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.