In the earliest days of American film, African-Americans’ were not in positions to produce a movie about black Americans’, Africa, or any subject pertaining to African-American lives and culture, or any subject at all. Conversely, white Americans’ could produce, make, and distribute any kind of film they wanted and not constrained by their race. Producing a movie about African-American people and using little to no knowledge and often based on perceived behaviors and often with unflattering, grotesque versions of black people. These films were made with characterizations that were more stereotype than accurate. Mammy in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is portrayed as a well-fed, jovial, loyal and happy to sacrifice for her master, mother figure and companion to Scarlet. This promotes a harmless and comfortable image for the white movie goers of the time, as well as imbedding a romanticized version of slavery pre-Civil War, as well as during the war and afterward. In reality, if this movie and character were made showing how a slave like mammy was truly treated it would be unsettling to watch.
In the days of the silent movie many films were made exhibiting the “wilds of Africa” with titles that even sound terrifying: Voodoo Vengeance (1913), The Jungle (1915), or Forbidden Adventure (1915). Often these were cast with the darkest skinned actors the director could find, then directed to act like a “savage” or as barbaric as the actors could muster. This only allowed whites to feed their ignorance and fear. Fast forward to the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The depictions are not as outrageous and stereotypical and tending to be truthful. Often times, the films are hard to view, as the depictions are brutally honest, or as honest as Hollywood will allow. African-American films, if not telling the story of slave life or domestic servitude during the mid-20th century, the films are then of the comedy genre, rarely is something made with African-Americans’ in a dramatic role that doesn’t involve crime or death. These genres are still catering to the Midwestern sensibilities.
Thusly, as intelligent Americans still attempt to grasp the horrors that existed within racial based slavery, film and literature have become popular mediums in which to depict the brutal nature of the barbaric institution. Members of the artistic community have lent a hand in crafting powerful narratives to shed light on the struggles of enslaved peoples of various backgrounds; these backgrounds range from the tragic kidnappings of African tribespeople and their transportation across the middle passage in heinous, reprehensible conditions, the stories of blacks born into Southern Domestic slavery, and the forceful incorporation of free people of color into the institution. Despite relentless oppression, slaves were still able to give themselves purpose in everyday life, display strength, and retain or develop a sense of individuality and a sense of community.
Though directors and authors tend to take artistic liberties in their modern interpretations of historical events, Steve McQueen and John Ridley stayed very true to Solomon Northup’s memoir 12 Years a Slave in the cinematic representation. Northup was born a freeman, and lived in Upstate New York where he worked as a laborer and musician. He was an exceptionally talented violinist, and there was sufficient demand for his work as a performer. While in his early thirties, two men asked him to accompany him on a tour to the nation’s capital, promising great earning potential. At the conclusion of the tour, Northup was drugged and sold to slave pen. The slavers used his musical talents as a distinguishing selling point, and he was soon sold at a high price to a man named William Ford. Ford was a better man than most slave owners, and gifted Solomon a fiddle to play out of appreciation for all of Solomon’s contributions on Ford’s plantation.
After Ford presented him with a new fiddle, he used music as a way to preserve his sense of individuality, playing in bondage in the hopes that he would one day play again as a freeman. While working in the fields, other slaves often sang spirituals. Solomon did not sing with them, for he refused to identify as a slave. After Ford sold Solomon to Epps, Epps demanded Solomon play for his personal entertainment. Slowly, Solomon’s music began to symbolize his oppression. The fiddle (which he carved the names of his family into) ceases to be a way to hold onto his identity of Solomon Northup, and eventually becomes a haunting reminder that he is now Platt. Toward the end of the film we see a transition in Solomon, and he begins to give shape to his new identity as a slave. He destroys the violin so he is no longer subject to having his talents exploited, an expression of tremendous personal power. In addition, when he begins to sing with his fellow slaves while they hold a funeral, he is finally embracing a new culture and his individual role within it.
In Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, he tells the story of a young girl named Cora who was born into slavery in the American South. He gives his heroine a sense of individuality within her own community in the form a small patch in which to grow vegetables. She inherited from her mother who inherited it from her mother, giving Cora a strong sense of ownership. When another slave builds a doghouse in her garden, she destroys it in order to preserve what is hers. Whitehead, and McQueen each use symbols within their works as manifestations of their character’s identities. For Solomon, it was his fiddle and music as a whole; for Cora, it was her garden.
Solomon’s life as a freeman was centered on his musical talent. It was how he often earned money and it allowed others to give him individual recognition. When he was sold into slavery, the slavers stripped him of his family, of his education, of his home, and of his freedom. Cora has added dimension that McQueen could not give their main protagonists: in addition to being oppressed because of her color, she also is also subjected to gender oppression as well. Violent rapes and sexual assaults were prevalent throughout the book, and it elaborated on the further struggles that enslaved women had. In 12 Years a Slave, Patsy was raped consistently by Epps, her master. Cora not only faced threats like these, but was also raped by members of her slave community. The compounding oppression only gives her more resolve, and she finds strength in her identity as a woman which helps her continue to move forward as the story progresses. Another similarity between 12 Years a Slave and The Underground Railroad was the use of dance and music. Both were featured on opposite ends of the spectrum, with dance and music at times representing individual freedom and unique culture, and at other times being used to convey oppression when it was done for the “enjoyment” of their masters.
The debates over race and representation in American films is a contentious subject for at least the past one hundred years. As mentioned earlier in this journal, blacks are perceived as a less than in juxtaposition to whites. Many labels have been attached to African-Americans’, it is grotesque, unfair, and monstrously cruel. Since the beginning of this country’s history, blacks have been exploited, and act that carries onto today, just in a different manner. Before Jim Crow laws were enacted, it was their enslavement, during Jim Crow, it was still enslavement, just in another form, working menial jobs, if one could be found, for less than average pay, the brutalization still continued, used for entertainment purposes as a novelty, and in the last half century, for athletics and sports prowess. Fifty years plus have passed since the beginning of the Civil Rights movement began. However, the change is inadequate and bafflingly complex. Despite the small victories with African-Americans’ in positions of power and finally being represented, the community as a whole is still undereducated, underfunded, unemployed, and continuously and unfairly labeled. All of these things have, in the past, led to the representations we see and have seen in film. Perhaps it all began with the minstrel shows of the 19th century where the actual character of a black male named Jim Crow was created. At first these depictions were meant to be humorous and as time evolved they became more sinister, as in the black “savage” of the early 20th century. This imagery took hold and became firmly rooted in white American expectations of black people in film. It is only recently that these negative depictions are changing. How much longer will we have to endure these disgraceful representations from Hollywood? When will Hollywood depictions of minorities become truly equal? Only time will tell, however, it is only and sadly, just begun to move in the right direction.
Lyman, Stanford M. Race, Sex, and Servitude: Images of Blacks in American Cinema.
International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society. September 1990. Vol 4. Pp. 49-77. Web Journal. Accessed March 25, 2019.
Merritt, Bishetta D. Charles Burnett: Creator of African-American Culture on Film. Howard University. September 2008. Vol. 39. No. 1 pp. 109-128. Web Journal. Accessed March 25, 2019.