Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave took home three Oscars from the 86th Academy Awards, a feat that seemed predestined after the chorus of cries from critics and audiences that the film was a masterpiece and one of the best ever made about slavery. But it was hardly the first film to address the topic — films about slavery reach back over a hundred years, well into the silent era. We’ve put together a list of ten memorable films about the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, arranged in chronological order.
10. Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the touchstones of the American abolitionist movement. As such, it was literally the most-filmed story of the silent era. Nine silent adaptations were made between 1903 and 1927, and each one represented a crucial development in America’s cultural and cinematic identity. Famed cinematic pioneer Edwin S. Porter released the first version, and though it’s historically significant for being one of the first full-length American films (which by the standards of 1903 meant about fourteen minutes), it ‘s marred by a number of painful racial stereotypes, such as white actors in blackface and slave characters literally dancing during their auction.
J. Stuart Blackton’s 1910 version was the first American film to be released in three reels instead of just one. The 1914 version by William Robert Daly was inducted into the National Film Registry for being the first feature-length American film to star a black actor. And the last silent adaptation, directed by Harry A. Pollard and released in 1927, was the third most expensive film made during the silent era.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin would also be adapted several times during the sound era. Usually it would be adapted in the form of an animated short, such as in Disney’s Mickey’s Mellerdrammer (1933) and Tex Avery’s Uncle Tom’s Bungalow (1937). However, a German live-action adaptation of the novel was produced in 1965 under the direction of Géza von Radványi. For decades the novel would also be a subject of parody and satire in films such as the Shirley Temple vehicle Dimples (1936), the Abbott and Costello comedy The Naughty Nineties (1945), and, most recently, the Martin Scorsese historical epic Gangs of New York (2002).
John Berry was an American exile who had been blacklisted from working in the States after being labeled a communist during the 1950s. For over a decade he continued his career abroad in Europe, and perhaps his most significant film from this era was Tamango (1958), a film about a slave ship uprising. A stirring cry for black solidarity, it ends tragically when the brutal European sailors massacre the rebelling slaves. The film was banned in the United States until 1962 for including images of miscegenation between the white Captain Reiker and his slave Aiché.
As a member of the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers and directors who were also blacklisted under allegations of communist support, Herbert J. Biberman spent his life creating progressive films like his 1954 masterpiece Salt of the Earth, a fictionalized account of the 1951 Empire Zinc Company strike. But his 1969 film simply entitled Slaves was an aggressive attack on racial prejudice against blacks in American society. Originally based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the film follows two young black slaves who are bought by an evil plantation owner during the 1850s. Released just two years before his death, Slaves was Biberman’s final film and a fitting conclusion to his career.
7. Solomon Northup’s Odyssey
The first of two movies on this list about Solomon Northup, a free-born African American who was kidnapped in Washington D.C. and sold into slavery, Gordon Parks’ Solomon Northup’s Odyssey (1984) was a made-for-television movie that captured the imaginations of audiences and critics. Avery Brooks, known for his work as Benjamin Sisko on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, plays Solomon as a man defiant of his captivity until the very last. According to Parks’ memoir A Hungry Heart, the film was made with a deliberately multiethnic cast and crew including a Japanese-American cinematographer, an African-American producer and assistant director, and a costume department run by a black woman with a Chinese assistant. The film was released on home video in 1985 under the new title Half Slave, Half Free, although copies of the film are very difficult to come by.
Haile Gerima’s Sankofa (1993) is a Burkinabé film about an African-American model named Mona who gets transported back in time to the Antebellum American South while doing a photo shoot in Ghana. In this era she’s a slave named Shola and must literally relive the horrible experiences that her ancestors endured. By the end of the film she joins two other slaves in rebellion against their masters but is mysteriously returned to the present day, armed with a new cultural and ethnic awareness of her past. The film competed for the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and stands to this day as a vital piece of modern African cinema.
When young slave girl Sarny meets an ex-runaway named Nightjohn, her life is changed forever. He gives her the greatest gifts she’ll ever receive: letters, words and literacy. Based on the young adult novel by the prolific and acclaimed Gary Paulsen, Nightjohn (1996) is a touching and emotional film that addresses the two vital topics of racism and literacy. The film was directed by Charles Burnett, one of the most important African-American filmmakers of the past century. The fact that Nightjohn was a made-for-television movie that debuted on the Disney channel does nothing to diminish the film’s quality or importance.
Based on the real-life 1839 uprising that took place on the slave ship La Amistad and its subsequent United States Supreme Court case, Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) was an Academy Award nominated historical drama that examines a key moment in American history. Spielberg decided to direct Amistad even though his previous film about African-American characters, The Color Purple (1985), was negatively received by the black community. And though some have challenged Amistad’s historical accuracy, it was nevertheless well-received by critics and turned a small profit at the box office.
3. The Amazing Grace
No, this isn’t the biographical drama about William Wilberforce and the British abolitionist movement. Jeta Amata’s The Amazing Grace (2006) is a Nigerian film that examines the slave trade from the rare perspective of Africans still living in Africa. A film about faith and salvation, it follows slave ship captain John Smith as he has a life-changing experience where he’s rescued from drowning by a slave. His view on slavery is altered forever and he becomes greatly inspired by both the African people he has spent years enslaving and a certain song that they sing.
2. Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to controversy over accusations of racism within his work. In fact, there have been college courses devoted to exploring whether or not his work is racially insensitive. These controversies came to a head with the release of his 2012 Western Django Unchained, a film about an ex-slave who teams up with a German bounty hunter to infiltrate a notorious Mississippi plantation to rescue his wife. The film ignited a firestorm in social media and academic circles with some declaring it to be horrifically offensive and others well-intended and possibly progressive.
1. 12 Years a Slave
Though the aforementioned film by Gordon Parks is not to be sniffed at, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave has been hailed as one of the greatest movies of both its time and kind. Unlike Avery Brooks’ Solomon Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor played the kidnapped Northerner as a survivor first and foremost. There are moments where it seems like Ejiofor’s Solomon has accepted his fate, particularly a powerful scene where he joins in the singing of a funeral song with his fellow slaves. This helps contribute to the uncompromising tone of the film’s narrative, which ruthlessly explores the systematic exploitation and destruction of human beings in the American slave system. In addition to winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, it gained considerable press for the performance of its break-out star Lupita Nyong’o. Nvong’o played Patsey, a young slave woman who befriends Solomon.