We have, in the last decade, witnessed a rapid increase in cinematic slave narratives and some academics would say that this can be seen as a recurring social phenomenon. Furthermore, it could be claimed that cinematic slave narratives can be seen as a modern reflection of the anti-slavery movements of the 19th century and the African American Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century (Schroeter, 2016). But what is a cinematic slave narrative? Since there is no apparent academic work written on the subject, is it then possible to produce a specific definition and what are the reasons for this growing popularity? These are the main questions of this essay, which will be discussed through a close study of contemporary thoughts on the cinematic works: Django: Unchained (2013), The Birth of a Nation (2016) and Twelve Years a Slave (2013).
When we discuss the definition of a cinematic slave narrative it can be divided into three main categories. The first category is the cinematic adaptation of an actual slave narrative, which tells the gruesome quest for freedom from the perspective of an African American slave, as is the case of Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave. Originally, slave narratives were authored by freed slaves, with the help of abolitionists who sought to use the stories as propaganda in the effort of ending slavery in America. This might explain why the number of slave narratives drastically increased in the middle of the 19th century.
The second category is the cinematic adaptation of a neo-slave narrative. The first neo-slave narratives came to be during the 20th century. They can be purely fictional or derive from American folklore or other sorts of written work from the time of slavery as is the case of The Book of Negroes (2007). In practical terms, this means that whoever wants to, can, in fact, produce a story about the lives of an African American slave and call it a neo-slave narrative. As one might imagine, this has caused a lot of drama, as the question of whether or not everyone was allowed to publish a slave narrative started echoing throughout the political landscape. The debate seems to have been fuelled by a series of white authors who wrote neo-slave narratives from the perspective of African Americans, but chose to focus as much on the terrible acts of murder done by slaves during slave rebellions as the actual cruelty of slavery, as witnessed in The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967).
The third category is a cinematic slave narrative completely made up by fiction but with acknowledgeable reference to slavery and with some sort of historically accurate elements, as seen in Quentin Tarantino’s Django: Unchained. Controversy about the creation of completely fictional cinematic slave narratives has been debated by certain African-American members of the film industry for not staying true to the original discourses about slavery.
As mentioned before, Twelve Years a Slave is the cinematic adaptation of an actual slave narrative and the script is left almost entirely unchanged compared to the book, which means that the film we witness represent the actual events of Solomon Northup. Because of this, it is hard to criticise the representation of slavery since the artist, in this case, equals the art. However, in the cinematic adaptation of neo-slave narratives, such as The Confessions of Nat Turner which The Birth of a Nation is based upon, these can be used as a platform on which the director can unfold his vision for the film, even if that includes rewriting the story to suit said vision. When we discuss the definition of a cinematic slave narrative, is it then fair to actually call it a cinematic slave narrative even if it distances itself from the truth in certain discourses about slavery as is the case of Django’s incredible adventure for freedom in Django Unchained? The American director Spike Lee publicly announced that this film was disrespectful and that he had no intentions of watching it especially because he believed that the film tells a lie and undermines how slavery actually occurred. In a tweet, he stated that “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them.” (Ryzik, 2012). This statement goes along with the idea that cinematic slave narratives are meant to tell a true story, referencing how slavery actually happened instead of creating fictional films that feed on slavery in order to produce an entertaining film. Even though Spike Lee felt this way at the time of the film’s release, the film went on to become one of, if not the greatest film of Tarantino’s career. Even though many aspects of Django: Unchained might not be true, while also indulging in the same type of violence and gun slinging as many westerns did before, it still holds a freed African American slave as it’s the main protagonist. It does indeed show a glorified and heroic picture of how a slave, even though it is purely fictional, stood up for what he believed in and fought against a white regime. The popularity of Django: Unchained clearly shows that there is a demand for entertaining, yet fictional cinematic slave narratives as well as emotional and historical ones.
In the context of cinematic slave narratives, the issue about not separating the artist from the art plays a major role in how they are being received by the public and in particular the African American society. This can be seen in the public reception of The Birth of a Nation (2016). When it was beamed onto the big screen at the Sundance festival in 2016, it was immediately celebrated for it’s contribution to the collection of great cinematic slave narratives. Because of this, anticipation went through the roof, but when the film finally arrived in the cinemas in October, the response was something completely different. As it turned out, the film touched the matter of rape, even though the neo-slave narrative on which the film’s script derived from did not contain any of the same scenes involving rape. Many found this very strange, especially after the news about the director duo’s bleak past went public. Nate Parker, the director, and Jean Celestin, the co-writer, had previously been accused of rape during their college years and Jean had actually been found guilty. Because of this, a lot of controversies arose about how the film portray women and their role in slavery. The film idolises the male protagonist as a hero and even when his wife is raped, the film focuses more on his response to the horrible event rather than how the woman who was raped actually felt. If we compare it to the scenes depicting rape in the 2013 blockbuster Twelve Years a Slave, the emotions and response of the female character Patsey who gets raped are perceived much more in depths, and the consequences of the horrible act play a vital role in the film. To some extent, this serves to show that if the director decides to include a scene as vile as rape in his cinematic slave narrative, it cannot simply function as fuel to the protagonist’s journey. If it does indeed only serve to further the protagonist’s identical development, it is easy to understand why women find it less appealing, as we need to remember that it was not only African American men who suffered during slavery.
