Recently as described by CNN, there has been a Renaissance of sorts in African American cinema. Several contemporary films have focused on a large section of America’s past, often omitted from our screens entirely: SLAVERY. Given its impact and duration, American slavery for far too long has been underrepresented, both in film and television. In some projects the institution was omitted entirely, repainting America’s past rather then confronting it honestly.
As stated in one of my prior pieces:
“America is only 236 years old, the Independence of the country was gained in 1776. While in contrast America’s African slavery lasted from 1619, to at least the date used by most textbooks 1862… So in all American slavery was ‘several-hundred’-years-long, being that it started before the country’s independence and lasted well into its more modern existence. — “Paula Deen, Trayvon Martin, the Shadow of Racism…”
Finally slavery is starting to be addressed head on at the theater in movies such as 12 years a Slave and Django Unchained. These films are taking a fresh look at the institution that defined the foundation of America, and bringing the time period to major theatrical releases. Contrasting the two films, where 12 years attempted to be true to form, Django took liberties in creating visuals on slavery that were overtly fictional. While the films take different approaches in storytelling, any critic must start with recognition for the creators taking the period on in art, and creating interpretations that provoke thought. Yet as they have brought the pieces to the main stream, the next question is what are the filmmaker’s responsibilities in preserving historical integrity and producing factually accurate portrayals of slavery as an institution.
I recently visited the Warner Brothers studio lot in Hollywood, California and sat with Mark Wolper, the president of The Wolper Organization, the company that created the Roots saga. We discussed the benefits and dangers when creating content based on slavery, and his views on these current theatrical pieces. We also talked about where we need to take this Renaissance as we expand into current topics facing African Americans. To this day, the standard bearer for slavery on TV or film is the groundbreaking series Roots — the story of Alex Haley’s lineage.
As stated by Newsweek, Roots remains the third most-watched miniseries of all time. It is also still considered the definitive mainstream portrait of slavery in the U.S. Airing in 1977 to an America still adjusting to a post-civil rights reality, the show was both controversial and educational. Talking to Mark Wolper, he stated:
“Initially ABC was set to air Roots weekly. They then saw the final footage, and thought America would have a hard time swallowing the reality of slavery on broadcast TV. They, as a result, aired it in a single week to sort of let the show go. In the end they were dead wrong on what America’s reception would be to the concept of slavery, and the series Roots aired as filmed to great praise.”
The eight-part miniseries saw nearly 140 million viewers tune in, and is still one of the most watched shows in American History. Even in re-airing this past year, it set a new record on BET for cable viewing of the series. After Roots came a saga, with the subsequent Roots Next Generation and Queen. The three-part set — being both Emmy-nominated and highly-rated — appeared to state that America was ready to be honest about an institution that defined its own roots.
“…the answer to my question would have to be a responding ‘NO!’ And the reason is simply that we, even in this day and age, still have way too much psychological and emotional pain and baggage still associated with it. The wounds are still too fresh, too raw. Or to put it bluntly, there’s simply no way you can get a black audience to watch a film in which black people are dehumanized, degraded and brutalized by white people on the big screen.
“And just as well there’s no way you can get white people to watch themselves dehumanizing, degrading and brutalizing black people on the big screen. It’s too painful, too disturbing, too many old hidden scars to be dealt with. Best that we ignore it and pretend it was all just a bad nightmare. But perhaps even worse, pretend that slavery really wasn’t all that bad as they say it was. And besides it gave full employment to black people so how could it have been as awful as they say? — “Can a Serious Movie be Made about Slavery?” — Shadow and Act
As a filmmaker, when dealing with a topic as sensitive as slavery, the first responsibility is to be accurate. Not so much true, because much in the storytelling of a period piece is fictionalized, but at least accurate to the time period’s customs. These comments come in the context of statements Director Quentin Tarantino stated to Newsweek in the article “Quentin Tarantino on Django Unchained and the Problem with Roots.” “Hollywood didn’t want to deal with it because it was too ugly and too messy,” Tarantino recently told The Daily Beast:
“But how can you ignore such a huge part of American history when telling a story in that time period? It made no sense. When you look at Roots, nothing about it rings true in the storytelling, and none of the performances ring true for me either. I couldn’t get over how oversimplified they made everything about that time. It didn’t move me because it claimed to be something it wasn’t. — Quentin Tarantino.
