From Slaves to Lords: The Evolution of Black Rights in Cinema


The problem of the importance of black lives and the equality of black and white people has been in the world since the colonial empires. The US Civil War may have become a key link in the chain of public protests against black discrimination. These protests come in waves in a turbulent, as if a sea during a storm, world community. And now we see another round of protests under the slogan "Black Lives Matter", which has escalated the situation to the limit.

The nature of the protests that raged in the 19-20th centuries differs from the current protests. If in the 1960s blacks fought for the elementary right to study at the same school and go in the same public transport with whites, now the situation is different. The law has equalized the rights of blacks and whites long ago, and it would seem that everyone should be satisfied. But the problem of moral suppression of blacks hasn't been solved only by legitimizing their rights. For example, if there are both black and white suspected persons in the criminal case, we will most likely attribute this crime to the first one. Just because we have developed a stereotype: if the skin is black, then at least a bully is in front of you, at most a criminal.

Of course, sometimes blacks fuel such sentiments themselves committing pogroms and robberies, which happened in May-June. But don't whites ever do that? And it seems that an enlightenment finally occurred in the society. We begin to understand that white skin is not an indicator of innate upbringing and intelligence and the black one doesn't mean that it's owner is vicious. A white person can also be a criminal, and a black one may be a good citizen. It took more than 100 years for people to truly realize this. And this insight has led to the fact that now white people bow their knees in front of blacks who have been receiving huge portions of humiliation for centuries. In fact, this is another extreme of racism, because now blacks demand much more than before. And now we see how any attempt to stop the blacks who actually committed the crime is declared racism. Long years of white arrogance and superiority have led to riots and impunity for those blacks who deserve punishment. Apparently, 2020 has opened a new page in the history of the struggle for equality.
The introduction has turned out to be too long. But I would like every reader to feel the acuity of the events which preface was written long before us. Not all black films are collected here, but it's an attempt to choose those that show the history of blacks' transformation from silent slaves into rightful people most clearly.

