12 Films That Dared to Tackle Slavery

From Roots to Django Unchained, here are the best and worst attempts at depicting our shackled past.

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    LeVar Burton in Roots (IMDB.com); Djimon Hounsou in Amistad (IMDB.com)

    Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Django Unchained, may feature several signifiers of an ultramodern slave narrative mixed with spaghetti Western bravado — bloody gunfights; n-word-spouting plantation owners; and a soundtrack featuring Rick Ross, Ennio Morricone and the RZA — but if you want to see how slavery was handled on the big screen before it got the Tarantino treatment, check out this list of films — of varying quality — compiled by The Root.

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    Amazon.com

    Sankofa

    In Haile Gerima’s 1993 film, a self-important black American model named Mona (Oyafunmike Ogunlano) visits one of Ghana’s shorefront castles where slave traders housed and shipped Africans to distant lands. She meets the titular character, a local mystic man who has the spirit world on speed dial. In a bit of magic realism, Mona gets transported back a few generations and faces her new identity as a slave who ultimately must fight for her freedom. It’s perhaps every out-of-touch black Westerner’s worst nightmare come true. But Mona, upon her return to reality, learns the essential lesson of Sankofa, which also happens to be an Akan word that translates to “It is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.” In other words, don’t forget where you came from.

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    IMDB.com

    Mandingo

    What was heavyweight-boxing champ Ken Norton thinking when he signed up to star in this schlocky 1975 film? By today’s standards, Mandingo is a laughably offensive tale of interracial love gone bonkers. But even back then, when Hollywood films could get away with less politically correct content, Roger Ebert called it a “piece of manure.” Norton plays Mede, a brutish slave who gets bamboozled into bedding the wife of a plantation owner’s son (James Mason). The affair is meant to pay back her hubby for creeping with a young slave (Brenda Sykes). The pot boils over (literally) when the jealous overseer pushes Mede back into a pot of scalding hot oil, creating a Mandingo brew that he splashes over his dead wife’s grave. Gruesome.

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    Djimon Hounsou in Amistad (IMDB.com)

    Amistad

    Before this 1997 Steven Spielberg blockbuster, Djimon Hounsou was mainly known as that buff chocolate dude running in the Herb Ritts-directed music video of Janet Jackson’s “Love Will Never Do (Without You).” In this film he plays Cinque, a slave who leads a revolt on a Spanish ship bound for Cuba. The former prisoners think that two white survivors are sailing them to Africa, but the whites really bring them to the U.S., where they eventually earn their freedom via the grandiloquence of President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), who arguably steals the movie despite Hounsou’s breakthrough performance. It’s hard to outshine the acting vet, but it helps you come close when you have Hounsou’s hulking screen presence and the ability to roll your R’s: “Give us free!” remains the film’s most memorable quote.

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    LeVar Burton in Roots (IMDB.com)

    Roots

    The screen adaptation of Alex Haley’s biography about his family’s rise from slavery to eventual liberation was a major landmark television event when it aired over several episodes in 1977. It featured an all-star cast of black Hollywood icons, including LeVar Burton (Kunta Kinte), Ben Vereen (Chicken George), Lou Gossett Jr. (Fiddler) and Leslie Uggams (Kizzy). However, a cloud of suspicion has hovered over Roots, with reports of Haley having plagiarized sections of his book. The miniseries is still worth watching for its outstanding performances and attempt to dramatize the journey of generations of Africans sold into bondage.

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    IMDB.com

    Drum

    This is not a typo: Mandingo actually has a sequel. This 1976 movie features black actors with more name recognition — Pam Grier and Yaphet Kotto join Ken Norton, who again plays the title character, albeit a different one. And its plot manages to be even more ridiculous than its predecessor, but the threat of interracial sex is again at the crux of the conflict. Hammond (Warren Oates), a ruthless plantation owner who purchased Drum (Norton) and Blaise (Kotto), discovers that his daughter and Blaise are an item. He threatens Blaise with castration, and Blaise responds by plotting a revolt. All hell breaks loose. Rent it only if you can bear over-the-top violence and gratuitous nude scenes.

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    Morgan Freeman in Glory (IMDB.com)

    Glory

    Denzel Washington stars as Pvt. Trip, a fugitive slave, in this 1989 film about an all-black unit fighting in the Civil War. But their efforts are often met with the racism of the day, an ironic level of prejudice given that Trip, Sgt. Maj. John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) and the crew are fighting a war aimed at abolishing slavery. Washington won the Oscar for best supporting actor for his fiery performance. We all knew he’d get it once that single tear dropped down his cheek, right?

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    IMDB.com

    Gone With the Wind

    Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win the best supporting actress Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy, Scarlett O’Hara’s (Vivien Leigh) handkerchief-headed nursemaid, in 1939’s Gone With the Wind. Her character fussed and fretted over the Southern belle and spoke in a quasi-pidgin English that came to be associated with the speech pattern of servile blacks. Though she made history with that win, she had many critics who weren’t pleased with her continually playing maid characters, cementing a hard-to-shake stereotype.

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    IMDB.com

    Jefferson in Paris

    This 1995 film stars Nick Nolte as Thomas Jefferson and Thandie Newton as Sally Hemings, a young slave who likely bore him several children. Their relationship is a major focal point of the film as it attempts to show Jefferson’s moral dilemma of being a Founding Father who openly employed (and had sex with) black slaves.

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    IMDB.com

    Uncle Tom's Cabin

    Though several film adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel exist, this 1927 effort is notable for having James B. Lowe, an African-American actor, portray the trusted slave Uncle Tom. In stage productions, a white actor in blackface usually played his character. In fact, all of the other black characters in this silent film are white done up in blackface. The film, which features Tom being sold from one idyllic plantation to the estate of abusive Simon Legree (George Siegmann), is considered a classic — even if it helped cement racial stereotypes (e.g., blacks as subservient humans) in the minds of white Americans.

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    IMDB.com

    Beloved

    More than a decade after buying the film rights, Oprah Winfrey managed to bring this adaptation of Toni Morrison’s opus to the big screen. It’s a shame that the 1998 effort, which also starred Danny Glover, Thandie Newton and Kimberly Elise, didn’t perform well at the box office. The talk-show personality said that she was so stressed by that disappointment, she ate 30 pounds of mac and cheese to cope. The three-hour drama — which features Winfrey as Sethe, a mysterious former slave who experiences flashbacks of her slave past — is indeed ambitious, mixing in bits of the supernatural. But the challenges it faced getting mainstream audiences into theaters aren’t a reason not to add it to your DVD collection.

     

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    IMDB.com

    Birth of a Nation

    D.W. Griffith’s infamous cinematic work about the United States during Reconstruction was hugely popular when it debuted in 1915. Long considered America’s greatest film, it’s mainly an example of how insensitive this country was to its own virulent racism. The film dramatizes the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as “saviors” of a civil society, and the main black characters are played by whites in blackface. Still, it’s essential viewing, if only for its ability to remind us how thin the line can be between racist propaganda and entertainment.

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    IMDB.com

    Lincoln

    Steven Spielberg likes his period pieces. Luckily for him, Daniel Day-Lewis was able to masterfully embody Abe Lincoln as the U.S. president burdened with arguing for the abolishment of slavery. His riveting performance aside, this 2012 film is also astonishing for its sidelining of the blacks whose freedom Lincoln was campaigning for. Critics decried the lack of a nod to Frederick Douglass or any other prominent black abolitionist who may have helped inform Lincoln’s anti-slavery perspective. Was it a missed opportunity by Spielberg? See it and decide for yourself.

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