Slavery Stories Can Be Great But We’re Rarely the Ones Telling Them
Nate Parker broke records last week when his Nat Turner slave revolt film Birth of a Nation was picked up by Fox Searchlight for $17.5 billion. While this is exciting news, Parker’s success isn’t the benchmark for movies in this genre nor is it a logical signal to Hollywood to make more slavery era movies.
The news about Birth of a Nation came at a time when the debate surrounding the recent Oscars nominations and the blatant absence of any Black actors and actresses was at a fever pitch. The lack of recognition for these entertainers has been said to be linked to the fact that Black actors and actresses too often are only awarded for playing stereotypical roles like maids, butlers, slaves, and civil rights leaders.
On Wednesday, Kara Brown over at Jezebel expressed fatigue with these types of limiting roles stating,
“It’s obvious at this point that Hollywood has a problem with only paying attention to non-white people when they’re playing a stereotype. Their love of the slave movie genre brings this issue out in the worst way. I’m tired of watching black people go through some of the worst pain in human history for entertainment, and I’m tired of white audiences falling over themselves to praise a film that has the courage and honesty to tell such a brutal story. When movies about slavery or, more broadly, other types of violence against black people are the only types of films regularly deemed “important” and “good” by white people, you wonder if white audiences are only capable of lauding a story where black people are subservient.”
Brown’s sentiment isn’t lost on me. The Academy Award winners list for Black actresses is severely limited, only including recognition for the roles of mammy, drug addict, slave, fortune-teller, and estranged soul singer. What’s more, Halle Berry is the only Black actress in the Academy’s history to win an Oscar in the “Best Actress” category. That wasn’t until 2002. Thus, it’s clear why some have expressed concern about the types of roles Black actors and actresses are nominated for and how these roles reflect an overall disappetite for nuance and diversity of Black experiences.
On Friday, Mychal Denzel Smith penned a response to Brown’s piece at The Nation. He took a different stance arguing in favor of more slave movies, calling for so many slave movies that whites “start to complain that the only roles they’re being offered are those of slave owners.”
“The reality is that film is how we create American cultural memory, and while it’s tempting to believe that because we’ve had a few major releases recently with slavery at the center, we have some type of canon to draw from, there isn’t. No slavery narrative exists.”
To be clear, Smith is not arguing for more images of brutalization of Black folks on-screen. Nor is he arguing that Brown’s contention is unfounded (while he does note that there have technically only been about six slavery era movies since 1915). Perhaps Brown could have qualified that her contention wasn’t just with slave movies but with the pervasiveness of stereotypical roles in general and the limitations on the creative abilities of Black actors and actresses. But, Brown’s core point can be distilled down into a central issue: Black actors and actresses rarely get to play the diverse characters on the big screen that their White counterparts have access to or whom they identify with in real life.
Brown’s dismay that Hollywood continues to create and award films that depict chattel bondage and the subsequent resistance against systemic racism isn’t unfounded. This is especially important when considering that, unlike Parker’s new Birth of a Nation, Black directors, producers, and writers are rarely the ones creating these slave stories Smith wants so badly to see more of. This is where his argument falls short for me.
Smith asks for a “White Savior.” It’s because these stories are far too frequently written, produced, and directed by White people for other White people.Marvel Universe of films about slavery” without first asking that Black directors and writers have greater access in the industry. To focus on the absence of a “slave narrative” in the American cultural memory before focusing on the structural barriers to content and knowledge creation for Blacks in this country is putting the cart before the horse. There’s a reason why slavery era movies are often whitewashed and feature the “
I agree with Brown in that I, too, am tired of the very limited numbers and types of roles Black folks get to play in Hollywood. I also agree with Smith that there is an absence of a coherent slave narrative in this country. I argue though that we can be simultaneously tired of seeing Black people being brutalized on-screen while appreciating that this story (amongst many others) needs to be told and re-told. We can have a hunger for a real slave narrative while simultaneously demanding that we be the ones acting as narrators.
What I want is more work from Black entertainers like Birth of a Nation, a story that reclaims the title of an anti-Reconstruction, anti-Black film, highlights the talent of Black folks, and uses the subversive imagery to disrupt the industry while empowering Black people. These works don’t have to only be about slavery. In fact they shouldn’t be. But they should be made by us.
If we’re not telling the stories ourselves then the presence of a slave narrative (or a carefree Black girl narrative or a nerdy Black kid narrative or whatever) won’t be a win. It will be yet another opportunity for non-Black people to appropriate our experiences. I really don’t want more of that.