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Slavery and its Popular Depictions in the Age of Obama

The year 2015 has a particular significance for the United States, since it commemorates 150 years (the so-called Sesquicentennial) from the end of the American Civil War, the 1861–65 conflict between the Union and the Confederacy that tore apart the American nation, caused the death of more than 700,000 men, and led to the emancipation of almost 4 million slaves. Since 2011, commemorations of the Civil War have affected the lives of ordinary American citizens, as museums, city and state governments, and universities across the country have organized events related to the Sesquicentennial with the full support of the Federal Government and President Barack Obama. 

There is no doubt that the convergence of the Sesquicentennial with the two terms of the first African American president in the White House has been instrumental in causing a renewed interest by the media, especially the movie industry, in both slavery and the Civil War era, with documentaries and films on black slaves and on Abraham Lincoln that have met with success among both the critics and the public. Yet, despite the media’s and Hollywood’s interest in the topic, slavery and emancipation have been largely absent in the Civil War commemorations promoted and supported by the Obama administration. In fact, the latter’s lack of engagement with the celebration of the 150 years from the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which, on 31 January 1865, freed all the slaves on American soil, led historian Allen Guelzo to write, last February: “if we cannot find enough in that to celebrate, we have a far bigger problem at hand than mere historical amnesia.” 

To be sure, when we analyze in depth the most representative films and documentaries that have marked the years of the Sesquicentennial, we can find not only the reason why these particular works have been created at this time in the age of Obama, but also it becomes clear to us that they represent, effectively, two different narratives of the Civil War. These two narratives look at the process of slave emancipation as the point of origin of two different views of US history. One view explains the Obama administration’s lack of engagement with the commemorations on the end of slavery. Conversely, the other view explains the reasons for the importance of drawing as much attention as possible to a topic such as slavery, which has a great deal of bearing on ongoing racial oppression in contemporary America.  

Clearly, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) is the best representative of the orthodox view of slavery and the Civil War in the age of Obama. The movie is part of what A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis have called “our current bout of LINCOLMANIA”, for which Obama has been largely responsible, first by launching his presidential campaign from Lincoln’s adopted hometown of Springfield, Illinois, and then, after entering the White House, by drawing connections and comparisons with the 16th US president on numerous occasions. In doing so, Obama simply continued a long tradition of presenting what Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has described as “an image of Lincoln as the American philosopher-king and patron saint of race relations”. [i]

Lincoln, the movie featuring Daniel Day-Lewis (2012)

From this perspective, Spielberg’s Lincoln is the ultimate incarnation of that image, based as it is on a book – Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (2006), which Obama has been said to read extensively – in which Lincoln and “the best and the brightest” white politicians in the Union appear as the makers of an American nation whose problems, including slavery, they were in charge of fixing. As several historians have noted, in the film Lincoln, African Americans are largely absent from the narrative, if not purely as recipients of the gift of freedom. In fact, the film implies that they should consider the granting of emancipation as the first, monumental, step toward a future inevitably leading to a dream of racial harmony. In doing this, therefore, the film largely downplays the pervasive and ongoing nature of racism, which, in real history, affected deeply even Lincoln himself. 

A similar underlying idea also characterizes a celebrated documentary by Bob Rapley called The Abolitionists (2013), for the PBS series called American Experience. The documentary focuses on the lives of five prominent activists in favour of the abolition of slavery in nineteenth-century America: William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Angelina Grimké, Harriet Beecher-Stowe, and John Brown. The narrative is as orthodox and teleological as that of Spielberg’s Lincoln, since the documentary is largely focused on the efforts by a select group of white evangelical reformers to create an American society devoid of slavery through pacifist means (with the notable exception of John Brown, who is, understandably, treated as an oddity in this context).

In the documentary, Douglass seems to be the only African American abolitionist of note, despite the large number and enormous importance of black activists, and he seems largely to work hand in hand with white abolitionists, while in reality he was very critical of their racist attitudes. [ii] In sum, The Abolitionists seems to show the five protagonists of the documentary as heroic forerunners of a future inevitably leading to a dream of racial harmony no different from the one hinted at in Spielberg’s Lincoln. 

