The legacy of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade casts a shadow over American history, as horrific and shameful as it is defining to the nation's identity. Within the medium of film, filmmakers, critics, and audiences have many different opinions about how to address slavery onscreen. While some contend that there are relatively few depictions of American slavery in film, others suggest that slavery has been extensively addressed. Upon the release of Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, critic Armond White wrote, “Anyone who believes that 12 Years a Slave is breaking new ground or has something new to say, they’re probably unfamiliar with the fairly long history of movies that have dealt with slavery.”
Many films throughout the 20th century featured the Southern plantation and slavery as a backdrop for their narratives, but some critics believe that these films are limited in their depiction. In an article about slavery in film, Professor Dexter Gabriel is quoted as saying, “Most movies that we’ve seen on slavery in American cinema have been the old plantation epics...Hollywood depicted slavery where the slaves were depicted as happy, as jovial and in really demeaning stereotypes such as the Mammy or the Uncle Tom.” Hattie McDaniel was the first black American woman to win the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, an undeniable milestone for black actors, but many see her part in Gone with the Wind as a broad caricature.
Perhaps the most influential filmed narrative about slavery is not a film at all, but the 1977 miniseries Roots, which told the story of an African sold into slavery and whose finale holds the record as one of the highest-rated television shows in history. Since then, a handful of films have taken on the topic, films like Amistad, Glory, Beloved, Lincoln, 12 Years a Slave, and most recently, Harriet. Throughout it all, there has been much debate about whether or not audiences need more films about slavery, with some suggesting that slavery films do little to change actual racial dynamics and structural racism. In an article for The Root, Demetria Lucas D'Oyley makes an argument in favor of the slavery film: "America is in serious denial about slavery—and its remaining ramifications. And while I acknowledge Brown’s point that 'it’s clear by 2016 that films about slavery do not help us become a more tolerant or understanding society,' it’s also equally true that not making slavery movies, in order to avoid putting a large swath of black American history on the big screen, won’t make us any more tolerant or understanding, either. So why don’t we just keep making the movies and keep educating and informing so that the conversation stays at the cultural forefront, as movies about slavery tend to do?"