indigo + cypress

Lights, Camera, Omission

By Camille Wanliss Ortiz

It’s been more than a century since the advent of the motion picture industry yet Hollywood still fails to accurately address the greatest atrocity to ever take place on American soil – slavery.

The latest example is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, director Timur Bekmambetov’s big-screen adaptation of the Seth-Grahame novel. Not only does it reconstruct the life of America’s 16th president but also the oppressive system he abolished. In this sci-fi rendering, slaves are less an economic commodity than they are vampire food. And it appears that the end-game of the Civil War was not to abolish the bondage of black folks but instead to stop the undead from enslaving all mankind (that’s code for “white people too”).Though no one should look to a vampire film for accuracy when it comes to slavery’s role in the Civil War, it is no less symbolic of the lengths this nation has gone to in order to spin its own revisionist history.

Just last year the Sons of the Confederacy Veterans kicked off a four-year celebration of the war’s sesquicentennial with nary a mention of slavery. Instead they stuck to their script; maintaining that the eleven states of the Confederacy were only fighting for their right to secede from the Union. What they conveniently left out, however, was that the reason they wanted to secede was so they would not be forced to end slave labor, which their ancestors benefited from economically. After losing the war, the Confederacy decided the best way to lick their wounds would be to continue spewing the “states’ rights” myth. The mindset behind this led to a romanticization of the antebellum era as the glory days of white Southern pride; a time before the North infringed on their rights and ruined everything (that’s code for “when blacks were in their rightful place”).

Hollywood soon latched on and in 1915 produced Birth of a Nation, the Confederate-sympathizing, KKK propaganda film. Then in 1939, Hollywood released Gone with the Wind, the “American classic” in which slaves are sassy and inept but never unhappy. Never searing at their core for freedom. Never rapt with fear of being raped, beaten or sold. Prissy “don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies?” Puh-lease. Not only would she have birthed a few for Massa herself but nursed and raised the babies of her mistress too.

The film industry has done a great service to the revisionists. Search IMDB for Hollywood films set during the antebellum era and read the plot summaries. Most tend to be any of the following: sweeping sagas revolving around the lives of white plantation owners; war epics on white Confederate soldiers; war epics on white friends who find themselves on opposite sides of the war; and romantic tales about white lovers torn apart by the war. It’s amazing how many stories can told about the antebellum South or the Civil War without so much as a hint to the ills of slavery. Can you imagine sweeping love stories and epics set during the Holocaust from the Nazi point of view? Yeah, me neither.

Over the past twenty-odd years, Hollywood released only three major motion pictures that dealt with slavery, though somewhat peripherally. Glory (1989) revolved around a regiment of black Union soldiers during the Civil War and Beloved (1998), based on the Toni Morrison novel, was more of a post traumatic slave tale set during Reconstruction. The one to come closest was Steven Speilberg’s Amistad (1997), about an uprising aboard a slave ship. It told the unflinching true story about the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its aftermath.

But there may be hope for Hollywood yet. Though Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter only adds to the canon of revisionist movies, it at least does what no film has done before it – depicts metaphorically what the Confederacy was to blacks in reality – life sucking vampires.

There are also a few films on the horizon that may add a new dimension to the oeuvre of slave narratives. This Christmas, Quentin Tarantino’s slave revenge flick Django Unchained will be released. And in 2013, director Steve McQueen will get his turn with Twelve Years a Slave, a star-studded film featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor and based on the true story of a free man of color who fights for his liberty after being kidnapped and sold into slavery.

With so many holes in the stories of this nation’s history, it’s about time Hollywood fill in the blanks.

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7 thoughts on “Lights, Camera, Omission

  1. Tabitha Price on said:

    Ladies, these articles were refreshing! “Two generations ago, Michelle would have been “The Help” but now she is Jackie Kennedy 🙂 *pow* thanks Mary! Naomi- avacado is my new best friend! And Camille, after reading your article I felt like shouting “I will NOT be omitted!” thank you ladies so much for sharing your talents.

  2. richard murray on said:

    I wouldn’t use your word choice of abolished, when it comes to the acts of Abraham Lincoln toward the oppressive system. I would use the word changed( it and its verbal kin have to be used more). Part of the ability to make Black and non White enslavement absent in media is the idea that the stated situation is only in the past.

