and get paid is mere semantics. Seeing “Lupita Nyong’o being whipped onscreen” should not be how students are educated about slavery, Brown writes. But, unfortunately, it can happen.