A few weeks back, I noted that there are not many movies about slavery. Given that, though, the list of slavery films that have been real contenders come Academy Award season has been surprisingly large. Besides 12 Years a Slave, which won a Golden Globe for Best Picture of the Year (Drama) on Sunday night and yesterday received nine Oscar nominations including one for Best Picture, films recognized in major categories on Oscar night over the past 30 years include Glory, (1989, Best Supporting Actor award), Amistad (1998, Best Supporting Actor nomination), Lincoln (2012, Best Actor award), and Django Unchained (2012, Best Supporting Actor award, Best Original Screenplay award).
Despite the number of films, though, there's a relative paucity of thematic range. All of these critically acclaimed films use variations on a single narrative: Black people are oppressed by bad white people. They achieve freedom through the offices of good white people. Happy ending.
The stridency of the “white savior” narrative varies a good deal from film to film. Lincoln treats black people mostly as props who provide significant glances and strategic reminders of What This Is All For while strings swell and Daniel Day-Lewis (Best Actor!) flexes his cheeks in an excess of folksy, canny, oleaginous self-regard as Lincoln. Django and Glory, meanwhile, both figure their white saviors as military enablers, teaching black men to self-actualize through violence, and thereby free themselves (Django) or their people (Glory). 12 Years A Slave drops its Brad Pitt-ex-machina in only at the end, focusing instead—refreshingly—on Solomon Northup's own struggles and resilience.