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Representations of Enslaved People Through Cinema

Introduction

In the modern world, people have an opportunity of assessing historical events through cinematography. While there are numerous various films, some of them display the struggles of enslaved people. As people in slavery have faced countless hardships, their attempts to stand up against captivity show their desire not to be someone else’s property. However, when enslaved people tried to free themselves or their loved ones, they were constantly persecuted (Jacobs, 1861). For people in modern times, films provide some insight into events in history by representing enslaved rebels.

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Amistad

First, cinema portrays the type of rebellious characters in the film Amistad. The movie starts by showing a riot of enslaved Black men on a ship named “La Amistad” in 1839 (Rediker, 2019; Spielberg, 1997, 00:05:18). The riot was successful, and one of the rebels ordered now prisoned crew members to sail to Africa (Spielberg, 1997). Later the said rebel is shown to understand how to navigate by stars and tries to control the course of the ship (Spielberg, 1997). However, a few weeks later, they encounter an American ship and are taken to prison in Connecticut (Spielberg, 1997). The movie then revolves around the questions of whether these people should be punished for murder and piracy, returned to their owners, or set free (Rediker, 2019; Spielberg, 1997). Amistad tells the story of Black people who simply wanted to return home but were kept imprisoned.

Amistad represents history by showing how White people from the USA and Spain treated Black people from Africa. Despite the abolition of slavery before the events of the film, it starts by portraying Black people almost naked and kept chained in darkness (Rediker, 2019; Spielberg, 1997). As they free themselves, the rebels are shown dressed and signing as one family on a tight ship on their way home (Spielberg, 1997). Later, they are imprisoned again and are called “slaves,” “murderers,” “property,” and “goods” (Spielberg, 1997, 00:24:12-00:26:32). However, some characters in the film refuse to treat Black people as “livestock” and believe that they have to be set free (Spielberg, 1997, 00:34:47-00:34:55). During the trial, the film shows that for the authorities, a piece of paper that assumedly can be forged is more reliable and important than people in front of their eyes (Spielberg, 1997). However, later it is discovered that the imprisoned Black men were originally enslaved by their people who received weapons from White traders (Spielberg, 1997). Amistad represents history by displaying controversies regarding slavery.

Following that, Amistad represents enslaved rebels by focusing on a character called Cinque, who is portrayed as fearless and determined. In the opening scene, Cinque pulls out a nail from a wooden bench to free himself, although his hands are covered in blood (Spielberg, 1997). Then, unlike his fellows, he is ready to swim in the open sea to escape being imprisoned by American soldiers, despite almost drowning (Spielberg, 1997). Throughout the film, everything Cinque does, he does for his people and to go back to his family (Spielberg, 1997). Cinque seems rather humble as he says that he cannot speak for all his people, but they state otherwise as they call him “big man,” even though he refuses (Spielberg, 1997, 01:11:10-01:11:27). However, at the trial, Cinque does speak and even asks for freedom in English, a language that neither of his fellows knows (Spielberg, 1997). Cinque is smart, and he does not give up and keeps suggesting ways of winning several trials (Spielberg, 1997). Cinque changes from one of the enslaved people to their representative at the court, showing characteristics of a leader.

Harriet

Second, the film Harriet also portrays a character of enslaved rebels. The film starts in a town in Maryland in 1849, showing the time in history after the events of Amistad (Lemmons, 2019). The movie tells the story of Minty Ross, a slave who was supposed to be freed due to the promise of her master’s grandfather but remained captive as her master would not let her go (Lemmons, 2019). Minty and her husband John want to have a baby who would be born free, which can be legally permitted, but her master does not allow it (Lemmons, 2019). However, the master soon passes away, and his son becomes Minty’s new owner (Lemmons, 2019). When the new master determines to sell her to another family, Minty decides to run away (Lemmons, 2019). As Minty becomes a free woman in Philadelphia, for the rest of the film, she helps other enslaved people to escape their captivity (Lemmons, 2019). Harriet tells the story of a former slave who helped people to find freedom.

Harriet represents history by showing how African-Americans were treated in the middle of the XIX century. The film emphasizes the struggles of enslaved people but also demonstrates that even freed Black people are not as free in their actions compared to White people (Lemmons, 2019). Harriet also shows the differences in treating African-Americans in Maryland, where most of them are tortured and humiliated, and in Philadelphia, where they live as equals to the White population (Lemmons, 2019). However, the film also points out that people’s virtue is not related to race, as some White men help Minty escape, while some Black men willingly persecute her (Lemmons, 2019). Harriet represents history by demonstrating the attempts of enslaved African-Americans to become free without any help from the law.

Furthermore, Harriet represents the type of rebellious character by showing enslaved people who struggled for their freedom and by focusing on changes in Minty’s identity. First, she is portrayed in Maryland as Minty Ross, a married slave who wants to have children but chooses to leave everything behind as she is about to be sold away (Lemmons, 2019). Minty is not fearless, but she would rather die than continue to live as a slave (Lemmons, 2019). Then, in Philadelphia, she becomes Harriet, after her mother, and learns to live as a free person (Lemmons, 2019). Harriet also learns how to use a gun, finds out that her husband remarried, and helps her family escape Maryland (Lemmons, 2019). Finally, in between the states and beyond, she becomes Moses in an organization that sets free those who are enslaved (Lemmons, 2019). Harriet shows the changes of one person who helps other people change their lives.

