what were the 2010s?

What Should a Slavery Epic Do?

Photo: Ari Liloan and Photos by Focus Features and Fox Searchlight Pictures

There is a certain primal scene. Everyone knows the one. As depicted in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (published while Douglass was still, legally, enslaved), the display is so terrible Saidiya Hartman dare not reproduce the words in one our most crucial studies of America, Scenes of Subjection. The whipping of Aunt Hester’s bare neck, shoulders, and back at the hands of Douglass’s first master, she writes, “is one of the most well-known scenes of torture in the literature of slavery,” repeated across so much reading material with analytical purpose. Hartman disavows this tradition. “I have chosen not to reproduce Douglass’s account of the beating of Aunt Hester,” she writes, “in order to call attention to the ease with which such scenes are usually reiterated, the casualness with which they are circulated, and the consequences of the routine display of the slave’s ravaged body.” Her caution against even scholarly fascination with the whipping post borrows language from Douglass. A “horrible exhibition” he calls it: “a most terrible spectacle.”

Such scenes aren’t found in Harriet, the new film by Kasi Lemmons starring Cynthia Erivo, where beatings are, for the most part, blessedly brief or left offscreen. There are slaps, stomps, and gunfire, but discrete violent acts mostly happen in the past participle — as in “Massa been beaten her bad” or the unmissable scarring seen as the enslaved change from rags to freedomwear. Scars indicate violence just as well as fresh wounds (maybe too well — they can almost be as much a trope as the whip itself). The message, though, arrives at something like a black politics of looking (or hearing, or sensing, or feeling): Anyone who needs a well-choreographed whipping to be convinced slavery is worth consideration is already at a deficit far too grave to be remedied in a smidge over two hours. This perspective, however, is far from unanimous in recent cinematic history.

Harriet brings up a lot of questions about the purpose of slavery epics,” writes Vulture’s Angelica Jade Bastién in her review of the film. “Are they meant to entertain or to challenge?” This question became prevalent over the past decade — with social media came the conspicuous expectation that these films sell their stories with more care. “I’m tired of watching black people go through some of the worst pain in human history for entertainment,” Kara Brown wrote in 2016, expressing palpable fatigue with “the slavery genre” writ large. “When movies about slavery or, more broadly, other types of violence against black people are the only types of films regularly deemed ‘important’ and ‘good’ by white people, you wonder if white audiences are only capable of lauding a story where black people are subservient.” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar pondered the matter more recently in The Hollywood Reporter, concerned that a slavery film “desensitizes white people” to persistent inequality that pales in comparison to all the “beating, branding, raping and lynching” onscreen. It’s perhaps too convenient to consider Harriet an ideological capstone to the 2010s, but the question does feel especially present during the film, owing greatly to Lemmons and fellow writer Gregory Allen Howard’s restraint — as if they were guided by so much conversation over what a slavery epic ought not do.

Observing some of the biggest films in this genre over the past decade, what becomes clear are the specific limitations that come with representing slavery in epic fashion. Blockbusters demand spectacle, whereas slavery is disturbing for precisely the opposite: its regularity and normalcy. Like Harriet, the three biggest slave films of the 2010s — Django Unchained, Lincoln, and 12 Years a Slave — all attempt to show the mettle of their main characters against the background of American slavery. These films were fretted over and imbued with importance even before their releases, primarily owing to their subject matter. (The Birth of a Nation, despite significant critical problems, was on track to take up this mantle until the whispered of and eventually widely covered rape allegations of its co-writers.) Each falter in their own way, but they fail with enough panache, as if to ask, But are you not entertained?

2012’s Django Unchained is the most bodaciously bloody of the trio. It’s full of primal scenes. As the opening credits roll, the alleged protagonist, Django Freeman (Jamie Lee Foxx), arrives onscreen along with the title bearing his name — “DJANGO UNCHAINED.” Beneath the words is his wide black back, strategically sliced in haphazard lines indicating punishment. Before we learn anything about this bit of property named Django, we are meant to be impressed and perhaps even moved by this tribute to pain. The ravaged back indicates the personhood that has been stripped away and the motivation for his revenge. (At the end of the film, Django, tastefully clothed, turns his back on the demolished Big House.) The narrative arc is offered, in Tarantino fashion, with nostalgia and gusto, but the opening image repeats an old ritual. America has a longstanding fascination with miserable black backs, from the abolitionist pulpit to Roots. Whether this has ever been good for anything better than entertainment, there is reason to doubt. This is a Western, after all, most concerned with throwing the hero in sharp relief.

In Django, slavery is barely an economy — or rather, all labor is for entertainment purposes only. The film’s key attempted caper happens at Candyland, a plantation sustained by its primary cash crop of, apparently, Mandingo fighters. (The Big House is conspicuously lonely upon first approach, hardly a soul in sight except in the reaches of the horizon. Is it the Sabbath, or are these fields merely for show?) The horror of slavery depends on scenes of spectacle, spectacularly rendered — lest anyone forget the physics of blood leaving the body. In Tarantino’s vision, slavery is objectionable because slaves are treated badly; as political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. points out, the choice suggests that without all the blood and torture, there might not be anything to find fault with. Witnessing actual labor would spoil the fun. It’s a criticism that would be superfluous if not for the imperative lurking beneath so many films about slavery — that audiences imbue the triumph of this black hero with historical significance.

