...Rob Rapley’s 2013 TV mini-series The Abolitionists excises African-American voices from the abolitionist struggle in the United States, skewing the history of one of the nineteenth century’s most important social movements...But the black abolitionist perspective in Rapley’s script is almost entirely excluded from that conversation. Augmenting the standard talking head interviews with prominent historians, the bulk of the film comprises a series of inventive dramatizations that bring to life the lives of William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimké, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Brown, and Frederick Douglass. Though Douglass does play a major role in the film, he has been completely removed from the community of African-American abolitionists with whom he argued, fought, and debated over how best to bring about the end of slavery, and thus relegated to what is essentially a supporting role.Even more problematic:
The film’s omission of the ACS offers a sanitized version of early American abolitionism in which white heroes rescue grateful and downtrodden slaves. It’s a two-dimensional story that has distinct similarities to contemporary narratives of black suffering crafted by the like of Nicholas Kristof, Invisible Children (creators of the Kony 2012 campaign), and other professional white saviors...Not only does the film marginalize the voices of black abolitionists, it often chooses to project a history of the fight against slavery in which the portrayal of black suffering simply provides a vehicle for white redemption and sacrifice.What is so frightening about black agency? Moreover, what is so frightening to, and challenging for, dominant White sensibilities about allowing people of color--black folks in particular--a central role in our own Freedom Struggle?
These are questions we have returned to many times here on We Are Respectable Negroes in our discussions of films such as Lincoln and Django Unchained.
Films and other cultural products are the result of many decisions made by many people. A story does not come into existence fully formed. Nor is the sound stage a "real" "historical" place: it is an artificial space for invention and creativity. Films are also a product; the creators of said product should be held accountable for the decisions they make (or do not) regarding race, representation, and "historical truth".
Popular film does political work because it is a space for teaching political and social values. More generally, popular culture is also integral to identity formation because it influences how we both see ourselves, and how other people relate to us.
Film is a reflection of a society's collective subconscious. And in the United States, a country which remains highly segregated along lines of race and class, the insight into reality (however skewed and distorted the resulting vision is) provided by the filmic imagination is of critical importance as we negotiate our social environment.
Jay Driscoll's essay reminded me of the movie Glory. As a child, I was moved by seeing black men fighting for their own liberty and freedom in the American Civil War.
In college, I rewatched the movie many times.
But, I was sensing that a movie about black folks' freedom struggle as told through the lens of a white main character was problematic. Yet, I was more worried that criticizing Glory would somehow undercut the overall intent of a movie that finally showed a mass public audience that black folks were not happy slaves, sitting around on the plantation, content to be saved by white people.
Now, quite a few years later, I see Glory as a movie with good intentions--but I also now understand how white privilege and the white racial frame are often, quite literally, excused away with the white lie of "good intentions" and white racial innocence.
Yes, a film or other text can be motivated by the good intentions of its creator(s). However, such intentions are separate from how a film or text does the work of white supremacy or reinforces the normality of Whiteness.
Glory is an exploration of black masculinity, citizenship, and agency through military service and warfighting.
What I did not have the words or critical framework to articulate in either middle school or college is how Glory's central problem is the assumption, most clearly seen when Morgan Freeman (the good, loyal, "reasonable", black free man) confronts Denzel Washington (the angry, willful, obstinate, "angry", slave runaway) about the latter's bad attitude and the true meaning of what it means to be a "black man" as opposed to a "nigger".
White Northerners who are ostensibly fighting for black people's freedom in the Union Army are "real" men.
By comparison, African-American bondsmen are not "real" men. Consequently, only by putting on the Union blue, can black men achieve their proper role as citizens who are "masculine" and "strong": it is important to note that African-Americans who served in the Union military during the Civil War, and in other eras as well, often described their military service in those terms.
The necessary intervention here is simple and direct: African-Americans, both free and slave, were active participants in their own freedom struggle. Black men who happened to be owned as human property, participated in slave rebellions, ran away, committed sabotage, and resisted in other ways both small and large. African-Americans, slave and free, were all "real" men.
Glory and other white savior films are unwilling (or perhaps unable?) to acknowledge that fact. A black man may be president of the United States, but black agency and black freedom remain a source of great (white) cultural anxiety. Post civil rights era America is beset by many paradoxes along the color line. White anxiety towards black and brown collective and individual agency, as well as freedom, remains one of them.