    You are totally correct that the revisionist infatuation started right at the end of the War between the States[Wars can’t be civil but they are between citizens:)].
    I think another interesting point is the lack of films that are blunt about Black people’s view towards whites in that era. While Hollywood has over a century of blocking out White enslavement of Blacks in the USA and abroad. They have also blocked out the production of films showing Blacks honestly of hate towards Whites.
    Meaning, Glory, Amistad and Beloved show more fo the Black pain uncommonly, but none show Black hatred. In GLory, Denzel Washington’s character is the only Black character that shows any true dislike of Whites, and he never attacks but gets caught and sheds his tear being whipped. Morgan Freeman is the “classical” old Black sage. The brother with the glasses is the educated negro. The rest of the soldiers remind me of the gallant band in Soldiers Story who can’t wait to go to war, because “Hitler don’t know” as said by David Alan Grier.
    In Amistad, Djimon Honsou’s character has a dislike of Whites especially in the beginning but it is more prideful than acting. And, by the end is more of a well there are some good whites in the world.
    In Beloved, even though the white men stole her milk, Winfrey isn’t the hateful type. And, rare films like Posse, which I can’t believe you didn’t mention[ pay no mind to that:)], don’t show hatred toward whites even as the Blacks are shooting Whites to protect their town.
    Whites enslaving Blacks truthfully is unpresent or uncommon in the media. But, in the rare instances where the truth is viewed, the true feelings of Black people toward Whites is even absent, and replaced by the modern notions.

    I wonder if twelve years a slave is going to take from solomon northrup’s odyssey.
    Speaking of Django, Dicaprio is in the remake of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and I saw the trailer. The first scene is a Black group, in the daytime, in night gown clothes parting as they are driving along the Brooklyn bridge in duesenberg.
    If I had the money to buy a ferrari, I couldn’t go down 145th street without the police stopping me, so dicaprio is in a row of these revisionist history films. Maybe he thinks we all are in an inception[yes, low blow]

    You have to wonder if Hollywood can ever fill in the holes. Hollywood was started to make dreams, not state realities. I think the only producer of such truth will come through independent film in the movie world.

    Great article, thought provoking, can’t wait for the talk show one day

    • camillewanlissortiz on said:

      Richard, thank you for your comment. I+C appreciates your insightful thoughts. I think your point about Black pain vs. Black hatred during that era is spot-on. There was definitely disdain and slaves often waged their own rebellions in small and large ways but that is always omitted from the telling of these stories. “Django” may go there, as the title character spends the majority of the film killing and exacting revenge on slave owners but we’ll have to wait and see if it can be classified under Black hatred (per your thoughts on “Posse”).

      I also agree with your point that “You have to wonder if Hollywood can ever fill in the holes. Hollywood was started to make dreams, not state realities. I think the only producer of such truth will come through independent film in the movie world.” So true. And more than likely it will be a foreign-born filmmaker who brings the truth to light. Haile Gerima, an Ethiopian filmmaker, made “Sankofa” (1993) – one of the most unflinchingly dead-on portrayals of slave life I’ve ever seen. But he had to fight tooth-and-nail to get the film viewed when no major distribution company would touch it. He went on a thirty-five city tour and did everything himself with amazing results. Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier made “Manderlay” in 2005 about a plantation in the 1930s that never ended slavery. And now Steve McQueen, the Black British director is behind “12 Years,” so it should be interesting to see what comes out of the adaptation of Solomon Northup’s tale.

      • Richard Murray on said:

        thank you for writing this opinion.
        And, shame on me, to not mention the legendary, in nocturnal circles. Sankofa:) thank you for mentioning that big microknown gem of a film.
        We are in the same idea when it comes to foreign filmmaking.
        Just to entertain any who may be reading our dialog. the next question is audience. Is the black audience in the USA like it was in the 1960’s. I think sadfully, the Black audience in BRazil is far hungrier for truth towards Black history than the Black audience in the USA?
        I have no numbers or stats to prove anything but just a feel of the wind. I wonder.

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  4. Pingback: Abraham’s Promise | Jerod Brennen – Multiplatform Storyteller

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