In 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s slaves do a lot of work all the time: felling, shucking, logging, hammering, picking, tilling, getting “them boards flush.” Even the Sabbath, the day of alleged rest, is a lesson in labor, courtesy of Alfre Woodard’s Mistress Shaw, whose labor is not in the fields, she remarks pointedly, but in bed. The story of protagonist Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a freeman who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, unfolds according to currency owed, exchanged, or withheld. Economy is the point. He is passed from William Ford to John Tibeats to Edwin Epps: Breath remains in his body as debt transferred. Furthermore, McQueen and director of photography Sean Bobbitt depict the unforgivable logic of enslaved life with cinematic techniques that don’t allow for sentimentality. Filmic elements such as medium-long shots and long takes impose unease. In one scene, Solomon is strung up — lynched, but for the tips of his toes — the shot remains steady while work on the plantation resumes in the background. McQueen’s stillness is much more disturbing than Tarantino’s jittery violence.

That formula stumbles in the telling of Patsey’s (Lupita Nyong’o) story. In 12 Years a Slave, it’s the lack of heroism that becomes a void to be filled, inappropriately, by her character. It is wholly germane that Patsey, whose story is too much to behold, is the most productive worker. Five hundred pounds of cotton day in, day out. More than any man here. The genuine horror of productivity may be overlooked, however, in the spectacle she becomes. The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson Sorkin, for example, somehow saw dignity in Patsey’s debasement. She imagines Patsey a heroine, reanimating without qualification Master Epps’s moniker: “the Queen of the Fields.” Heidi Kim, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, compares Nyong’o’s performance of the character — based on the living woman Northrup enshrines in his narrative — to the “ladylike” mulattas of slave fiction, calling her “an exceptional heroine.” (Both Patsey and Solomon have pages on Fandom.com’s Heroes Wiki, along with Django Freeman.) 12 Years a Slave falls prey to the myth of the primal scene’s efficacy. During a New York Times roundtable on the film, artist Kara Walker objects to McQueen’s steadiness during a rape scene — “Staying on that scene and coming back to Patsey over and over, she is abused and deteriorating and wanting to die. We don’t need to see that scene over and over again.” No less devastating than the strenuous rehearsal of these scenes is the bygone conclusion that violent spectacles may, at best, temporarily move the soul — or worse, give people someone to root for.

Released the same season as Django Unchained, Lincoln was discussed as its foil. Where Django was bombastic in its portrayal of slavery, Lincoln was seen as symptomatic of Hollywood’s affinity for white male stories, even on the topic of slavery. A fair point, perhaps, but more instructive than who the film focuses on is how that is done. I am admittedly a sucker for the melodrama, the procedure, Lincoln’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) droll holding court from the executive table. The whiteness and maleness of making history in these scenes is so much less an offense than the select mulattos who are given lines for reasons that escape me. (For a movie so very much about slavery but so very not about black people, the camera still manages to find a scarred black back to linger on.) Director Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner’s disinterest in the plantation is ultimately a relief. Where they falter, though, is in the movie’s implication: that history and loss can only be dealt with on segregated terms. In Lincoln, the bodies warped by slavery, the “oceans of spilled blood” and “the uncountable corpses,” as Mary cries, are white. In one scene, while his father visits an Army hospital, the reluctantly urbane Robert Lincoln follows the trail of red tissue leaking behind a wheelbarrow pushed by “TWO BLACK ORDERLIES,” the script specifies. They unburden the load, and a dozen pale severed limbs tumble out to join their brothers in a pile. This scene, in which able-bodied black men dispose of white corpses, illustrates whose suffering the film is concerned with and encapsulates the film’s inability to square white suffering with black suffering without losing the plot — Lincoln being therefore synecdochic of our nation’s inability to do the same.

I wish Harriet were so myopic — afforded the freedom of taking a brief window of time and telling it well. Harriet Tubman, the woman who seized multiple aliases, who lived with what today could be called a disability, made much more inventive use of her life than popular fiction would dare plot for someone of her race and stature, which in film is reduced to a bland sense of heroism. Some generosity ought be extended to Lemmons and Howard for the challenge of translating the entirety of such a life into the language of the blockbuster. Lemmons’s film navigates this challenge by avoiding spectacle, but it’s also low on technical or tonal daring. What is a slavery epic that neither educates nor entertains? Perhaps a project for another decade.

The truth is, if there’s anything the 2010s taught us, it’s that there is no getting these stories right, no honoring with grace the dead and ghosts. There are only attempts, the necessary compulsion to try to tell. “Were I about to tell you the evils of Slavery, to represent to you the Slave in his lowest degradation, I should wish to take you, one at a time, and whisper it to you,” ex-chattel William Wells Brown once told those nice whites of the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem. “Slavery has never been represented; Slavery never can be represented.”

And yet,” as literary critic Glenda Carpio adds, “slavery must be represented.”

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What Should a Slavery Epic Do?