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Slavery In American Film

From “Gone With the Wind” to “Django Unchained” to “Twelve Years a Slave,” we’ll look at the evolving depiction of slavery in American film.

Plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) addresses his slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) as Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) looks on in the 2013 film, "12 Years A Slave." (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) scolds his slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) as Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) looks on in the 2013 film, “12 Years A Slave.” The movie is based on the real-life Solomon Northrup’s 1853 memoir of the same title. (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

American slavery has had all kinds of treatment by Hollywood.  Mammy and Scarlett in the “Gone With the Wind.”  Whipping and slave ships in “Roots.”  Swagger and revenge in “Django Unchained.”  Now comes a powerful, brutal, game-changing depiction from Fox Searchlight pictures and British filmmaker Steve McQueen.  “12 Years a Slave” tells the true story of a free black American snatched and sold into slavery in 1841, and the decade and more he was under the lash.  It is shattering.  And, its director says, long overdue.  Up next On Point:  “12 Years a Slave,” and slavery in American film.

– Tom Ashbrook


Wesley Morris, sports and pop culture columnist at Grantland.com, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. (@Wesley_Morris)

Brenda Stevenson, professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, author of “The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the L.A. Riots” and “Life in Black And White: Family and Community In the Slave South.”

From Tom’s Reading List

The New Yorker: Fighting to Survive – “’12 Years a Slave’ is easily the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery. It shows up the plantation scenes of ‘Gone with the Wind’ for the sentimental kitsch that they are, and, intentionally or not, it’s an artist’s rebuke to Quentin Tarantino’s high-pitched, luridly extravagant ‘Django Unchained.’”

UCLA Today: Brenda Stevenson On The Importance Of the New Film ’12 Years A Slave’ — ” Patsey has gone to borrow some soap from another concubine on a neighboring plantation because her mistress, Mrs. Epps, would not give her soap to clean herself. All she wanted was to be clean, and for that, this young woman, who could pick more cotton than any of Epps’ male slaves was stripped naked, tied down and whipped to within an inch of her life. I really hoped that the beating would end in her death. I cried because it did not,  because she had to continue to bear the unbearable, and because I knew that this scene had been acted out countless times during the era of slavery.”

BBC News: Slavery on Film: What Is Hollywood’s Problem? — “With ’12 Years a Slave’ about to arrive in US cinemas some are asking if it will redress the balance and finally bring audiences a more accurate representation of slavery.Variety’s chief film critic Scott Foundas admires the picture and thinks it will at least give audiences a hefty dose of reality.  ‘I think ’12 Years a Slave’ is unique in terms of motion pictures in trying to have this very plausible realism,’ he says. ‘In terms of this kind of brutal realism it’s pretty much unparalleled in the history of American movies.’”

Watch A Trailer From ’12 Years A Slave’

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  • Pat Kittle

    Those who control Hollywood never tire of serving up this white guilt.

    Maybe they could do something about all the Jewish involvement in the slave trade while they’re at it.

    If this comment isn’t banned I’ll be surprised.

  • Yar

    Wouldn’t the hour be better spent looking at slavery in America?

  • hellokitty0580

    I first discovered American slavery through Gone With the Wind when I was 7 years old. I watched the movie with my mother. Before that, I was unaware of black slavery in the United States. As a biracial child with a white mother and a black father, I was struck. White people had owned black people simply because they were black? When I asked her, “But didn’t the white people care about the black people?? Did they like them??” she delicately put it that they cared about them in the same way they cared about their farm animals. Now in my family pets and farm animals were beloved members of the family, so my 7 year old heart was satisfied a bit.

    Obviously, the movie Gone With the Wind is a very idealized version of the black slave trade in the United States. I think the book is a better representation, although still not the best as the accurate depiction of slavery in the United States wasn’t the main point of the book. But I kind of applaud my mother’s choice to introduce slavery through Gone With the Wind to myself and my brother when we young. Slavery is an extremely violent and emotionally devastating concept and reality. As a child, and a biracial child, it eased me into this really sad part of human history. A family that preferred to treat their slaves with an ounce more respect then other southern families may have. While nuanced, the discussion on the ethics of enslavement is demonstrated through the character Ashlee.

