A Brief History of America's Obsession With Epic Slavery Films
Scarlett O'Hara and her mammy in Gone with the Wind.
With their Oscar wins last night, Django Unchained and Lincoln have taken their places in the top-tier pantheon of Hollywood’s slavery films. As Official Slavery and Jim Crow Epics, both films have the full support of the Hollywood machine, enjoying obscene budgets and lengths, and use the power of image and story to re-create the history of the eras. They also both, in my opinion, absolve the white majority of guilt for upholding systemic labor exploitation.
Slavery and Jim Crow Epics are a whole mini-genre in Hollywood. These films are often released in an important anniversary year and rake in the box office dollars, and often wind up hindering meaningful conversation about the legacy of slavery. Whether the films employ benevolent omission or base humor, these versions of America’s racial history continue to write African Americans out of the scene.
Here is a brief history of America Slavery and Jim Crow Epics, from 1915 to the present.
50 Year Anniversary of the 13th Amendment: Birth of a Nation
The 1915 KKK classic Birth of a Nation introduced color-coded stereotypes of black women, the image of contented enslaved blacks and buffoons, and villainous black bucks to mainstream cinema. Scenes depicting black men (largely white actors in blackface) stealing elections, attempting to rape white women, and eating fried chicken in Congressional sessions are images that still guide America’s modern Reconstruction myths. In numerous cities, African Americans spent what should have been a year of celebration protesting the film and defending themselves from riotous whites who poured out of theaters and attacked them in city streets.
The Takeaway: Irresponsible blacks, obsessed with sexual miscegenation, distorted the democratic system, and were responsible for the failure of Reconstruction. Therefore, whites needn’t feel guilty about slavery, Jim Crow, or racial terrorism.
Reception: Many people protested the film, but it was still a commercial success. President Woodrow Wilson offered his seal of approval after an official White House screening, gushing that Birth of a Nation was “like writing history with lightning.”
75th Anniversary of the 13th Amendment: Gone with the Wind
Gone with the Wind, takes an idyllic view of a blissful plantation—complete with contented enslaved blacks—torn apart by the Civil War. Scarlet O’Hara, a rare female protagonist, helms the film, fights the brutalities of war with her loyal “mammy” and flighty housemaid by her side. Here, the black rapist stereotype is replaced by threatening white Yankee deserter, shot dead by Scarlett on a stately southern staircase. Despite it’s softened take on blacks, Gone with the Wind was a love note to the jilted Confederate South. Rhett Butler’s name is a nod to the radical Confederate “Father of Secession”, politician Robert Barnwell Rhett, Sr. His real-life great-granddaughter, actress Alicia Rhett, played India Wilkes.
The Takeaway: Slavery kept blacks contented, until the greedy North upset the order of the South. The war nearly killed Scarlett the South, but she survived. She lost the war, but she won the Reconstruction, damn it.
Reception: Released in January 17, 1940, the $3.9 million film is nearly 4 hours long, and won 9 Oscars. The city of Atlanta declared a holiday for the film.
100th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation: To Kill a Mockingbird
To Kill A Mockingbird hit the big screen in 1962, just over a week before the 100-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Since the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, media had steadily delivered embarrassing images of racist violence. This was at the time when the nation was reeling from the Summer 1961 attacks on Freedom Riders and the October 1962 anti-integration riots at Ole Miss. The film needed a humble approach, and had to separate the Benevolent White Man from the Violent Southern Bigot.
The film makes anti-racism a central message, but it reinforced racial stereotypes in several key ways. To Kill a Mockingbird reintroduced the image of the frightful black buck, Tom Robinson, who’s effectively castrated by his immobile arm, his quiet nature, and an army of “good negroes.” Poor white southerners are held up as the real reason for Jim Crow abuses.
The Takeaway: Emerging liberal America is heroic in its efforts to aid helpless blacks face ignorant Southern whites.
Reception: The $2 million film was released on December 25, 1962, is a bit over 2 hours, and netted 3 Oscars.
150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and Django Unchained
Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Lincoln focuses on Abraham Lincoln, a lanky lawyer, dotting father, and a nation’s moral leader. Lincoln ignores the work of black abolitionist leaders, representing the President as a longtime moral abolitionist who miraculously guides the 13th Amendment to passage. Lincoln also employs a “balcony in hall of law” scene. These scenes feature cathartic debates for racial justice, when previously invisible blacks gather in silent numbers on the balcony of a hall of law to bear witness to white oration. This trademark scene, debuted offensively in Birth a Nation, achieved legendary effect in To Kill a Mockingbird.
The Takeaway: Pay no attention to historical fact, Lincoln’s early promise to uphold slavery was merely a war tactic. Remember only that Lincoln “freed the slaves” and that Black folk watched from a distance, as proud, passive extras.
Reception: The $50 million film was released on October 8, 2012, is 2.5 hours long, and collected two Oscars last night.
Django Unchained is a surreal film, but remains firmly within the mini-genre. We know this especially because Gone With the Wind’s theme blared shamelessly after Quentin Tarantino’s acceptance speech last night. Django is anachronistic, offensive, and false. It upholds the myth of enslaved black women as willing concubines for white slaveholders—though Broomhilda, who endures fetishistic violence, is the exception. Instead of toiling, most of Django’s black women lounge on swings and chaises, eat lobster, and giggle over the antics of Fitz the horse. Enslaved black men entrap and murder each other in a cannibalistic reimagining of Invisible Man scenes. Django is an apprentice to a white central character, gaining independence in his wife’s rescue only after the death of martyred liberator Dr. King Shultz at the film’s end.
The Takeaway: Django is an exceptional “one in 10,000 n*gg*rs”, the bulk of whom are less than courageous and contented in slavery. Lampooning slavery is fine, because blacks are generally ignoble. The only way a Black man happens to become free is with the help of a fatherly white man.
Reception: Released on December 25, 2012, the $100 million film is nearly 3 hours and scooped 2 Oscars last night. Jamie Foxx serenaded Vice President and Dr. Biden at the Inaugural Ball, only weeks after the film opened.
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