Films tackling slavery have an uphill battle to climb with critics, historians and audiences

Cynthia Erivo gave cinematic life to Harriet Tubman in "Harriet."


By HELENA ANDREWS-DYER | The Washington Post | Published: September 26, 2020

What makes a good slave movie?

The very question can feel too light considering the two-ton subject matter, but it’s top of mind this week with the release of “Antebellum,” a thriller by the producers of “Get Out” that uses the horrors of slavery as an allegory for America’s long-overdue racial reckoning.

It’s a lot — and yet, not enough.

The film stars Janelle Monae in overlapping roles as a 21st-century professional smarty named Veronica and an enslaved woman named Eden who is forced into labor on a cotton plantation. With its time-blending narrative, the film attempts to reframe the hard-to-watch scenes of sexual violence, kidnapping and whippings so common in movies about slavery with a plot twist most will see coming from a country mile.

Why would the filmmakers even go there? Slavery is in right now.

In 2017, “Get Out” — Jordan Peele’s directorial debut and Oscar winner for best original screenplay — employed the themes of bondage and stolen humanity to weave a modern horror story about race and racism that felt different but still familiar. The film ushered in a new wave of cinematic explorations of slavery with a twist. Peele’s sophomore effort “Us” and next year’s “Candyman” have also drilled into layers of oppression to examine society’s ills. “Antebellum” appeared to be following suit.

Led by first-time directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, the film is the latest addition to a complicated canon that includes movies as problematic as “Gone with the Wind,” as fantastical as “Django Unchained” and as revered as “12 Years a Slave.”

“You have to be really careful and responsible with (this topic),” Bush said in an interview.

Because like the films that came before it, “Antebellum” isn’t just a movie. It can’t be. Films about slavery have an uphill battle to climb with critics, historians and audiences. There is a responsibility lurking behind each reel: A dialogue should be sparked; perspectives should be shifted. It’s an incredibly tall order for any piece of art but represents the peculiar conundrum of films about what Bush called “this country’s original sin.”

According to the reviews, “Antebellum” doesn’t hit the mark.

Washington Post chief film critic Ann Hornaday called it a “muddled misfire of a fantasy-horror film.” Entertainment Weekly was similarly unimpressed by the “underbaked slavery fable” which, according to the Hollywood Reporter, “is shallow, more interested in making a Big Point than digging meaningfully into its subject.” The Globe and Mail took the entire genre to task: “At the end of the day, if this is what contemporary slave narratives are belatedly evolving into, I’m not sure that the genre is worth rehabilitating.”

So, the big question still remains: What makes a good slave movie? Or, perhaps more important, what makes a bad one? For the experts — researchers, teachers, writers, actors — the answer lies somewhere between holding on to the past and pushing the narrative forward.

When historian Dexter Gabriel saw “12 Years a Slave” in 2013 at a Brooklyn theater, his reaction was simple: “Finally.”

“It was the first time, as far as a major Hollywood film, where you had a Black writer who was a descendant of slaves,” said Gabriel, who teaches a course on slavery and film at the University of Connecticut.

Before “12 Years a Slave” — written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen, who are both Black men — major studio films about slavery were almost exclusively written, directed and produced by white men, and it showed.

Though Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad,” released in 1997, was one of the first big-budget films to depict the horrors of the Middle Passage on screen, it is, at its core, a courtroom drama starring white men. “Glory,” a 1989 movie about one of the first Black regiments of the Union Army, which garnered Denzel Washington his first Oscar, focuses much of its narrative on the struggles of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, played by Matthew Broderick.

Gabriel’s syllabus begins in 1915 with D.W. Griffith’s wildly popular racist propaganda film “The Birth of a Nation” and moves up through the decades to include such films as “Glory” and “Get Out,” as well as older films such as “The Littlest Rebel” (1935), “Gone with the Wind” (1939) and “Mandingo” (1975), examining each for its historical accuracy, cultural context and entertainment value.

“I ruin movies for my students, even ones I like,” he said.

But “12 Years a Slave” is one Gabriel likes. The Oscar-winning film is based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, a free man from New York who was kidnapped and enslaved in D.C. McQueen’s big-screen adaptation consistently gets gold stars from American historians because the film is based on actual events, centers on the story of a Black man and depicts both the stark brutality and ordinary day-to-day lives of the enslaved.

Other films from the 2010s such as “Django Unchained,” “The Birth of a Nation” and “Harriet” have their moments, but don’t quite rise to the top of most experts’ list. “Django Unchained” was Quentin Tarantino’s shoot-’em-up fantasy. “The Birth of a Nation,” about the revolt led by Nat Turner, was overwrought. “Harriet,” about the American hero Harriet Tubman, could have told the fascinating and lesser-known tale of her work as a Union Army spy.

“All of these movies try to reinforce the notion that slavery was bad, which we all already know,” said Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh, a historian focusing on the intersections of gender, religion and slavery.