by Anastasia Odintsova


The Birth of a Nation (1915) by David Griffith
This is a story about two American families, Stonemans from Pennsylvania and Camerons from South Carolina, who were friendly until the Civil War pushed them together. A silent film might seem boring in the era of digital television and cinema with special effects, but this picture has a great historical meaning as it shows the attitude towards the blacks at the beginning of the 20th century. Now the film could be called frankly racist. The roles of blacks were played by white-skinned actors who were painted black. And the content of the film outraged the public even in those times. The blacks here are shown in a dark light. They constantly commit violence and robbery while the whites look like pure and innocent sufferers who should be even defended by Congress. The end of the film completely crosses out all the years of the struggle for equality (attention, spoiler!). The Ku Klux Klan (an American white supremacist group, established in the United States during the Civil War) which acts as a savior here reigns in the Southern States and brings the long-awaited idyll to the inhabitants.
The film is based on the legendary novel by Margaret Mitchell. According to the plot, with the onset of the Civil War a young southern girl Scarlett O'Hara is forced to forget about her carefree life and learn to survive on a ruined land. This film covers many topics: war and peace, the great power of love, the strengthening role of women in society, etc. But the equality of blacks and whites is no less important here. In the struggle between North and South, preference is clearly given to the slave-owning South. Here we can notice very warm relations of white masters and black slaves which, in fact, was rarely found back in those times. Amid recent protests in the United States, the HBO Max service temporarily removed this film from its catalog, arguing that slavery looks too romanticized here. However, the film was soon returned with clarifications about the contradictions of the plot. I would like to recall that both the book and the film depict the morals of the southerners who were unprepared for what the North forcibly offered them. We should understand that in the 1860s it was not so easy for slaveholders to abandon their usual lifestyle. And many blacks who knew what their purpose was from infancy didn't realize that they could be free.
The film is the climax of racist propaganda. But this fact shows that the true attitude towards blacks was dismissive even after the Civil War.
Gone with the Wind (1939) by Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood
The action takes place in the USA of the 1960s , when racial prejudice was still strong. A brutal murder happens in a provincial city. The white sheriff Bill Gillespie wants to attribute this crime to the black man Virgil Tibbs. But he turns out to be the detective whom the police leadership appointed to be Gillespie's partner. At first they hated each other. Their mutual hostility based on racial grounds is reinforced by an absolute dissimilarity of characters and various investigation methods. But Tibbs proves his competence quickly. By fair investigating and demonstrating excellent detective abilities Tibbs raises the respect of his partner, other police officers and even criminals.
Do not think that all blacks dreamed of having equal rights with whites in the middle of the 19th century; most of them didn't even dare to think about this. The film clearly shows that the results of the war turned the life of the southerners upside down, and they had to get used to a new life.
In the Heat of the Night (1967) by Norman Jewison
The film is about the hard life of black girls. The action takes place in the southern state Georgia where the previous way of life was still preserved at the beginning of the 20th century. The main character Seli Johnson went through many trials before she became an independent woman. When she was 14 she was raped by her stepfather. He gave the children born after that to black farmers and then forcibly married Seli to another negro who beat her and harassed her sister. In addition to the problem of blacks' oppression, the topic of sexual discrimination and the independence of women is also covered here. The film made a splash. Spielberg only regretted that he didn't have the courage to show lesbian love between Seli and another heroine, since in the 1980s the LGBT topic may have not been welcomed by the audience.
This film shows that by the 1960s blacks had learnt the spirit of freedom and were already able to occupy equal positions with whites, forcing everyone to respect themselves.
The Color Purple (1985) by Steven Spielberg
This military drama tells us a real story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment which was the first US Army unit consisting entirely of blacks. Colonel Shaw, a white officer in the army of the northerners, becomes the commander of the unit. He must quickly train recruits to fight on the battlefield. The colonel is convinced that blacks can be great soldiers. However, Shaw faces insurmountable obstacles. Firstly, the southerners were ordered to shoot the commanders of black battalions. Secondly, what's even worse, the northerners themselves didn't believe in the opportunity to win with the black regiment. Shaw's friends began to despise him for his choice.
However, the film revealed many global problems of society even without the lesbian theme. It's also interesting that Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey have started their career in The Color Purple.
Glory (1989) by Edward Zwick
The story is about the freedom which everyone has from birth. And if somebody takes away this freedom, it is worth fighting for it to the last drop of blood. The film tells us about the real journey of Spanish slaves, immigrants from Sierra Leone, who captured the slave merchant ship. They are trying to return to their homeland, but Spanish authorities arrest the ship. The rebels themselves are sent to the United States, accused of murder and imprisoned. A high-profile process starts. It affects the foundations of American justice and attracts the attention of the whole nation. The lawyer of Africans, of course, is a white man. At first the defendants resist this, but the lawyer is on their side.
But the colonel proved his rectitude. Paradoxically, among the northerners he is almost the only one who sincerely believes in what he is fighting for. This is a great film which proves that blacks can do a lot.
Amistad (1997) by Steven Spielberg
This is a film about an American military diver Carl Brashear. He was the first black graduate of the naval school of divers and rescuers. In 1948 he entered the fleet service. At first his mentor Bill Sunday and other officers didn't take Karl seriously. Bill was convinced that blacks shouldn't be in the fleet. He constantly mocked Carl. But Brashear didn't give up. He challenged white officers all the time. For example, he went swimming when blacks didn't have the right to do it. Karl finally gains Bill's respect by his perseverance, fearlessness and excellent results even in the most difficult and dangerous operations. Together Bill and Carl fought bureaucrats opposed to blacks.
He fervently protects the right of blacks to be free and return to their homeland. All the events take place in 1839, long before the American Civil War. That was one of the first steps towards the liberation of the race.
Men of Honor (2000) by George Tillman Jr.
It's a real story about a basketball coach Don Haskins. In 1966 he decided to strengthen the main team with black players, thereby revolutionizing American sports. The first basketball team in the United States, consisting entirely of blacks, caused a resonance. Someone was pleasantly surprised and admired by the courage of the coach. But a huge number of people led by racial prejudice reacted negatively. Don would have to face a lot of obstacles before proving the blacks' possibility to win.
