Erica Armstrong Dunbar is an associate professor of Black Studies and History at the University of Delaware, and she directs the Program in African American History at the Library Company of Philadelphia. She is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.
It appears that Hollywood is interested in Black lives—and I hope this is not a passing fad. Major motion pictures and cable network biopics have begun to offer more nuanced viewing options for those of us who are interested in African American history. Recently released films such as The Butler, Fruitvale Station, and Selma have woven together twentieth- and twenty-first-century narratives about the Black freedom struggle in America that are simultaneously historical and contemporary. Biopics such as HBO’s Bessie offer similar narratives about Black life and culture. There is still, however, a gaping hole in film and television productions about African American history. The colonial period, the years of the early republic, and antebellum America have been relegated to the land of documentaries. These documentaries are important film projects, but they have significantly smaller production budgets and usually fail to reach a broad audience.
For decades I waited patiently for storylines regarding American slavery to make it to the silver screen or television. In 1993, the film Sankofa was released and began a short and relatively unsuccessful run of films that focused upon the institution of slavery. Beloved, adapted from Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel, and Amistad, based upon the 1839 uprising of enslaved people onboard La Amistad, elbowed their way to the big screen. Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg had the power to bring these films to a wide audience. Unfortunately, neither film did particularly well at the box office. Patience was once again required. I waited another 15 years before the adaptation of Solomon Northup’s narrative, 12 Years a Slave, appeared in theaters.
I was a graduate student when Beloved and Amistad made their debuts. Years of reading and writing about the experiences of the enslaved prompted my excitement. I realized how starved I was for the kind of film projects that located the experience of the enslaved at the center of the narrative. My generation remembers the broadcast of the television miniseries Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Based on Alex Haley’s novel, Roots aired in 1977 and was seen by 100 million viewers. It was one of the most-watched TV broadcasts and it won nine Emmy Awards. Most of Black Hollywood seemed to be cast in Roots and for families such as mine the miniseries became a broadcast event.
I was in first grade when Roots first aired, and my parents believed that my sister and I should watch every night of the miniseries. We carefully spread our Raggedy Ann blankets on the floor and prepared to watch ABC’s presentation. As a family, we watched a young Kunta Kinte endure kidnapping, beatings, and the degradation of the auction block. Viewers were introduced to characters who, although trapped in the unimaginable violence of American slavery, managed to find and maintain dignity. It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood the importance of Roots to many American families, especially Black families. My parents, and most of Black America, wanted desperately to climb out of television’s Black history famine.
Shortly after its premier, Roots was plagued with controversy regarding the authenticity of Haley’s research and scholarship. But families like mine held fast to the importance of the miniseries. We had no alternatives. Many criticized the romanticized relationships that appeared in Roots, but it didn’t matter to us. We were grateful. Grateful to see our history find its way to primetime. Grateful that the stories of the enslaved were available to a large audience. Grateful that Kunta Kinte had become a household name.
In fact, it was the character Kunta Kinte that made the television production so powerful. It was Kinte’s strength, power, and intelligence that kept the rapt attention of viewers. We witnessed the capture of a young man and followed him along the transatlantic slave trade. We watched him land in Annapolis, Maryland, prior to the Revolutionary War and followed him as he carved out a life as an enslaved man in Virginia. We watched as plantation slavery spread to the newer states that entered the union and we saw his family members and others sold to quench the thirst of southern slavery. My sister and I closed our eyes when actor John Amos received what has become an iconic example of slavery’s torture. I remember the shininess of the axe that was used to dismember Kunta Kinte, tied to a tree after an unsuccessful escape attempt. I had never seen such barbarity in my life. That scene lodged itself into my memory and became wedded to my understanding of human bondage.
Kinte’s life in America was filled with tragedy, yet there was triumph in his story. Although Kinte died a slave, his family would eventually find freedom. Perhaps it was this kind of “feel-good,” romanticized ending that rewarded viewers for tuning in for eight consecutive nights. Hollywood knows what American audiences want, and that’s a happy ending. This is, perhaps, what has stood in the way of producing numerous films or television shows about African American history prior to the Civil War. There simply was no easy “happy ending.” American slavery existed for hundreds of years, dooming generation after generation to unspeakable horror. Yet underneath the dark violence of slavery, the sale of children, the rape and forced breeding, there were love stories, narratives of resistance, and the making and mending of family bonds. These stories must be told. I think we have reached an important moment where film and television and early African American history are learning to live together. Perhaps patience will no longer be a necessity.
