How Movies Get Black History All Wrong

From: Can movies teach us about African-American history?
By Bruce Dancis – The Sacramento Bee

Can movies or television really teach us anything useful about African-American history?

Certainly, the legacy of such famous films as “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) and “Gone With the Wind” (1939) was to give the public a distorted view of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction while offering portrayals of African Americans that were either virulently hateful or condescending.

And because of such films, says Patricia Turner, professor of African-American studies at University of California, Davis, “a lot of the public thinks that the plantation was the dominant entity on which slaves lived during the era of slavery.”

In fact, Turner says, “very, very few slaves lived on plantations. Most slaves lived in units that had 10 or fewer slaves on them. Very few black women were domestic servants; you had to be extraordinarily wealthy to take a woman out of the fields and to have female household servants as we see in ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ‘North and South’ and the other great plantation epics.

“They don’t match the way that slavery unfolded for blacks.”

Even a more recent film like “Glory” (1989), which is far better intentioned in its depiction of African Americans, “is pretty inaccurate historically,” Turner says. “The [Civil War] movie ends up being about the colonel, the white man, rather than about the African-American soldiers.

“The movie gives you the impression that the soldiers were largely from the South and were illiterate, and they weren’t. They were free blacks from the North and were fairly well educated for the most part.”

So, the answer to the question: Can movies or television teach us anything useful about African-American history?

It’s a qualified yes. Some movies and TV series have succeeded in getting the story right, or at least better.

For recommendations of some worth checking out, we talked to Turner as well as Roberto Pomo, a professor of theater and film studies at California State University, Sacramento, and Michele Foss Snowden, an assistant professor of communications at CSUS who has written about race in film and television.

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From television, all three cited Alex Haley’s 1977 miniseries “Roots” as a more accurate treatment of slavery.

“What ‘Roots’ does,” Turner says, “is give you an African-American point of view, and it’s certainly the first to say this is what [slavery] looks like.”

For Pomo, an Argentine immigrant who came to the United States as a teenager, ” ‘Roots’ was … a tremendous awakening. It allowed me to understand the plight of black culture.”

Snowden also recommends the 1993 movie “Sankofa,” made by UCLA-trained Ethiopian director Haile Gerima. It’s about an African-American supermodel (Oyafunmike Ogunlano) working at a photo shoot in West Africa in a building that had been a holding area for African slaves about to be shipped to America.

As the model explores the building, Snowden says, “she finds herself transported back in time, and she becomes a slave who gets sent to North America.” The re-enactments show the brutality of the “middle passage” and slavery.

Pomo adds that Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad” (1997), the story of a mutiny aboard a slave ship in 1839, is an “excellent film” and “very powerful.”

Click here for the full article. Very good read!

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Filed under african american, black, black man, black women, civil rights, civil war, culture, history, injustice, news, opinion, race, slavery

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