The first time I saw Roots, I was not only angry, overwhelmed, saddened but also excited – it was something that I had never seen before. Ranked as one of the 100 narrated TV shows of all times, Roots which was based on Alex Haley’s novel “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” told the story of Kunta Kinte who was captured from Gambia and sold to slave traders in 1767. It is Kunta’s journey from a free man in West Africa to his enslavement, generations after and in the end traces back to Alex Haley.
Compelled by the story, I asked for the Special Collector’s edition one Christmas, followed by the book and before I knew it I could recite the movie from beginning to end. Watching countless times, I realized there was so much I didn’t know. Granted, some of us go through the same dull lesson in middle school about Abraham Lincoln “
freeing” the slaves, but we never go in-depth and talk about slavery. We never talk about slavery and religion, color division, mental illness and countless of things that still affect our society today. From Haley’s Queen Miniseries to Steven Spielberg’s historical film Amistad, I watched in complete awe – the older I got the more I appreciated filmmakers who would take a risk and shed a light on slavery and its forgotten relationship with America.
As time passed, the enthusiasm died down and films about slavery became a rarity. It wasn’t until the recent awakening with Quentin Tarantino’s “unique” film Django Unchained, the things began to shift. Django, the fictional story of a freed slave on a mission to rescue his wife from a cruel plantation owner, was entertaining and (though I heist to say this!) slightly informative, even with its questionable storyline and unneeded over usage of the “n-word” it was a smash, slightly opening the door. Recently 2013’s box office hit The Butler, the story of Cecil Gaines, a white house butler, who witnessed notable events of the 20th century, from slavery to the 2008 presidential election of Barack. To the just released 12 Years a Slave, based on the 1853 autobiography by Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and held as a slave in Louisiana for 12years before being released, once frowned upon stories and now being told.
Being a lover of history, in particular black history, I’m excited for this rebirth and assumed everyone else would share that same excitement but actually I’m wrong. Some seem to be wary about the reawakening of slavery and slave narratives, some even call it pathetic.
The Guardian’s, black Canadian author Oriville Lloyd Douglas recently wrote an article titled “Why I won’t be watching The Butler and 12 Years a Slave”, Douglas says he doesn’t plan on seeing the recent “flood” of slavery based movies and is actually bored and exhausted with these kinds of “dramatic race” films.
Lee Daniel’s new film The Butler is a box office success, already generating Oscar buzz, but I am not interested in seeing it. I’m also skipping British filmmaker Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, another movie about black people dealing with slavery.
I don’t know about other black people, but I don’t sit around all day thinking only about the fact I am black. I think about the problems in my life: the struggles, the joys, the happiness, most of which don’t involve the issue of race. As a black person, I can honestly say I am exhausted and bored with these kinds of “dramatic race” films.
The narrow range of films about the black life experience being produced by Hollywood is actually dangerous because it limits the imagination, it doesn’t allow real progress to take place. Yet, sadly,
these roles are some of the only ones open to black talent. People want us to cheer that black actors from The Butler and 12 Years a Slave are likely to be up for best actor and actress awards, yet it feels like a throwback, almost to the Gone with the Wind era.
I might have to turn in my black card, because I don’t care much about slavery. I’ve already watched the television series Roots, which I feel covered the subject matter extremely well. Of course , I understand slavery is an important part of any black person’s history, but dwelling on slavery is pathetic.
Though I understand his point, black history is more than oppression and there needs to be broader themes for black movies, to ignore it all and deem the “dwelling” on slavery as pathetic doesn’t make sense. Let’s face it, Mr. Douglas is quite fortunate that he doesn’t have to worry or think all day about being black and none of his problems involve the issue of race. It is beautiful to know that in Canada racism no longer lingers and discrimination is simply a thing of the past. (LET’S ALL MOVE TO CANADA!) Truth be told, slavery did happen and lasted well over 200 years. It isn’t just a figment of someone’s imagination. The “Wiz” in Hollywood didn’t hire a bunch of writers to create a fiction piece to wow the audience. Slavery is real and no one should ever turn a blind towards it.
Imagine sitting in a classroom filled with middle school kids, going over a Social Studies lesson and one yells out “…I’m tired of talking about slavery!” and another “Let’s talk about something else, slavery is BORING!” Truthfully, in 2013, there are many children and teens who don’t know anything about slavery or the civil rights movement. While watching a special on Oprah’s “Own Network” about The Butler, she said that she encountered young people who asked “are these stories actually true?” and she was shocked that they had no clue.
Am I tired of slavery films? Nope, not one bit. I promote that Hollywood explores not only slavery accounts but also dig deeper covering all aspects such as sharecropping, religion, rape and the list goes on and on – telling stories from a variety of perspectives. Or maybe even post slavery – the stories of Madame CJ Walker, George Washington Carver, Fannie Lou Hammer and countless of others who fought diligently to achieve equality and advance in all areas of life. Not only do these films explore moments that are rarely talked about but they also give jobs to black actors that are rarely noticed in Hollywood; giving opportunities to showcase their diversity in craft.
If you share the same tired feeling that Mr. Douglas has and are simply over the same mundane slavery movies, there is a very simple solution … don’t see them. If your black (…white, brown, purple, yellow, green) not seeing a slave movie will not send you to the fiery pits, it isn’t a requirement to be black and it definitely won’t strip you of your blackness – everyone is allowed their preference. Personally, I am tired of every year seeing the same euro-historical dramatic trailers where there are rarely any faces of color (if one at all) I.E. Jane Eyre, The Great Gatsby, The Kings Speech and the list is never ending. I am tired of movies where a woman is dying to find love and goes to hell and back. She sits with her girlfriends and cries hours upon hours confused as to why she can’t seem to find “Mr. Right”; luckily in the end after being damaged she meets her Prince Charming, finds God and realizes it was all worth it … yawn. In order to keep my sanity, I just avoid them.
In such a profound time in history, when black people are still being targeted by their skin color, not character and constantly having to prove their worthiness, it is imperative that generations before, now and after are forever reminded of the adversities and triumphs black people. Not only does this work as an educator but also to inspire … promoting the idea that no matter what you have encountered, you can be whatever and whoever you want to be.
Famous Jewish author and activist Elie Wiesel once said “To Forget the Holocaust is to kill twice.”
If only people felt the same way about slavery…
Note: Be sure to catch Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s “The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross” six-part series exploring the evolution of the African American people premiering Tuesday, October 22, 2013 on PBS.