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Django Unchained

Third, Django Unchained also demonstrates a story of an enslaved rebel, although the main character’s journey is different from the two described above. The events of the film started in 1858, and the placement changes over several states such as Texas, Tennessee, and Mississippi (Tarantino, 2012). As Doctor Schultz buys and frees a slave named Django, the two of them join forces in bounty hunting (Tarantino, 2012). Being a free man, Django partners with Schultz, and together they try to buy Django’s wife from her owner (Tarantino, 2012). Django Unchained tells the story of a former slave who is on his journey of freeing his spouse.

Django Unchained represents history by showing how freed African-American people were treated in the second half of the XIX century. As Django and Schultz arrive at a town in Texas, the locals are shocked by the view of a “Nigger” riding a horse and entering a bar (Tarantino, 2012, 00:12:52-00:14:40). Later, when a slave woman asks if she should treat Django as “white folks” since he is free, her owner declines, but she is confused as she associates freedom with skin color (Tarantino, 2012, 00:31:05-00:31:10). Moreover, some scenes show that many Black people do not appreciate seeing Django acting as if he were White (Tarantino, 2012). Django Unchained represents history by demonstrating that in the latter half of the XIX century, only White people had the privilege of acting freely because of their race.

Following that, Django Unchained represents enslaved rebels by portraying a former slave who acquired a new personality to free his wife. Before the main events of the film, Django is shown as a slave who tried to run away from his owner, but the owner punished him and then decided to sell Django to someone else (Tarantino, 2012). When Django joins Schultz, he quickly feels confident in his new position, and Schultz even calls him “natural” in shooting (Tarantino, 2012, 00:45:30). As Django becomes a bounty hunter, he learns to play various roles to achieve his goals and does not break the character even when he sees other enslaved people suffering (Tarantino, 2012). However, Django loses control when he sees Schultz murdered but also sacrifices himself back into captivity to save his wife, who he envisions throughout the film (Tarantino, 2012). Django does get his freedom back, but he also murders multiple people (Tarantino, 2012). From being a slave to becoming a bounty hunter who legally assassinates fugitives, Django changes into a free person who seems to believe that the only way to keep his freedom is to kill.

Representations in Cinema

Next, while the described above films were listed in the chronology of periods in history, there is a need to look at how representations of enslaved people changed throughout time in cinema. The first of the three movies, Amistad, was released in 1997, then Django Unchained came out in 2012, and Harriet was shown in cinemas in 2019. The movies are similar in representing characters that rebelled against the system to become free, while determined to unite with their families. It may be argued if all the characters kept their humanity as, for example, Johnson (2003) recognizes it as acting the way any person would “in a given situation” (p. 114). After witnessing other enslaved people suffer and die and experiencing hardships themselves, the three characters are shown ready to even kill slave owners to ensure their safety. Although filmed at different times, Cinque, Django, and Harriett are first shown the same as other enslaved people but eventually develop stronger and braver personalities, ready to fight for what they believe to be right.

Furthermore, represented enslaved rebels in each of the movies reflect and affect historical events. Unlike many other films, Amistad showed some “shocking” scenes of how enslaved people, regardless of age, were humiliated and killed on traders’ ships (Rediker, 2019, p. 97; Spielberg, 1997). Cinque’s representation impacted the past when he was shown as a rebellious leader who stood up against slave traders and the justice system in a case that reshaped the course of slavery. Harriet showed differences in the lives of enslaved and freed African-Americans. Minty’s changes in personality affected the past when she learned to smuggle people from their captivity, showing that they were ready to risk everything for freedom. Django Unchained showed that even released from slavery, African-Americans often became outcasts as they no longer were slaves but did not yet have the privileges of the White population. However, Django impacted the past when a slave man who used to look at him with anger started having understanding in his eyes, similar to Styron’s attempt of humanizing and understanding Nat Turner (Tomlins, 2020). The characters in the films are shown to start changes in people’s perceptions of slavery.

Conclusion

To summarize, films such as Amistad, Harriet, and Django Unchained give people the opportunity to better understand the role of enslaved rebels in history. Released and set at different times, the movies represent the same type of key figures who stand up against other people and the slave trade in the determination of becoming free and united with their families. Although in cinema, the characters did not change much over time and have some similarities, in each film, the main figures change throughout various events that also impact history. Through the journeys of slaves represented in movies, modern people can understand the hardships of Black people and their sacrifices for freedom.

References

Jacobs, H. (1861). Incidents in the life of a slave girl. Thayer & Eldridge.

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Johnson, W. (2003). On agency. Journal of Social History, 37(1), 113-124. Web.

Lemmons, K. (2019). Harriet [Film]. Perfect World Pictures.

Rediker, M. (2019). History white-washed: Reflections on Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. In M. C. Hulbert & J. C. Inscoe (Eds.), Writing history with lightning: Cinematic representations of nineteenth-century America (pp. 95-102). Baton Rouge: LSU Press.

Spielberg, S. (1997). Amistad [Film]. DreamWorks Pictures.

Tarantino, Q. (2012). Django Unchained [Film]. Columbia Pictures.

Tomlins, C. (2020). In the matter of Nat Turner. Princeton University Press.

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