Hollywood’s Complex History Of Portraying Slavery On ScreenHollywood’s Complex History Of Portraying Slavery On Screen

October 12, 2016


When the first trailer for Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” dropped in June, it felt like a lightning rod moment for the depiction of slavery on the big screen. Here was a film written, directed, produced by and starring a black filmmaker. Here was a film not only about the horrors and injustices of slavery, but also the fight against it, represented by Nat Turner’s infamous slave revolt in 1831. Turner’s story had never been told on screen, and certainly never like this ― from the perspective of Turner, fully sympathetic to his motives and his violent actions. 


Then, the controversy began. After a stellar reception at Sundance (where the film was bought by Fox Searchlight for a record-breaking $17 million), reports emerged that Parker was accused of raping and harassing a young woman in 1999, during his time at Penn State. He was acquitted, but the details of the case (which also involved Parker’s co-writer Jean Celestin, who was convicted but later appealed) have cast a dark shadow over “Birth,” a film that includes two instances of rape. 


Throughout the scrutiny, Parker has remained adamant that his personal past should not discourage movie-goers from seeing the film. “The Birth of a Nation,” he’s said, is too important a story for the black community and too great an opportunity for the country to have a real conversation about race


On Friday, “The Birth of A Nation” will premiere in theaters across the United States. Early reviews have suggested that it’s no masterpiece, using many of the familiar tropes and images that have been established and built upon in slave movies before it. But according to Parker and his supporters, what makes the film so important is its educational quality ― it’s introducing many people to the “real” story of Nat Turner.


And yet, looking back over 100 years of films about slavery and the effects of slavery, the question is if that’s enough. Should films about slavery be art, or educational, or both? Should they always be brutal? Or should they be more palpable, less controversial? And does the grave subject matter of slavery make it worth supporting a film like “Birth of a Nation” and, therefore, it’s problematic director?


There must be a reason why we return, over and over again, to the institution of slavery when telling black stories on screen. Perhaps the constant return is a symptom of us never truly reckoning as a nation with the reality of American slavery as well as its complex, far-reaching ramifications. Perhaps, with each new movie, we’re attempting to arrive closer and closer to the truth of slavery and, by doing so, the truth of who and what America really is. 

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