Slavery in Prime Time

By Sylviane A. Diouf, Director, Lapidus Center. February 3, 2016.

The New Year is bringing slavery into the mainstream. Nate Parkers’ The Birth of a Nation is the first sensation of 2016. The film, about Nat Turner’s revolt in 1831 Virginia, won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for a narrative film and the Audience Award. Fox Searchlight quickly bought the distribution rights for $17.5 million. As Hollywood Reporter stated, it is the “the biggest sale in the fest’s history. It also marks the largest sum ever paid for a finished movie at any festival, including Cannes, Berlin and Toronto.”

But beyond the extraordinary numbers, it is the significance of this film—seven years in the making—that stands out. Writing in The New Yorker, historian Jill Lepore, stressed, “Parker didn’t write a film about Nat Turner because he wanted to please the Academy. He wrote a film about Turner because he wants Americans to stare, hard, at the corpses of our ancestors and to finally, finally, bury our dead.” Nat Turner was a complex figure; so before you see The Birth of a Nation, watch the fascinating conversation “Nat Turner: Rebel and Prophet” between Anthony Kaye and Thulani Davis.



The slave experience is also coming to television. “Underground”, a series executive-produced by John Legend, “follows a group of slaves who plan a daring escape from a Georgia plantation to cross 600 miles to freedom.” With an energetic, bold musical score, the show—whose first episode airs on March 9 on WGN America—hopes to entertain, teach, and inspire.

For more on the Underground Railroad, you can view an exciting conversation between historian and Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Foner, an expert on the topic, and historian Leslie Harris.

HBO is at work on a biopic of Harriet Tubman with Viola Davis in the leading role; and a remake of the 1977 mini-series Roots will air this year on A&E, Lifetime, and the History Channel. Shot in New Orleans and South Africa, the new Roots features prominent actors Forest Whitaker, Anika Noni Rose, and Laurence Fishburne.

This exceptional crop of slavery and resistance themes is certainly linked to the national and international success of Twelve Years a Slave, which showed that a large public is ready to face the reality (at least a version of it) of slavery. But it is not a coincidence that this realization and the interest in African American heroic figures of the past come at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight against mass incarceration, for example, evidence the larger context, deeply rooted in slavery and resistance to it, of the American racial divide.

In the words of Nate Parker, “A lot of the injuries that we have now and the problems we have now, lie in our past and our inability to look honestly at our past and celebrate cultures and history in a way that’s not indicting, but says, “Yes it happened, and we’re acknowledging it.””