    But Gone With the Wind didn’t prevent me from learning the facts and the reality of the history of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. If anything is provoked me to learn more. Now I have my master’s degree in Africana Studies. I think when you put some of these movies into their periodical perspective, they’re quite ground-breaking. Gone With the Wind certainly was for many reasons.

  • Leonard Bast

    A not particularly great film, “Mandingo” (1975), included numerous unsettling scenes showing the sadistic sexual aspect of ante-bellum slavery in the South.

  • SteveTheTeacher

    Brazil’s Quilombo still stands out for its coverage of the successful effort of enslaved Brazilians to liberate themselves and establish an independent community able to defend the onslaught of the Dutch and Portuguese armies for over 100 years.

    It would be nice to see more US film makers cover organized efforts of the enslaved to liberate themselves.

    How about more contemporary pieces on Nat Turner, Sojourner Truth, or Harriet Tubman?

    Why not something on John Brown?

    What about doing something on the successful Garifuna rebellion, Nanny of Jamaica and the cimaron/maroon societies of the Caribbean, or Bwa Kayiman, Boukman and the Haitian defeat of France.

  • Citizen James

    I understand that the focus of the show today is film about slavery in America. Nonetheless I feel it’s important to mention a documentary film, The Dark Side of Chocolate, which depicts the problem today with slavery on cacao plantations of the Ivory Coast. The Ivory Coast provides the world with 40% of its cacao which makes its way in almost all chocolate, including premium chocolate. I would like to underscore that the slaves are generally children of 10 to 14 years of age.

    On a personal note, I am a manufacturer of chocolate. We import our own cacao beans and ethics in cacao cultivation is a very important consideration in our bean choices.

    Some non-profit organizations that address slavery issues abroad and in the US are: NotForSale, The Human Trafficking Coalition and Rescue Upstream.

  • Alvin Case

    Funny that we have to have a Brit illustrate an American account of slavery that has been sitting on library bookshelves for over a century. Where was Spike Lee on this one? Too busy with trying to ‘make it’? And Steven Spielberg? Can’t risk a little bit of that Hollywood power he has that allows him to make anything he wants? Right, he can’t do history, can he. Connecticut voting against emancipation in his film ‘Lincoln’ proved it.
    Oh well, guess we have to rely on Artists (as apposed to traditional filmmakers) to bring out the valid stories on screen. Glad we have a fearless crossover in Steve McQueen.

    • J__o__h__n

      I thought changing the CT vote was horrible.

  • Bill98

    Thanks for mentioning Roots! Whenever I hear someone say that Americans have “sugar coated” slavery in this country, I remind them that this mini-series was one of the most popular of all time, and aired decades ago. That series did not flinch when showing the true conditions of slavery. And, it certainly did NOT try to make the audience “feel good” about slavery, as the current guest seems to suggest!
    ’12 Years a Slave’ looks interesting, and tells a different sort of tale, regarding slavery. However, it did not take this movie to bring the real conditions of slavery to the American audience.

  • Terrence Lynch

    We can’t not know what slavery was like.

    Adam Hochschild turned our stomachs in “Bury the Chains” with blacks being thrown overboard during the middle passage for higher profit for “insurance reasons.”

    Even earlier, Mary Chestnut, in her diary tells the story of an escaped slave, returned to his master, who suffered an unspeakable punishment: his owner had a large barrel prepared–nails were driven into it from the outside. The slave was forced into the barrel and subsequently rolled down a hill.

    My most recent ancestors were from Ireland. There was a time when there were more white Irish slaves in the new world than ones form Africa. For some reason, the British, Spanish, and French came to prefer slaves form Africa. Lucky us, I guess. But we remember slavery. And we feel as much as our African brothers and sisters the injustice we shared.

  • Unterthurn

    Keep in mind that this is still happening in America but the people are now often Latinos. All people should be treated with dignity no matter what their status is.

