Just a few days ago I sat watching a Quentin Tarantino film dealing with a freed slave turned bounty hunter. The movie was quite entertaining (in a Tarantino kind of way), but as the movie went on I tried to think of all the slavery movies I have either seen or know about. There is, of course, Roots, Amistad, and although not entirely about slavery, The Color Purple. Beyond those films, there seem to be very few movies about the history of slavery, which is a bit of puzzle to me. There is a plethora of films about just about every major and minor event in American history, from the good to the bad to the ugly. Which is why it seems odd that very few movies have been made about slavery. On the one hand, this lack of decent films on the topic may be because cinema exists primarily to entertain, and being reminded about the millions of slaves who died in this country or en route to this country is somewhat of a downer. On the other hand, Hollywood enjoys reminding its viewers about parts of American history that make us uncomfortable. So why the few movies about slavery?
I would propose that there are two explanations. First, Hollywood makes “historical” movies primarily about recent history, where at least some of the viewers watching the film can recall the time frame of the film or know someone who can. For instance, compare the number of World War 2 movies made recently with the number of films about World War 1. Consider how many movies have been made in the last ten to fifteen years about George Washington? To my knowledge, none. There have been only three movies made recently about Abraham Lincoln, and one of those involved vampires! A survey of historic movies would probably reveal more movies made in the last decade about British history than American history. The most recent movie about slavery, Amazing Grace, was not about American slavery but British! Hollywood makes historical movies that Americans want to see and what America wants to see is movies about times they recall, like Argo and the Iranian hostage crisis. When Hollywood wants to remind America about a difficult time in our nation’s history, they normally choose a recent event, like Vietnam or racial desegregation, times that people who watch movies can remember. Obviously, very few alive today remember anyone who owned slaves.
This pattern of filming more recent history is not a new pattern in American cinema. There was a time when Hollywood made many films about World War 1, such as The Fighting Sixty Ninth, All Quiet on the Western Front, and many others. When World War 2 ended, Hollywood began making World War 2 movies like The Longest Day and World War 1 films slowly disappeared. Thus, if there were films made about slavery, one would expect them in the early part of the last century in the years closest to slavery. But racism as a national phenomenon was an issue well into recent years, so the last thing that a predominately white movie going culture wanted to see in the first half of the last century was movies about slavery. Which is why there seems to be very few movies about slavery, with the exception of the ones mentioned above. Slavery is not recent, and when it was, people did not want to see films about it.
None of which should be a surprise. Hollywood is not really trying to educate our society but entertain it. Even when they do wish to educate, movie makers will choose recent events like the Holocaust over 19th century slavery. The lack of movies reminding Americans about the heinousness of slavery is not due to modern racism, but due to the racism of the first half of the 20th century when it was not a topic anyone wanted to see a film about. On the other hand, Hollywood has not done a great job of filling in this gap, which means that there are still no movies being made currently about slavery. As our culture continues to grow more and more visual and remembers its history primarily from film, one wonders if Americans will simply forget over time about the horrific history of slavery, a time that probably deserves more films than any other.