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“One thing both men, Tarantino and Hudlin, agreed on was a scene in Roots that served as an example of what not to do in Django Unchained. The last act of the final episode features the character Chicken George being given the opportunity to beat his slave master and owner in much the same way he’d been punished and tormented. In the end the character chooses not to so he can be ‘the bigger man.’ ‘Bulls–t,’ exclaim both Tarantino and Hudlin in unison as they discuss the absurdity of the scene. ‘No way he becomes the bigger man at that moment,’ — Newsweek “Quentin Tarantino on “Django Unchained and the Problem with Roots”
In an exclusive first response to the comments Wolper states:
“I respect Tarantino as a filmmaker, but his statements are like a backseat driver 30 years later after a lot of change. To say nothing rings true shows a clear lack of understanding of where the country was socially at the time Roots aired. When the series came on TV it was like nothing the country had seen to that point. We have come so far since Roots hit our televisions in 1977, current expanded outlets and social mindsets allow stories on the topic to dig deeper naturally. If Roots came on today, it wouldn’t be timely as shot. A show that’s over 30 years old with the amount of change this country has seen couldn’t be up to date. But as TV evolved it allowed for changes in relaying history in shows that just wasn’t allowed in the late ’70s. This is particularly true for issues of race, as the country adjusted to new laws. Looking more specifically at Django it was a fictional spaghetti western that lacked the context of relationships, layout of history and critical acclaim of our series Roots.
“Lastly, be factually accurate when critically evaluating TV and film history because it was Tom, Chicken George’s son that was given a chance to whip a white man at the end of the series. The man was not his master. It was a chance instead to whip a white man that had whipped him prior for trying to leave without paying a bill that was unfairly claimed to be due. Tom was at that point a sharecropper with no master. This was a mark of an evolving relationship between blacks and whites after slavery, and a changing environment after the Emancipation Proclamation. That is very different than not whipping your master if given a chance.”
This is what happens when you take liberties in telling history; your liberties can destroy the historical context for the storyline. By adding color to accentuate what you as the filmmaker feel should have happened, you can do damage to the nuances of emotion, experience and life that prevented it from happening at the time. The institution that was slavery, was suffocating for the individual, leaving them not just with a feeling of being powerless, but often actually without power to do anything except survive a lifetime of subjugation. Where in reference to Roots, Tarantino stated, “none of the performances ring true.” My opinion is Lou Gossett Jr.’s Emmy Award-winning performance as Fiddler was one of the most powerful dramatic roles in television history. This role along with several others in the saga exposed America to the layers of black life during this time, showing that the depth of a character’s love, confusion and values extended much further than simply their status as a house or a field slave.
As stated prior, the recently released “12 Years a Slave” took a much more historically accurate view of the institution of slavery. Raw, brutal and real is how I describe it after a viewing of the film. Director Steve McQueen held no punches in detailing the atrocity of slavery. The story of Solomon Northup was captured in a detail that caught the nuance of acceptance slaves were forced to endure. Several shots were made intentionally long, forcing the viewer to sit uncomfortably and grasp how long a painful moment can stretch.
The generational reality of families that were enslaved from the early 1700s through the late 1800’s spanning several generations is often chopped down to eight – 10 minutes of back story in many films. In addition, some of the tactics used by slave masters weren’t purely about violence, but rather social confusion and require a length of time and repetitiveness to unveil that cannot fit in 120 minutes.
In light of the new Renaissance in African American film and television Wolper states he and his company, The Wolper Organization, are continuing their legacy, and developing African American stories around a few of the key social justice moments that deeply affected all of America. Wolper adds:
“We are thinking of adding to the Roots saga, and taking a crack at this with all the filming tools we didn’t have even when I made Queen with Halle Berry. Also another project, I am looking to tell a definitive piece on the cocaine epidemic, Reaganomics and the government scandal that followed by adapting the autobiographical book of “Freeway” Rick Ross. All of this played a role in triggering a massive change in American mass incarceration. A real story of the African-American experience in urban Los Angeles during the 1980s and the whole Iran-Contra scandal it was a powerful time in America.”
In the end it is by challenging our way of thinking that we realize African-American stories should be told not just because they bring diversity to current production, but rather more importantly, because they are a part of American history that every American should know.
“Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise.” — Maya Angelou
Los Angeles Attorney, UCLA Alumni – Loyola Law Alumni