    • JGC

      Undocumented Hispanic workers can undoubtedly be exploited and are at grave disadvantage to demand fairness and dignity. But their situation cannot in anyway share equivalency with the peculiar institution. That may be where you are receiving the disapproval votes.

  • AlanThinks

    An excellent book that describes how slavery continued in the South after the Civil War up until post WWII is “Slavery by Another Name” by Douglas Blackmon.

  • MrStang

    I would like to see Spike Lee get a Hollywood budget to do an epic Toussaint L’ouverture biopic


  • Michiganjf

    Many (not all) white conservatives, and entities like Fox News and The Heritage Foundation, are deeply engaged in trying to re-write American history, “white-washing” the worst of our past.

    This might fly in some despotic countries, where those in power have to live in fear of the truth, but many Conservatives are going to have to live with the fact that they WILL NOT stay in power by lying to Americans about the awful side of America which they still represent… at least according to their actions and to those conservatives who occasionally let their true perspective slip out inadvertently.

    “Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.”

  • MrStang

    Slavery was a business.

    “Of our first five presidents, four owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson’s slave-owning legacy has been covered in the news lately; however, the biggest slave owner among the four men was the father of our country, George Washington.

    Washington and his wife Martha together owned about 200 slaves at the beginning of the Revolution, but at the end of his life the couple owned 317 slaves together. And at least two of these became quite famous, for very different reasons.”


  • MrStang

    As Henry Louis Gates says..we need a curriculum, not just a dialogue.

  • John_Hamilton

    We haven’t ended slavery. As long as the attitude of the slave holder persists there will be attempts at a kind of quasi-slavery in various forms.
    The prison system is, of course, the most obvious. It even has forms of punishment that rival slavery in cruelty. “Super-max” prisons and solitary confinement are meant to break men’s spirits. Forced labor in prisons is in essence slavery.
    Worse even than our prison system is our productive system, which makes descendents of slaves the last people hired and first fired. Because of the way our neighborhoods are populated and businesses are located, large parts of our urban areas have become blighted low income areas. Only the lucky few are able to rise above these circumstances, and for millions prison becomes their best employment opportunity.
    In the early 1990s I worked as a substitute teacher in my home town in Illinois, where most industry had left for the South, then farther south to Mexico. The town became predominantly African American due to people fleeing Chicago.
    What struck me most in my teaching experience was that there were so many bright, curious, funny and athletic young people in the schools, and that they had almost zero prospects for the future. They had nothing to look forward to when they finished school. As a result, by the time they were seniors in high school they were pretty burned out, and I had great difficulty getting them to cooperate in class.
    Once they graduate, they are thrust into a world of unemployment, poverty, crime, and confrontation with law enforcement. It really is amazing when someone makes it out of this situation.
    It is worth mentioning that a slave holder mentality doesn’t stop at some arbitrary racial divide. In almost every job I have had there have been supervisors who tried to turn the situation into some form of abuse. I survived by quitting, making trouble, joining a union, and my favorite – outsmarting and finessing the would-be oppressor.
    The greatest lessons I learned about survival in the workplace were from blacks when I was in the Army. They were brilliant in the way that they could size up a situation and respond accordingly. The thing they understood most clearly was that appearance meant everything. What “the man” saw was what they had to control. They made sure they looked good in their uniforms, and were the best at marching in formation, facing movements and manual or arms. This no doubt came from slavery.

  • methos1999

    Was hoping to hear a critique of Django Unchained as compared to 12 Years a Slave… didn’t really hear much along those line. Bummer.

    • fun bobby

      seems like NPR is working really hard today to push this movie. 2 stories

  • fun bobby

    its interesting that so many americans view slavery as something that built America in the past. we have not stopped exploiting slave labor in America. we have simply outsourced it. Good news, Hershey has pledged to stop using child slaves by 2020. Perhaps they will be grown up by then.

  • Bill98

    I look forward to seeing the movie, as it seems to have many laudable qualities. However, bringing the truth of slavery in this country, to an American audience, is not one of them. That was my point. Never did I suggest that Roots was the “end-all, be-all” exploration of this topic.

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