A century after the artful mendacity that was Birth of a Nation and 75 years after the pro-Confederate pathos of Gone With a Wind, Hollywood is finally seeing big profits in sympathetic narratives about the black men and women who were once held as property. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which has grossed more than twice its reported $20 million budget, has been nominated for nine Oscars and is a favorite for Best Picture. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained made $425 million worldwide and last year won two gold-plated statuettes, as did Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln. In the history of American cinema, slavery has never been a hotter subject.
But is that an entirely good thing? In the absence of popular films about other aspects of black history, a steady diet of movies about slavery could reduce the larger subject—the long-term oppression and resistance of black Americans—to its most horrendous era. Such an unbalanced focus threatens to present slavery as the central drama of African-American history, a nightmare from which—only with the help of white abolitionists and the Union Army—they managed to awaken. The mighty effort of breaking the chains, these films conclude, enabled freedmen and women to join the great pursuit of happiness that should have been their birthright all along.
But the emancipation guaranteed by the 13th Amendment—the subject of Lincoln—only certified that no Americans would ever again be owned by others. It did nothing to dismantle the structures and attitudes of white supremacy that dominated every sphere of national life.
For a century after the Civil War, these barriers prevented most black people from acquiring a good education, skilled and well-paid jobs, decent housing, and, across the South, exercising the right to vote. Deprived of political power and shunned by whites of all classes, only a small minority of African-Americans were able to escape a life of sharecropping or menial labor. Even now, the legacy of the hateful laws and customs known by the quaint name of Jim Crow hamper the ability of many black people to build up the wealth and cultural capital which could earn them a secure place in the middle class. Yet no big studios are rushing to make films about those forms of oppression and the men and women who fought to destroy them.
There are dramatic narratives aplenty to mine from post-1865 black history. Imagine a script about the Wilmington (North Carolina) Insurrection of 1898. In what was then the largest city in the state, a white mob enraged by a black editor who dared tell the truth about interracial sex overthrew the local government, which had been run by a biracial coalition of Populists and Republicans. George White, the district’s African-American congressman, staged an eloquent but doomed protest against the bloody coup d’etat. In 1900, after the Democratic legislature enacted a constitutional amendment which effectively disenfranchised most black voters, White refused to stand for re-election, declaring, "I cannot live in North Carolina… and be treated as a man.”
Or how about a movie portraying the rise and fall of Marcus Garvey’s pan-Africanist United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) during the 1920s? The working-class Jamaican immigrant organized well over a million people, including the parents of Malcolm X, into what was, to that point, the largest black group in U.S. history. Dressed in military garb, Garvey’s followers marched in huge parades down the streets of Harlem, while their leader urged them to reject white images of beauty and of God. But the UNIA made enemies of blacks who favored integration, and harassment by J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI cronies and Garvey’s own botched attempt to launch a black-owned steamship line brought his movement down.
And it’s curious that, more than 30 years after the establishment of the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., there’s never been a memorable film about the non-violent movement he helped to lead. Some talented screenwriter ought to pitch a treatment about the Birmingham campaign of 1963. It featured thousands of marching schoolchildren assaulted by Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor’s dogs and high-pressure water hoses, hundreds of working-class black adults attacking the police in turn, demonstrators filling up the jails, and King sitting in a tiny cell, writing on scraps of paper his famous letter arguing that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Millions of white Americans who watched the police violence on TV began, many for the first time, to sympathize with the crusade for civil rights. But instead of a film which depicts elements of that remarkable story, we get Lee Daniels’s The Butler, the respectful tale of a black man in the same era who suffered in silence as he served the mighty.
Of course, none of these imagined productions would give viewers the simple, profound joy of seeing a slave gain his or her freedom, whether through the aid of a white friend, as in McQueen's film, or by shooting everyone in his path, as Tarantino would have it. But any one of them would tell a more challenging and no less stirring story about an uprising of imperfect men and women against a rigged system that millions of living Americans endured and whose legacy continues to scar the nation.