The plot of the film is a little reminiscent of In the Heat of the Night. However, there the events took place in the 1960s, when the black rights movement had been in full swing. In the 1940s it was much more difficult to break the stereotype-based system.
Glory Road (2006) by James Gartner
The events unfold in the South of the United States in the 1960s. Young Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, having just graduated from the university, returned to her quiet provincial city which seemed to have stopped developing. The girl dreamt of becoming a journalist. She was writing a book about the difficulties of black maids' work and the whites' attitude towards them. Her heroines were two maids. Aibileen had been working in the homes of white people her entire life. She had raised 17 children and didn't wait for anything in her life yet. Minny's younger than Abilene. She's cheeky and sharp-tongued. These qualities didn't allow her to work in one and the same house for a long time. The three heroines, united by the idea of justice, start fighting for the independence of black women.
By the way, the real athletes of the Texas Western team who played in the 1960s are shown at the end of the film.
The Help (2011) by Tate Taylor
Solomon Northup is a free educated black musician who lives with his family in New York State. In 1841 he was invited to tour with the circus. After the several felicitous performances, when Solomon celebrated the success with other musicians, he suddenly lost consciousness. Waking up, he discovered himself chained up. Solomon was transported to New Orleans where he was extradited as a runaway slave. So the 12 years of his painful slavery full of hardships and cruelty started. His first master turned out to be a good-natured man who treated Solomon as an equal. But the second master Edwin Epps was a real tyrant. He considered his slaves stupid and vicious things. He beat and raped them, being sure that this was his sacred right.
Amid the protests in support of George Floyd, this film was criticized. Many spectators believe that the film promotes the idea of a "white savior" according to which a movement against racism is impossible without white people. Be that as it may, the film conveys the atmosphere of the 1960s engulfed in a wave of protests.
12 Years a Slave (2013) by Steve McQueen
It's impossible to talk about the struggle for black rights and not to recall Martin Luther King. He was the leader of the black rights movement in the 1950s-1960s. King received the Nobel Prize for combating racial inequality through non-violent resistance. And his speech "I Have a Dream", expressing hope for a future where blacks and whites would have equal rights, is now studied at the universities. This drama talks about one of King's protest marches which took place in Selma, Alabama. That was a time when blacks continued to live in poverty and be despised by whites.
The film is a tearjerker where the slavery is shown so hard that at first you don't believe that such cruelty can exist. For example, when Edwin tied the slave and forced Solomon to beat her with lashes. But perhaps this was the only way to convey the bitter fate of blacks that, according to many viewers, wasn't shown in The Help.
Selma (2014) by Ava DuVernay
This is the story of the world's first black clown named Chocolat. A circus actor Foottit wanted to add something new into his performances so as to refresh them. He invited a runaway slave to work for him. The duo was a great success with the public due to the performances where a white clown mocks the black one. In spite of his popularity, Chocolat didn't feel like a full-fledged person.
By his resonant performances, King has become a persona non grata in many states. He had to struggle practically alone, overcoming the obstacles on the way to blacks' freedom.
Chocolat (2015) by Roschdy Zem
The title is an ironic reference to the racist film of 1915 (read above). The biopic tells us about the black slave Nat Turner. According to a legend, he saw a sign in a solar eclipse – a black hand covering a white dwarf. After that Nat believed he was chosen by God to organize an uprising of blacks. Plus, there were personal reasons for this. For example, the film shows that the reason for the uprising was the rape of Nat's wife by whites. There is no evidence of both versions. Nevertheless, the riot in August, 1831 became the deadliest uprising against the white oppressors, claiming more than 160 lives.
Then he decided to achieve fame without Foottit and to become an independent theatre actor. But will he be able to reach his aim in Europe of the 19th century riddled with racial prejudice?
The Birth of a Nation (2016) by Nate Parker
Nowadays. Black photographer Chris Washington meets with a white girl Rose Armitage. It seems that these are sincere feelings, free from racial prejudice. One day Rose invites Chris to meet with her parents assuring him that they would be glad to see a black guy. However, his arrival turns into a nightmare. Rose's parents, neurosurgeon Dean and psychiatrist Missy, use him and other blacks for their experiments. They lure young black people into their home with the help of Rose. Missy hypnotizes them, and after that she, together with Dean, transplants the brains of their elderly friends into the bodies of blacks. Asking why they choose blacks, Chris gets an answer that blacks are now in fashion.
Though black laws were toughened after the uprising, it turned out to be the most effective black riot in American history. The wave of public indignation of the inequality between blacks and whites had only been growing and then subsequently led to the Civil War.
Get Out (2017) by Jordan Peele
This film is in stark contrast to the previous one. Despite the fact that the events here take place in the 1960s, in the midst of racial inequality, the film leaves a more positive aftertaste. The heroes aren't hypocritical here: if they hate the negro, they hate him. And if they are sympathetic to him, then they don't care what his skin color is. Briefly, the film tells us about a black pianist Don Shirley who hires a white driver Tony Lip for his concert tour. The audience applaud Don and admire his talent, but only because he is an excellent entertainment for them. Whites will never sit down at the same table with the blacks, no matter how wonderful they are. At that time there was even a special guidebook called "The Negro Motorist Green Book" where all hotels, restaurants and other establishments intended for blacks were registered. But even in this evil society you can find a person who can sincerely attach himself to a human even if he is black. Tony has loved Don only when he heard him playing. The discrimination against the black musician deeply outrages him. Therefore, he constantly stands up for Don and gets involved in fights.
This film allows us to look at the fight against racial inequality from a different angle. In fact, the neglect of blacks didn't disappear; it only transformed. Some whites continue to use blacks as paltry things, skillfully disguising their true attitude with anti-racist views.
Green Book (2018) by Peter Farrelly
By the way, feel the difference between this film where, in fact, the negro is the employer of a white person and the films of past decades where blacks are presented as slaves, servants, subordinates or at best partners of whites. This film is a small hope that blacks and whites will once be absolutely equal and won't fight but will be friends and love each other.
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