Growing up, Roots was a staple in my house. For some reason we ended up watching it every Christmas, like clockwork. It got to the point where I could pretty much recite the whole movie. Queen wasn’t released until my teens, but it just didn’t compel me the same way Roots did. Before Queen, I was probably the only kid under thirteen that read The Color Purple numerous times, so when Stephen Spielberg’s adaptation finally came out, I was left in awe. Then there was Amistad, another Spielberg slavery film. With each of these films, whether fictional and factual, both shed light on America’s shameful act of slavery and racism.
Over the last couple of years the film industry has had a revitalized interests in slavery and civil rights films with Quentin Tarantino’s, Django Unchained, to Lee Daniels’, The Butler. With next month’s Steve McQueen’s film, 12 Years A Slave, being released some people seem to have grown weary of the rebirth of the slave narrative. In a recent post for The Guardian, Black-Canadian author Orville Lloyd Douglas says he doesn’t plan on seeing Lee Daniels’ The Butler or 12 Years a Slave because they were created to engender white guilt.
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’m convinced these black race films are created for a white, liberal film audience to engender white guilt and make them feel bad about themselves. Regardless of your race, these films are unlikely to teach you anything you don’t already know. Frankly, why can’t black people get over slavery? Or, at least, why doesn’t anyone want to see more contemporary portrayals of black lives?
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.
Douglas then goes on to lament about people who just think about being black way too much and how he doesn’t care about 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.
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. It ended in North America over 100 years ago, yet since Django Unchained made over $400m last year, more slavery movies emerge.
So here you have one black man, confessing that he doesn’t care about slavery, or how he doesn’t sit around lamenting about being black. Well it must be nice up there in Canada not to have to worry about being discriminated against because of the color of your skin.
The dialogue that Douglas attempted to open is a question/statement I’ve heard a lot from black people. They’re just tired of the slavery and civil rights movies. But isn’t the purpose of a movie is to shed light on issues that’s shaped and perhaps to some, still shaping the world we live in? Although Django and Roots were both fictional (or as Haley liked to say “factional”) accounts, Amistad and 12 Years A Slave are both non-fiction. Of course both films obviously use creative license, but the stories are still a part of history.
On the subject of white guilt, I have a gut feeling white people will be fine. And if a random white person does suffer from an ounce of guilt, what will they actually do about it? My guess, nothing. So why even worry about it?
Maybe people are tired of seeing the harsh realities of slavery, but it happened. Imagine if a child in history class stood up in protest and said he was tired of learning about slavery? What would you say to that child?
There’s a solution for those who are tired of slavery and civil rights era movies, simply don’t go see it. Personally, I’m tired of Tyler Perry and Lee Daniels’ films for different reasons, and I’ve made it a point not to see either films from those two directors. On October 18th I’ll have my $11.50 ticket in hand to see 12 Years A Slave, I’m actually thankfully that Steve McQueen brought this story to light, because it wasn’t a part of the history I was taught in school or a story I was familiar with as an adult, and I’m quite sure I’m not the only one. There are many stories about the atrocities of slavery and the Civil Rights movement but only a select few will be told.