“What I would like for us to do with these films is to get to a place where we valorize the work of the people who lived and died” on plantations, said Wells-Oghoghomeh. “Those are the vast majority of the ancestors of people who call themselves African Americans.”

For Joy Banner, the director of marketing at the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, one of the few such historic sites in the country that centers on the experience of those enslaved there (and not Pinterest weddings), the goal of any good movie about slavery should be to humanize the people this country considered chattel.

“We created something beautiful out of it — our bonds, our networks. That is not captured enough,” said Banner, a descendant of the plantation for which she works.

Banner’s thoughts on the subject aren’t just academic. She is currently working on her own script about a little-known African American hero. It’s a spycraft story set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. Her personal charge, and artistic struggle, is to tell “a story that is a relief from the trauma that also does justice to the trauma.”

What’s missing from so many films about the institution of slavery is variety, said Banner. There aren’t just more stories to be told, but different stories — nuanced narratives that depict the vast experiences of those who were enslaved in America from 1619 through the end of the Civil War. Not every slave narrative is cotton fields, barefoot escapes through the woods, barking dogs and torn flesh.

Who’s telling the tale of Robert Smalls, who in 1862 commandeered a Confederate ship, picked up his family and then sailed to freedom? Or the story of Ellen Craft, whose skin was fair enough that she passed for white and, in 1848, dressed up as a wealthy male planter, pretended to be her husband William’s owner, and escaped with him to Philadelphia, traveling most of the way in luxury?

“There are more cathartic stories to be told,” said Banner.

Looking at the past decade, one would be forgiven for thinking that movies about slavery are plentiful. Since the 2012 releases of “Django Unchained” and “Lincoln,” there has been a steady stream of slave films. Besides 2013’s “12 Years a Slave,” the following years brought “Freedom” (2014), “Free State of Jones” (2016), “The Birth of a Nation” (2016) and “Harriet” (2019) to theaters. “Emperor” premiered in March, and “Antebellum” will be on video on demand Friday.

But despite the uptick in titles, movies about slavery are “still exceedingly rare,” said Gabriel.

The dearth of films about the subject is a double-edged sword. Because there are so few, each film that does address it usually attempts to do too much.

“Every film has to be the film about all slavery, and it can’t,” said Gabriel.

This is the reason some question the very value of films about it. Why make them if the bar is so high and so often missed?

For actor Djimon Hounsou, whose first major role was starring in “Amistad,” the opportunity could not be missed to bring to the masses the tale of a group of kidnapped Africans who revolted against their captors.

“I was completely invested to my bones in playing this character,” said Hounsou, who won an NAACP Image Award for playing Cinque, the real-life Mende tribesman who led a revolt on the slave ship La Amistad in 1839. “I have never been more alive than when I was playing that role. I was so connected. I was so gone. It’s difficult to articulate.”

When “Amistad” was released, it sparked a renewed dialogue about race in America that the country is still struggling with today.

“I think it’s painful for America to keep avoiding the conversation because a decade later, you’re going to find yourself here again having to deal with similar issues,” said Hounsou. “You do need to talk about it. You need to regularly remind the new generation where they came from, who their ancestors were.

“Imagery is the way that people conquer the world these days. If you can’t tell your story, you’re done.”

Especially because, he added, the other side will continue to tell theirs.

That lesson — that history, cinematic or otherwise, belongs to the storytellers — is one that “Antebellum” directors Bush and Renz had hoped to bring home with their film.

Their opening tracking shot is directly inspired by “Gone with the Wind.” Using the very same lenses as the 1939 film, the first scene of “Antebellum” depicts an idyllic plantation in all its Southern-filtered glory, complete with the lush greenery and stately big house. Then the camera leads viewers past all that ill-gotten beauty to the brutality happening behind the scenes.

The directors’ goal was to “correct the record using the same weaponry that was used to create this false narrative of the noble antebellum South,” said Bush. “I don’t know that I would even consider ‘Antebellum’ within the category of those movies just based on what it is. It’s something entirely different.”

Well, not exactly.

It is a film that uses slavery, and specifically the pre-Civil War time period consistently portrayed on-screen, as a plot device. Slavery is the point. As such, “Antebellum” is expected to do several things at once: educate, inspire, activate. And while valiant efforts are made to do something different — the plot centers on an enslaved, empowered Black woman’s story, and notably doesn’t let white women off the hook — the film falls short of rejuvenating the genre.

So what makes a good slave movie? One that tells a different tale. One that doesn’t try to squeeze a centuries-long saga into one or two hours. And one that gives audiences something to leave the theater with besides trauma, especially in a time when brutal images of Black bodies aren’t just in history books, but on the 6 o’clock news.

Because good movies about slavery are still important tools in shifting cultural tide.

“When it comes to the history of people of African descent in the U.S., we are still in a moment where we need to be humanized. We see over and over the consequences of us not being understood as fully human,” said Wells-Oghoghomeh, the historian.

Gabriel’s hope is that the next wave of films released about the topic are written, directed and produced by Black people.

“That’s going to push the direction we see these films take,” he said. “There are umpteen stories to tell.”