Hollywood Unchained: Will the success of ‘Django’ spawn more slave epics?

Samuel L. Jackson and Kerry Washington in 'Django Unchained'

Samuel L. Jackson and Kerry Washington in 'Django Unchained'

The story of slavery has been neglected by Hollywood since the advent of motion pictures. Despite its vestige as one of the greatest tragedies in American history, slavery has been recounted in only a handful of films to date, few of which received much critical attention or profitable returns.

Yet with the box office success of Quentin Tarantino’s new film Django Unchained, which is estimated to have hit over $106 million in domestic earnings this weekend, some believe it could be ample time for the ghosts of America’s past to finally rise to the surface.

“There’s a difficulty to get movies made with African-American characters period, not just films that deal with slavery,” George Tillman Jr., director of Men of Honor, Notorious, and Soul Food tells theGrio. “About 12 years ago, I remember a young filmmaker wanting to do a film about the Underground Railroad – he couldn’t get it off the ground for nothing. He tried for three or four years. Hopefully, maybe down the line, Django Unchained has opened up the door so that we can be able to have more slave stories, and many different kinds of depictions.”

While Tillman points out that Django Unchained doesn’t necessarily tell a story of slavery, rather its focus lies on love, revenge, and just deserts, it does bring to light the cruel setting of the Antebellum South. The raw establishment of oppression and callousness in the movie offers a rare glimpse into the terrors of America’s transgression, and is a sight not often portrayed on the big screen.

That, says Tillman, is significant.

“What I really loved is that it showed, for individuals who are not African-American, who are not minorities, you can see how slavery really works,” he comments. “The plantations; the difference between working in the big house or working in the fields; the different levels of education among slaves – just seeing how it really was, I think [Tarantino] did a good job. But could he go further? Yes. Is there a lot more detail? Yes. How did we get there? How were we taken? There’s still a lot more stories to be told, but I think with the success, maybe somebody who has just as much success as Tarantino would be able to do the same thing. And we can be able to expand from that.”

Looking back, the scarcity of such films is particularly surprising considering the deep impact slavery as a cultural, social and political institution left in American history. A search on Wikipedia derives only 14 movies total chronicling American slavery, and that includes 2012’s Lincoln, an almost comical stretch of the imagination. The list also cites Steve McQueen’s forthcoming movie, Twelve Years a Slave, among the count, and that doesn’t even have a release date yet. By comparison, there have been nearly 150 films made about the Holocaust, and at least 200 World War II films since 2000 alone.

Though all these tragedies deserve time in the spotlight, the immense devastation of slavery seems grossly disproportionate to the attention it has received in Hollywood. Termed by some the “African Holocaust,” scholars believe at least 12 million Africans were captured and enslaved by white oppressors during this era, and that two out of every 10 of those captives died en route to America. Thus, 2.4 million lives were lost before they even made it to land. Furthermore, recent reports show that another 250,000 slaves were likely to have perished following their freedom due to sickness and starvation.

These stories remain to be seen in theaters, however, discounting the few that have made it to the box office – Amistad and Roots, namely. Screen Junkie’s list of “5 Slavery Movies Everyone Should Watch” curiously includes Liam Neeson’s thriller flick Taken, and the Charlton Heston classic, Ben-Hur. A similar breakdown on Ranker.com cites 15 well-made slave movies, listing Gone with the Wind, Huckleberry Finn, and Memoirs of a Geisha as among the best.

“Why don’t they ever do anything about the passage of slavery from Africa?” Tillman questions. “You have to research to find out about it; it’s just not out there. And is that fair? I don’t think that’s fair. There are a lot of great stories; a lot of great families; a lot of people who made it out of that; people who dealt with that; people who lost family through that. There aren’t articles; there’s not television.”