An example of this intersection occurred most recently with BET’s (Black Entertainment Television’s) production of The Book of Negroes, a six-hour miniseries that predictably aired during Black History Month. There were many parallels between this miniseries and its predecessor of almost forty years. Similar to Roots, The Book of Negroes was based upon an award-winning novel, not a footnoted work of nonfiction. Written by African Canadian Lawrence Hill who cowrote the screenplay with Jamaica-born Canadian director Clement Virgo, The Book of Negroes is based loosely around a historical ledger that recorded the names of nearly three thousand enslaved Africans who allied themselves with the British during the American Revolution. Allegiance to the British was rewarded with freedom and relocation to Nova Scotia. The miniseries was ambitious as it covered a significant amount of geographical and historical terrain that may have left some viewers a bit confused. But the performance of the lead character, Aminata Diallo, played by Aunjanue Ellis, forced viewers to return to their television sets for three days in a row.
Only eleven years old at the time of her abduction from her village in West Africa, Diallo survived a march to the sea and a treacherous transatlantic voyage to colonial South Carolina. Diallo’s refusal to accept the new name of “Mary” was reminiscent of Kunta Kinte’s unapologetic denial of “Toby” as his “slave name.” Diallo perfects her midwifery skills over the course of her lifetime while also learning to read, speak, and write in other languages. Purchased by a Jewish businessman, Diallo eventually travels to New York and escapes. She slips into a life of a fugitive and shares this status with many of her shantytown companions. As free and fugitive men and women wait for the war’s end, their allegiance to the British is only strengthened with promises of permanent freedom. But when the British lose the war, Diallo is assigned to compile a registry of names—“the book of negroes”—a census of former slaves who are to be evacuated from New York and taken to Nova Scotia by the British Navy. Diallo is among the thousands of formerly enslaved people who leave for Canada where the suffering and racial oppression do not end. Diallo does not remain in Nova Scotia, eventually travelling to Sierra Leone, then London. It is here that Diallo meets with the British Parliament to discuss the atrocities of the slave trade and to denounce the institution of human bondage.
The indomitable spirit of Diallo anchors this miniseries. Her position as the lead character allows viewers to place the experiences of enslaved women at the center of American slavery. Both Kunta Kinte and Diallo arrive in the British colonies during the 1760s, but they lead very different lives. The Book of Negroes’ stories of rape, concubinage, and the loss of children remind viewers of the gendered differences within the institution of slavery—a welcome addition to the general narrative about human bondage. I am always hesitant to use fictional representations of slavery and freedom in my lecture courses, but this film could be used in a course about women in the African diaspora or American slavery. With appropriate context, this miniseries, or parts of it, could help students to explore the lives of enslaved women and to understand the very narrow passages to freedom that existed for Black men and women in early America.
While the miniseries exposes the atrocities of slavery, its drama also hinges upon a love story. Aminata Diallo and Chekura, a West African man who worked for slave catchers that would eventually kidnap them both, provide an amazing example of Black love. At times the reunions and the relationship between Diallo and Chekura appear overly romanticized and almost unbelievable. But in some ways, this is emblematic of the relationships between enslaved men and women who were unable to legally marry. In a constant state of vulnerability, the relationships between slaves could be broken apart upon a moment’s notice. The possibility of sale always threatened the sanctity of slave marriages, yet these relationships endured and produced children and oral histories of Black love and Black family. Given that the horrendous violence of slavery lasted for centuries, it’s almost unbelievable that these kinds of relationships developed and endured. But they did.
As a fictional character, Diallo’s experience is exceptional and does not represent what happened to the tens of millions of Africans sold into the slave trade. As a scholar I know this, yet I found myself in the same position as my parents back in 1977. I required my son, a fifth grader at the time, to watch The Book of Negroes with me. I abandoned my concern for strict historical accuracy and calmed my scholarly anxieties. My family watched the invincible Aminata Diallo find her freedom. We cheered for her and we cried for her. We let ourselves applaud and appreciate historical fiction.
And I will still wait patiently for the next nonfiction, blockbuster film about African American slavery to arrive in theaters across the country.