What these two works show, therefore, is that, in this orthodox and highly teleological view, it is appropriate to talk about slavery only within the context of a narrative that celebrates mostly the white “heroes” responsible for its ending, and about emancipation as the beginning of a road eventually leading to the Civil Rights Movement and to the fulfilment of racial equality, ultimately represented by the presence of an African American president in the White House (as Lee Daniels’s movie The Butler [2013] shows well). Hence, the Obama administration’s emphasis on celebrating Lincoln, whose assassination, and thus “martyrdom” for the cause of freedom, on 15 April 1865, was also 150 years ago, and the failure to engage in the commemorations of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and of the 1865 passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

These commemorations, in fact, would have inevitably questioned the actual significance of a teleological narrative leading to a present that is hardly characterized by racial harmony. That this is the case was shown particularly clearly in the events in Ferguson, Missouri, where, in March 2015, the Police Department was accused of systematically violating the constitutional rights of blacks in the findings of the investigation following last summer’s urban unrest in protest of the shooting of a black teenager by a police officer.

What is remarkable is that, in face of the persistent racism and problems experienced by African Americans shown by events such as the one in Ferguson, a counter-narrative of the Civil War era and of the significance of slavery has emerged in the media in the age of Obama. This narrative places slavery itself at its centre, and the story of its significance and its demise is told from an African American perspective – a perspective that, inevitably, makes all sorts of links and connections to unresolved racial issues in the present. The two movies that best exemplify this view are Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) and Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave (2013).

In Django Unchained, the protagonist, a slave, is mostly on his own in his struggle to free himself and his wife in an 1860 US South in which all whites are either evil slaveholders or their accomplices, with the notable exception of his German friend, significantly an outsider. Despite the fact that the film is a work of fiction, when watching Django’s final destruction of the plantation’s Big House with the white people inside it, one cannot help but being reminded of the many slave revolts culminating with the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), the only successful slave rebellion in history. That rebellion led to the total annihilation of the white population of Haiti, and thus it provided a powerful counter-narrative to the controlled process of slave emancipation headed by Lincoln’s Union during the American Civil War; in fact, the spectre of the Haitian Revolution loomed large in Civil War America, North and South. In this sense, Django Unchained is a powerful reminder that the violently exploitative and racist slave system present in the United States could only end through violent means, that is, with the Union’s imposition of slave emancipation on a defeated South.

The brutal and violently exploitative nature of US southern slavery is the main feature of 12 Years a Slave, a film based on a famous narrative written by Solomon Northup, a free northern black illegally kidnapped and sold into slavery on Louisiana’s plantations in 1841. As in Django Unchained, also in 12 Years a Slave white southerners are all evil, or at best indifferent to the suffering of blacks. The violence of the daily business of slavery depicted in the film is almost unbearable, but it succeeds in showing effectively the routinized exploitation of black slave labour for the pure purpose of profit. In this sense, the film aligns itself with the work of historians such as Edward Baptist, who sees nineteenth-century American slavery as a system of capitalist exploitation that anticipated many later practices. Certainly, from our 21st century perspective, the brutal management of the slaves shown in the film appears to have more than one disturbing feature in common with today’s labour exploitation in different countries around the world – a phenomenon aggravated by the recent economic crisis.

With their emphasis on the necessarily violent end of slavery and on slavery’s features of brutal labour exploitation and virulent racism, Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave provide a powerful counter-narrative to the dream of racial harmony hinted at in Lincoln. They show us that, far from constituting a dystopian view of history, the focus on the ugly characteristics of a violent and racist slave system that has endured for over 200 years in North America before being finally abolished only 150 years ago helps us understand the reasons why its consequences are still far from being overcome and are directly linked to the present-day situation of ongoing racial oppression of blacks. In the age of Obama, freedom and equality are hardly as widespread as the rhetoric of the dream of racial harmony suggests, despite the enormous symbolic significance of having the first African American President in the White House.

(i) Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “‘A Sacred Effort’: Lincoln’s Unfinished Journey from Slavery to Freedom”, in Karl Weber, ed., Lincoln: A President for the Ages (New York, 2012), p. 45.

(ii) Richard Newman, “Review of The Abolitionists”, Journal of American History 109:1 (2013), pp. 305-308.


Django Unchained (2012) and Twelve Years A Slave (2013)

Published: 11 Jun 2015  Categories: History

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Enrico Dal Lago is Professor of American History at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He researches on slavery and the American Civil War in comparative and transnational perspective and he is the author of several books, the latest of which is Civil War and Agrarian Unrest: The Confederate South and Southern Italy (2018).