It is a cruel joke noticeable in Hollywood productions that the only roles for black actors seem to be that of the slave. Period pieces like “12 Years A Slave” AND “Django Unchained” present a reimagining of history in which cinema harbors a continual fascination with re-enslaving black bodies.
It is not that movies exploring slavery are not important and necessary, but the fact that their ubiquity within a Hollywood landscape is still overwhelmingly white sets an unsavory precedent. Though many of these movies may stem from a progressive mindset and a desire for social change, slavery biopics are, in many ways, the “safe choice” in regards to examinations of racism.
Few would attempt to argue that slavery did not exist or was not among the most exceedingly cruel and evil events in American history. Slavery is a known and well established character within the American narrative, but it is also a character presumed dead at the hands of abolitionists and the civil rights movement.
The purpose of a movie about slavery, then, is not to illuminate a lost chapter of the black experience but to remind us of its existence. It is a perennial monument of our sins as a nation and a testament to how far we’ve come; however, the slavery film’s dishonest allure lies therein.
When I say that a slavery film is the safe choice in terms of tackling racism, I mean that it is one that will not be contested. The problem with Hollywood’s fascination with revisiting slavery again and again, each time more graphically violent than the last, is that it creates the false idea that the story stops there—that racism ended with Lincoln and again with Martin Luther King, Jr.. This idea is dangerous and patently false.
Racism is a mutating plague on society that doesn’t stop because laws tell it to. Rather, it finds new forms to embody, ways to slip through the cracks, loopholes to exploit, ways to hurt and ways to hide. While we are busy soothing our guilt by using slavery as a means of talking about race without actually talking about racism, black people are being pulled from their cars and shot on the side of the road. While Brad Pitt produces exquisite tales of finding freedom in the Deep South, nobody is penning a film on Black Lives Matter.
Media has a powerful voice in how we interpret the world and how we exist within it. Slavery should not be forgotten, and there is a reason to acclaim films that treat it with the seriousness and resolve its demands; however, it is crucial to not allow the historical idea of racism to continue being the only one examined. As much as we need films discussing slavery and the civil rights movement, we need those examining modern racism in all its forms doubly so.
We need filmmakers who are prepared to get messy, to show us not how far we have come but how far we still have to go. We need films that show us society’s darkest thoughts and least contested injustices—movies that recognized issues as far ranging as discriminatory hiring practices to police brutality. Most of all, we need movies that make us uncomfortable because, just as media can falsely ease our guilt at the atrocity of slavery, it can fuel our desire to enact real change. Racism is far from dead, and Hollywood as much as anyone can no longer be allowed to ignore it.