Ahmed H. Sharma
December 1, 2015
Creating Films, like most art, presents a challenge that even the most professional artists will struggle with. The essential goal of the filmmaker is to present a message to their viewer with an abstract presentation that may or may not be recognized or appreciated. In order to make the next great film, one must put themselves in the shoes of the modern moviegoer gathers who gathers his popcorn and best comrades to accompany him to the theater for promises of entertainment. And in the case of American Slavery, it is definitely going to be a challenge to provide something entertaining while possessing a message to audiences. In some of the most popular films on American Slavery, each film has displayed their own unique way of getting their message across: There needs to be a change in regards to how the United States deals with racial matters.
Starting with the 1915 silent film: Birth of a Nation, which tells the story of a dystopian United States where African Americans rise against the Caucasian Americans after the Civil War and Slavery is abolished and it is the rise of the Ku Klux Klan that aim to bring the country to its natural order as a result. With that said, the film wastes no time in portraying African Americans as incompetent, sexually aggressive, and even as comic relief for how bumbling they behave in the film. To add insult to injury, Black characters are mostly played in the film by White actors in black-face which caused much controversy after the film was produced. The film’s main antagonist in the film however, is a mulatto (half-black, half-white) played by a white actor in black-face as a depraved governor with the sole intent of eliminating the “pure white race.”
Essentially the filmmaker, D.W. Griffith’s message when producing this film was that bringing Africans to the United States was one of the worst things to happen to the United States as they were depraved individuals who would inevitably destroy our society. One could safely say that the film was pure propaganda, rather than entertaining, in the sense that its message catered to those that were already at the time xenophobic of African Americans. It pushed boundaries by having some Black actors in the film but the ones that were the most villainous in the film were, as stated earlier, White actors in black- face because Griffith himself knew that the xenophobia amongst white audiences would not allow them to accept an actual Black man to be so close to a White woman in certain scenes of the film; especially since those particular scenes were of a white woman that was to be sexually assaulted by the man of color. And by having a mulatto character portray the main antagonist, signifies that by having one drop of African blood would cause utter chaos. But it was that controversy nonetheless, that made the film such a boxoffice hit in the very end.
It was not until about two decades later that another film would take a similar but modified stance to Griffith’s theory with the film Gone with the Wind (1939), about a southern woman named Scarlett O’Hara, who is trying to woo a man who continuously refuses to marry her (because he is marrying someone else) during the Civil War and Reconstruction Era. The director, Victor Fleming, argues that African Americans being brought to the United States is not the tragedy, the Civil War was the tragedy. The entire film shows Southern citizens to have pride with the idea of them going to war against the North. However one soldier Rhett Butler, played by Clark Gable, does not buy into panegyrizing this war, even though he has earned an exceptional reputation as a soldier for the Confederate Army. However when asked by Scarlett if Rhett does not “believe in the cause” he responds, “I believe in Rhett Butler, he’s the only cause I know.” Because Rhett does not essentially take sides, thus presenting a mysterious, albeit “cool-guy” demeanor with quick wit, it makes it difficult for one to despise his character but in the film he is looked down upon for not agreeing with the views the others share around him; and that view is that the Southern way of life is being threatened and something must be done in order to stop it.
While the film is not as racist as Birth of a Nation, the film definitely glorifies slavery in a subtle way by showing that slaves in the household were like part of the family by having the house maid, “Mammy”, portray a grand-mother like figure in Scarlett’s life by giving advice and often times in the film, uttering phrases that most African Americans would not even think to say such as, “poor white trash.” Thereby showing the audience that slaves were not entirely mistreated because of the patriarchal analogy to display that slaves really were part of the family. And the only times slaves were mistreated, were when they “actually deserved it” such as the scene where the youngest female African American slave, Prissy, tells in great detail of how she is an expert on delivering babies but moments later when one of the female characters is giving birth, she looks dumbfounded and apologetically screaming, “I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies.” And when she receives a slap on the face from Scarlett as a result of her lie, it plants the idea in the viewer’s head that Prissy got what she deserved. It then makes one question why slaves would desire to escape if they had such manageable lives.
In the late 1970’s a TV miniseries called, Roots (based on the book by Alex Haley) is made that brings to the audience, the cold dark truth of slavery and challenges both the arguments made by Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. And as opposed to the first two films, this story is told from the Slave’s point of view, where a young African teenager named Kunta Kinte, played by Levar Burton, is kidnapped and brought to the U.S. and sold into slavery where he is introduced to a black “House-Slave” named Fiddler, played by Louis Gossett, Jr. First and foremost, the miniseries pays special attention to how the slaves after being kidnapped are prepared to be sold such as tarring and feathering, meaning placing searing black tars on the skin of any potential slaves who bear scars or scratches so the slaves are in good condition to be purchased. The importance of Fiddler being a “House-Slave” is that even though he is a black slave, he is allowed special privileges since he has worked for the plantation owner, John Reynolds (played by Lorne Greene) for a very long time. These special privileges include: being able to live in the house of the plantation owner and in the miniseries’ case, having the ability to “break” Kunta of his African spirit (by giving him a new name, “Toby”) and his desire to escape and as a result, conduct himself as a docile slave.
The most powerful and most memorable scene of Roots is when Kunta is tied to be whipped after a failed attempt at escaping, much to Fiddler’s guilt for allowing him to escape and unsuccessful pleas to the plantation owner to not have Kunta flogged.