American Slavery and Abolition through Hollywood

by Steven Mintz

Throughout the twentieth century, many influential Hollywood films, from Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind to Glory to Amistad, have helped shape the way Americans have thought about slavery and its legacy.

Birth of a Nation  (1915)

Birth of a Nation was the most popular film of the silent era. Its innovative techniques made it the most important silent film ever produced. But the film also provided historical justification for segregation and disfranchisement. The message embedded in the film was that Reconstruction was an unmitigated disaster, that African Americans could never be integrated into white society as equals, and that the violent actions of the Ku Klux Klan were justified because they were necessary to reestablish legitimate and honest government.

Director D. W. Griffith dramatized these themes by focusing on the intertwined stories of the lives of two families: the Stonemans and the Camerons. Austin Stoneman was modeled on Thaddeus Stevens, the Republican congressman who advocated a radical transfer of political power to the freedmen. The Camerons were a humane and cultured South Carolina family with a firebrand son. The film concludes with the rescue of the Camerons and Stonemans by the KKK and the impending marriage of Elsie Stoneman to young Cameron, symbolizing the reunion of North and South.

To convey an impression of historical accuracy, Griffith incorporated cinematic replicas of famous historical scenes, such as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He also filled the film with anti-black incidents; arrogant freedmen pushing whites off sidewalks, preaching marriage between the races, and killing blacks who remained loyal to their masters. The film's characters are stereotypes: loyal house servants; deluded and ignorant field hands; arrogant mulattoes lusting after southern white women; and the Ku Klux Klan made up of gallant ex-Confederate officers.

Birth of a Nation helped to justify the denial of civil rights to African Americans. The turn of the century witnessed the nadir of race relations in the United States. Lynching was widespread. Race riots directed against African Americans took place in many cities. African Americans in the South were relegated to separate schools, hotels, and restaurants and were denied the right to vote.

Gone With the Wind  (1939)

Gone With the Wind was the costliest and most popular film of Hollywood's Golden Era. Producer David Selznick had promised that the film would be “absolutely free of any anti-Negro propaganda.”

But the film presented, in the words of one critic, “a reassuring portrayal of antebellum gentility, racial harmony, and black docility.” Although it did not use white actors in blackface, like Birth of a Nation, its depiction of enslaved African Americans as loyal but scatter-brained house servants and cowering, clumsy field hands conformed to earlier stereotypes.

Glory  (1989)

Glory offers a poignant and powerful retelling of the story of one of the first black regiments during the Civil War, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, from its founding to its assault on the Confederate Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863. Half the regiment's men were killed or wounded in the assault, but it dramatically demonstrated the courage of African American troops in battle.

The film's weaknesses are that it relies heavily on fictional characters and fails to describe the larger historical context. It does not adequately describe Lincoln's gradual shift from conceiving of the Civil War as a war to preserve the Union to a war to end slavery. Nor does it adequately mention the North's victories in early July at Gettysburg and Vicksburg or the anti-draft riots in New York. Just three days before the assault on Fort Wagner, anti-draft rioters in New York had beaten to death a nephew of one of the 54th's sergeants, Robert Simmons.

Amistad  (1997)

In 1839, a group of Africans were captured in Sierra Leone and shipped to the Spanish colony of Cuba. Even though Spain had signed a treaty prohibiting the international slave trade, it allowed the trade into its booming sugar colony. During the voyage across the Atlantic, one-third of the slaves died. During trans-shipment from Havana to nearby sugar plantations, fifty-three slaves broke free of their shackles and overpowered the crew. The captives then ordered the two men who had purchased them to navigate the ship toward Africa. At night, however, the men sailed the ship northward and westward. An American naval vessel ultimately seized the ship in Long Island Sound.

The Africans would have been returned to Cuba had abolitionists not publicized their cause. The case ultimately went to the Supreme Court, where John Quincy Adams argued that they had been illegally held captive in violation of international law. In 1841, the Court freed the captives.

As history, the Steven Spielberg film is severely flawed. It portrays the abolitionists as religious fanatics; treats Josiah Gibbs, the Yale College professor who learned Mende and translated the captives words as a joke; and it invents a fictitious African American abolitionist Theodore Joadson (when it could have depicted real-life figure, the Reverend J.C. Pennington). The film also ignores the racial prejudice in New Haven, where plans for a vocational college for African American students had been quashed a few years earlier; and misrepresents the abolitionists' role in supporting the trial. Above all, the film fails to focus sufficiently on the captives themselves.

In his novella Benito Cereno, Herman Melville offers searching philosophical reflections on an incident very similar to the Amistad case.

Beloved  (1998)

On January 27, 1856, 22-year-old Margaret Garner, her husband Robert, his parents, and her four young children attempted to escape from a northern Kentucky plantation into neighboring Cincinnati. Surrounded by trackers and on the verge of certain capture, the pregnant Margaret slit the throat of her two-year-old daughter Mary. She said that she had intended to kill her other children rather than see them returned to slavery. She later explained that she wanted to "end their sufferings" rather than see them returned to bondage and "murdered by piecemeal." Margaret's owner may have been the father of at least her two youngest children, including the one she killed.

This chilling story served as the historical basis for Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved and the Oprah Winfrey–Jonathan Demme film, which examines the physical and psychological scars inflicted by slavery. No other work has so powerfully examined the interior life of a former slave.

Margaret Garner's real-life story is described in Steven Weisenburger's Modern Medea (1998). Unlike Morrison's fictional character, who ends her life as a free woman, Margaret Garner died of typhoid in slavery.

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Discussion

I wonder how "Django Unchained" will compare.


essay on how slaves are portrayed in Hollywood Films; helpful if visual learners need a picture to understand a text.


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