In 2013, American filmmakers are making a concerted effort to tackle slavery. Three major films are set during that dark period of American history when black people stolen from Africa and their descendants were treated as possessions.
The first two to arrive on our UAE screens could not be more different. The first is Lincoln by Steven Spielberg, which deals with the political shenanigans that President Abraham Lincoln had to overcome in order to secure the vote to abolish slavery. The second is Django Unchained, a pulpy exploitation western directed by Quentin Tarantino and starring Jamie Foxx as a fighting slave. Later in the year, probably making its debut at the Cannes International Film Festival, will be Twelve Years a Slave, the only one of the major slavery films directed by a black man (albeit one born in London), the Shame director Steve McQueen.
The odd thing about all these slavery films arriving like ships in the night is that traditionally, slavery has been a taboo topic in cinema. One of the reasons for this is that what for many is considered to be the first ever narrative feature film, DW Griffith's celebrated silent classic The Birth of a Nation (originally called The Clansman, after its source novel), a film about how two families cope with the consequences of the American Civil War, has been criticised for its underlying racism and scenes that seemingly celebrate the Ku Klux Klan.
The African-American filmmaker Spike Lee was almost kicked out of film school for protesting at the showing of the Griffith classic as part of a film course. He even made a short film at NYU titled The Answer which imagined a scenario where a black filmmaker was handed a blockbuster budget to remake Birth of a Nation. To make a film about slavery, especially for a white American filmmaker, seemed to be a sure way to come in for a heavy amount of criticism and it seemed that most filmmakers felt the subject too loaded to essay.
Spielberg clearly has a thick skin on these matters. When Amistad, about a mutiny by slaves on an African slave ship, came out in 1997 the director was criticised for historical inaccuracies, failing to give a black perspective and telling a black story through the eyes of white protagonists. This was a commonly made and more understandable criticism that was slung around in the days when a black man directing a movie was an event in itself.
However, such arguments seem more lacklustre now that more black filmmakers are working. One of the first films that touched upon slavery and was universally acclaimed was Edward Zwick's Glory, about the first all African-American battalion to fight in the American Civil War. Zwick was not scared to shy away from showing the brutal treatment that black men suffered in America at the time and Denzel Washington put in an Oscar-winning performance.
In Lincoln, Spielberg sets his stall out by making a film that clearly is about the behaviour of white politicians who want to prevent reform. He makes a clear point about the mentality of the time by showing the furore that surrounded a suggestion that women may at some point in the future get the vote.
Slavery is the main topic of Lincoln, but by keeping the arguments to the debating chamber, he does not have to show the everyday reality suffered by slaves.
However, the director seems clearly aware that the story would lack power without showing the strides being made by African-Americans at the time and the film starts with a black soldier counselling Daniel Day-Lewis's president Lincoln to abolish slavery.
Django Unchained has no such qualms about showing violence. Quentin Tarantino, when asked about the brutality he has depicted, said: "Nothing I show in my film is as terrible as what actually happened." He shows slaves being kept in boxes for days, chained and beaten with whips. The director has also voiced his surprise that American filmmakers have been allowed to get away with not dealing with an important part of the nation's history for so long. His treatment may be a pulpy and funny homage to the 1975 picture Mandingo, but he does not shy from realities and he has a black man, played by Foxx, as the hero.
The British filmmaker Steve McQueen has never been one to shy away from controversy, and with the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor playing Solomon Northup in McQueen's adaptation of Twelve Years a Slave, it ensures that 2013 is likely to be the year that cinema finally starts to get to grips with slavery.