As mentioned before, original slave narratives were being used as a means to expose the cruelty of slavery. When trying to define the general purpose and plot of cinematic slave narratives, they all seem to have one purpose in common: to show how poorly African Americans were treated and prove to the world that the thousands of slaves in the US were not merely dormant, unintelligent beings incapable of nothing else than following orders from their white slaveholders. Most of the recent cinematic slave narratives establish a strong male African American as it’s protagonist. The protagonists are the victims of horrible treatment, but throughout the films, they establish a self-determined identity, capable of fighting off slavery. This means that it is no longer slavery that is in focus, but rather the slave’s ability to fight back and remain vigilant. This is exactly what seems to be fuelling the cinematic slave narrative’s popularity and when we look at it in the context of contemporary events in society, it serves to contribute to the rising demand for equality between the black and white society in the US. Through the last decade, we have seen a rise of protests about police brutality based on the murder of various African Americans who did nothing wrong except for the fact that they just happened to be born with a darker skin colour. It is easy to imagine, that cinematic slave narratives can be thought of as a media for revealing the racist struggle in which the US finds itself in. It can be seen as a tool for enlightening society about the past and through the past understanding why the tensions within the race struggle in the US are as high as they currently are. When discussing the outcome of The Birth of a Nation, the moral of the story could be that if society keeps on treating blacks and whites differently, it might end up in a new revolt, this time not against slavery but against racism as a whole.
When we discuss cinematic slave narratives and their role in the film industry, they seem to fill out a blank spot where in the story of the African American society can be told. Many of the film industry’s genres rely heavily on white actors because when we want to tell the story of something in the past, it usually takes places somewhere in the European world. With the cinematic slave narratives, African Americans set the stage for them to tell their stories and this might serve as another reason to the increasingly popular number of cinematic slave narratives being produced.
In brief, cinematic slave narratives can be sorted into three different categories and in most cases, they portray the African American male as the protagonist. The drastic increase in cinematic slave narratives seems to be fuelled by a public demand for films which represent the African Americans fight for freedom by showing the ability to rebel and demand equality. Spike Lee’s comment on Django: Unchained shines light upon a question that is incredibly hard to answer: Who is allowed to produce cinematic slave narratives and how are they supposed to represent slavery? Is it only fine to produce a film depicting slavery wherein the African Americans are constantly oppressed, and does it really have to provide a glorified male protagonist while almost forgetting the African American woman? It seems like an impossible question, as slavery is a very debated subject, but one thing is sure, there is no stopping this new and rapidly developing genre and perhaps one day soon women will have a more dominant role to play in the cinematic slave narratives. With the arrival of the cinematic slave narrative, hopefully, the entire world will come to understand how unimaginably cruel African American men and women were treated during slavery in the US and how it still effects millions of people to this very day.
Written by Frederik Roland Andersen, 2016, University College Cork, Ireland.
- Django Unchained. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, Michael Parks and Don Johnson. The Weinstein Company and Columbia Pictures, 2012. Film.
- Fish, Audrey: The Cambridge Companion to the African American Slave Narrative. Edi. Cambridge University Press, 2007. (Book).
- Olney, James: “I Was Born”: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature. Davis, Charles T. and Henry Louis Gates: I: The Slave’s Narrative. 1. Edi. Oxford University Press, 1985. Page 146-175. (Book).
- Ryzik, Melena. “Spike Lee Goes After ‘Django Unchained'” The New York Times. N.p., 25 Dec. 2012. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.
- Schroeter, Caroline. “The Project.” The Cinematic Slave Narrative Project by Caroline Schroeter. https://Wordpress.com, n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.
- Styron, William. The Confessions of Nat Turner. New York: Modern Library, 1994. Print.
- The Birth of a Nation. Dir. Nate Parker. Perf. Nate Parker. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2016. Film.
- Young, Lola. Fear of the Dark: ‘race’, Gender, and Sexuality in the Cinema. London: Routledge, 1996. Print.
- 12 Years a Slave. Dir. Steve McQueen. Prod. Steve McQueen, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, William Pohlad, Arnon Milchan, and Anthony Katagas. By John Ridley. Perf. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Michael Fassbender. N.p., n.d. Film.