“I’m tired of movies about slavery,” is a standard response when asked why we don’t want to watch movies such as Roots or 12 Years a Slave. The response leaves the impression that every movie with a plethora of black faces involves slavery or some downtrodden black trope. It’s not only misleading, but also outright untrue. In 2013, Complex made a list of the 25 Best Black Movies of the Last 25 Years, and it was a very well rounded (well put-together) list.
Yet the sentiment against movies showcasing slavery and the like is understandable. Betrayal, hatefulness, abuse, and inevitable death are woven into stories like these, which make them hard to stomach. Those images and the feelings they evoke linger long after we close the book or turn off the television. The long, complex, and arduous nature of these stories often leave you feeling as though you’ve been at war. The original broadcast of Roots, for example, was over nine hours – enough material for four movies.
The theater of black pain draws interested eyes of all races. It incites a slow-boiling fury for many black people. I recall that after the movie Rosewood* debuted, many of us (read: black folk) joked (not so jokingly) about how we didn’t want to deal with white people for a while. For many non-black people, there is a mixture of shame, embarrassment, and a curiously detached apathy required to continue live in this country guilt-free. They breathe a sigh of relief that they aren’t that type of white person and we live in a different America now.
Though slavery and racial discrimination are now illegal, I still question how different “America now” truly is. The school to prison pipeline and the prison industrial complex are ostensible end-runs around slavery. We also no longer have to purchase a book or a ticket to witness the theater of black pain. It played out for us in our homes repeatedly when we heard the last moments of Trayvon Martin via 911 call. It played out for us when we saw Eric Garner take his last breath. It plays out for us whenever there is injustice against black people and a camera phone. “Black-on-black crime,” is often spit out to shout down anyone with the temerity to speak against the de facto legalized killing of black Americans. Our pain remains provocative entertainment, but to what end?
I don’t have the wherewithal to watch a movie about enslaved black people in this country, and rest easily knowing that the only thing that has changed between now and then is the law. People will applaud the stellar acting while frowning at the mean white people. White actors will give apologetic interviews about how hard it was to portray such a heinous character. The white characters that hold a shred of decency toward their captives will be awarded cookies and invited to the proverbial negroes only cookout. Black actors will pretend they had to pull inspiration from our ancestors, because no one wants to believe that inspiration can be found in the hatefulness we still experience in 2016.
I am grateful that a movie like Roots was made. It is extraordinarily important that a black American man like Alex Haley view his family tree beyond some white man’s plantation. Learning what happened during the Rosewood massacre was important, as was the story of the Civil Rights Movement. Stories like this are told because they are a poignant part of American history. The remake of Roots is not only important, but also likely cathartic for those involved. Furthermore, many public schools are sugarcoating the history of black American enslavement, if not outright ignoring it. Slowly but surely, slavery is being reframed as a slightly awkward slumber party, so I’m thankful that Roots and stories like it will not die.
However, it is exhausting to bear witness to such a spectacle. I am tired. And this weariness doesn’t come from shame or a desire to “move on” from slavery. I make it a point to educate my children about the world as it was and how it impacts the world as it is. But the personal cost of consuming these stories as the world is now is too high. And frankly, I ain’t got the damn five.
* A 1997 film by John Singleton recounting the events of a massacre in a small Florida town by the same name.