Long before watching Barry Jenkins’ epic ten part series The Underground Railroad, I had made it my mission, as a cinephile and a Black film programmer not to watch or screen neo-slave narratives. I’ve never really understood who the intended audiences of these films are, I have no desire to watch endless portrayals of Black subjugation and suffering on screen. The past year and a half has seen renewed conversations about the legacies of slavery, from the discussion about returning looted artefacts, removing colonial statues, and even the reparation of colonial moving image. I examine the history of the slave narrative on screen and ask what the constant revisiting of the slave narrative tells us about the wider implications of race in modern society?
I went into The Underground Railroad ready to despise it, to accuse it of unnecessarily rehashing images of violence to Black bodies, to find no solace in the characters and no respite from the trauma. I can admit that my experience watching this series was different. There is no denying that Jenkins has crafted a stunning elegy for the long forgotten slaves who risked their lives for freedom. I found it to be beautiful, and haunting in equal measure. This is not to say that it didn’t fall into the trappings of many slave narratives that have come before it. The Underground Railroad is an incredibly difficult watch for those with a sensitive disposition, the violence at times is more painful than in 12 Years a Slave, yet it counteracts this suffering with the languous sense of beauty that we come to expect from Barry Jenkins. This beauty is both the series’s greatest strength and weakness. For all the poeticism that Railroad exudes, its proximity to fantasy means that it is unable to deliver a wider political and cultural message. As a whole, it bears more similarities with Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) than Roots (1977). This failure to articulate the long-lasting legacies of slaverly by connecting it to capitalism and current forms of oppression and incarnation of Black people in the US means that it often runs the risk of being a piece that values style over enduring substance.
This has often been my gripe with genre. My own personal journey with the slave narrative began while at university where I was introduced to the The History of Mary Prince (1831) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789), and while I found the texts to be vital in formulating my own knowledge of the evils of the slave trade, I knew that this was not the genre for me. I liked neo-slave narratives even less – some of my favourite writers Fred Adujar, Dorethea Smartt and Bernadine Evaristo tackled this genre, with mixed results. I have found that the cinema has proved to be a much more problematic terrain to discuss the slave narrative. On film, the genre has often reflected the era that the society has been in.
Traditionally, slavery has been subject to a revisionist history on screen, where it was subject of mass entertaintament since Hollywood’s inception and proved to be a lucrative genre. This began in 1903 when Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a global success.
This was quickly followed by absurd revisionist tales that painted slavery as a patrimonial and generally cordial industry. Examples of this ludicrous notion include 1911’s short film For Massa’s Sake in which a newly freed slave Joe sells himself and his family back into slavery to pay for the gambling debts of his late master’s son.
This film, and many others like it such as Marse Corrington (1915) His Trust (1911) reinforced troubling attitudes about slaverly by emphasising the loyalty and continued servitude of the slaves, and often resulted in a ‘negro ex machina’ style sacrifice for his white master – a trope that still lives on in many hollywood films. These narratives painted Black people as lazy, lustful, simple and superstitious, and were immensely popular during the Jim Crow era. D.W Griffth’s Birth of a Nation (1915) was the first feature length film to be screened in the White House and is still lauded as one of the greatest films ever made. This film warned its audiences to the danger of freed Black people, painting them as monsters fighting against the heroic KKK.
It wasn’t until 1939, when Gone With the Wind was first released, did we see any humane portrayals of Black slaves on screen. It won a staggering 10 oscars, including one for Hattie McDaniel for her portrayal of Mammy, a house slave, who was maternal, warm and domineering. For all the humanity Hattie McDaniel brought to the role, her contentment as a slave reaffirms the American fantasy of an affirmative and positive relationship between a slave and their master. Gone with the Wind is a Southern Gothic, the sister genre to the neo-slave narrative, which The Underground Railroad takes many of its thematic and stylistic cues from.
Although there had been steps to address the portrayals of slaves throughout the 1950s, and 1960s, with films developing the characterisation of slaves, it wasn’t until 1977 that there was a true representation of the atrocities of slavery was presented to audience. Roots was a watershed moment, the miniseries, which premiered on ABC captured the world. Over the course of it’s eight evening run, it garnered 140 million viewers and forced them to reckon with the devastation of the slave experience. Adapted from Alex Hayley’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, audiences were presented with slaves with cultural identity, with integrity, intelligence and a real desire for freedom. Never before was there a portrayal of slaves like this.. Viewers saw humans that lived their entire lives trapped in this system, and through Kizzy the daughter of Kunte Kinte, we saw a gendered look at the impacts of slavery.
Likewise, 1998 adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a Southern Gothic which focuses the burden of responsibility of motherhood throughout the slavery by focusing on sexual, mental and physical abuse endured by female slaves. It is loosely based on the true story of Margaet Gordon, who killed her child to spare it from a life as a slave.
Recent years have seen a vast upsurge in neo-slave narratives which all have different outcomes and objectives. Quentin Taratino’s Django Unchained (2012) is a blaxploitation western disguised as a neo-slave narrative. Lincoln (2013) and Amazing Grace (2006) are two films which curiously sidelines the Black experience to focus on the white abolitionist saviours. In 2013, Steve Mcqueen’s 12 Years a Slave became a critical darling, flooded with accolades and titled the definitive film about slavery. Steve Mcqueen grounded his film in realism meaning that audiences were confronted to the intense brutality in ways never seen before. Since then we have been subjected to a flood of films like Harriet (2019), Freedom (2014), The Birth of a Nation (2016) and many more that have diluted the genre, and signifies a worrying trend of Hollywood producing films that proliferate traumatic images of racialised violence, and none explimfies this trend better than the atrocious Antellebum, which made Django looked refined and elegant in its portrayal of slavery.
If Railroad is indeed indicative of this time, a post-realist era that is more concerned with symbolism and the restoration of African integrity, perhaps it is time to abandon the genre, for me the work of Ava Duvernay – Queen Sugar and 13th – do more to examine the odious legacy of slavery by situating its continual effects in the present everyday lives of African Americans.