08/02/2013 11:25 am ET Updated Oct 02, 2013

A Challenge to African American Filmmakers

There are no great movies about one of the greatest crimes in our history: slavery. Last year's Django Unchained was just revenge porn with a blood bag ballet and especially disappointing right after Spielberg's magisterial Lincoln. Spielberg's Amistad is a muddled B movie with an A set piece brilliantly portraying the "middle passage," when slaves were transported across the Atlantic. But that half hour set piece is all we've got. And this is at a time when we have so many accomplished veteran African American filmmakers.

I noticed this hole in the American film canon while working on my book, A History of the U.S. in 20 Movies: An All-Movie History Course (which incidentally is looking for a publisher). The absence of slavery in the film canon is especially disturbing when we consider the extraordinary success of the opposition. The Cult of the Confederacy has succeeded in making the sufferings of white Southern civilians the dominant theme of American films about the Civil War.

The Cult of the Confederacy, or more traditionally, the Lost Cause Cult, has had members as illustrious as Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner and former Democratic Senator and Navy Secretary Jim Webb, who was considered as a running mate for Obama in 2008. Then it came out Webb was a vocal defender of the Confederacy. Recently, a top aide to Rand Paul had to resign for the same reason.

Cult successes in motion pictures reach back to the influential Birth of a Nation (1915), with its heroic Ku Klux Klan saving white women from animalistic black rapists (played by white men in black face). It was the biggest grossing film until Gone with the Wind (1939) which established the movies' official version of the Civil War: invaded suffering white Southerners, benign slaveholders with content loyal slaves. The Gone with the Wind official version was corrected by Sixties revisionism.

Then in 1976, the Cult struck back with Clint Eastwood's mega hit The Outlaw Josie Wales. It was based on a novel by a speechwriter for Alabama Governor George Wallace, the single most notorious segregationist during the Civil Rights Era. The film has a psychotic fantasy of a "Union atrocity" in which unarmed surrendering Confederate soldiers are mowed down by a Gatling gun (early machine gun).

Even when Hollywood finally got around to showing black Civil War soldiers in Glory (1989), the filmmakers felt they had to show some irrelevant and, compared with the evil of the Confederacy, negligible Union criminality. But then the technical advisor was Southern historian Shelby Foote, a well-known Cult member. Another Cultist, media mogul Ted Turner, financed the worshipful Gettysburg (1993) and its worse prequel Gods and Generals (2003), both box office mega disasters, losing over $56 million.

Ang Lee's Ride with the Devil (1999) is unapologetically pro-Confederate throughout and has the preposterous and pathetic spectacle of a black man voluntarily fighting for the Confederacy. In 2003, a heaping helping of good ol' Southern fried white suffering arrived in theaters complete with an eighty million dollar budget and a roster of top stars. Cold Mountain is wall-to-wall Southern white suffering with a few slaves in the background, without a single line of dialogue, a matter of art direction. But the film did include another "Union atrocity:" gang rape of a mother and abuse of her baby.

In Cold Mountain, the filmmakers needed a morally neutral background against which to set a soppy clichéd bodice-ripper. The background is morally neutral because we have seen it so often, because Southern whites really did suffer, and because they weren't defending slavery but the principle of states' rights, right?

Wrong, according to James M. McPherson, dean of Civil War historians and Pulitzer Prize winner. In the April 12, 2001 issue of The New York Review of Books, he wrote, "Since the 1950s most professional historians have come to agree with Lincoln's assertion that slavery 'was, somehow, the cause of the war.' Outside the universities, however, Lost Cause denial is still popular, especially among Southern heritage groups that insist the Confederate flag stands not for slavery but for a legacy of courage and honor in defense of principle."

So the Cult, like creationists and climate change deniers, stands against the unanimity of the experts. Yet the Cult has penetrated even to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Citizenship Test which accepts "slavery or states' rights" as the correct answer to the question: "The Civil War was fought over what important issue?"

Several films about slavery were made in the '60s and '70s but were very low-budget, crass, crude, and as much as possible, nude. The TV miniseries sensation Roots (1977) and A Woman Called Moses (1978) brought the subject into public discourse but both had the production values of the industrial-strength TV of their day. The excellent Canadian film Race to Freedom: The Story of the Underground Railroad (1994) focused mainly on the flight from slavery. Alex Haley's Queen (1993) and Beloved (1998) focused on the aftereffects of slavery. The Middle Passage (2000), by a French African director, is a documentary with reenactments that expands the set piece in Amistad. The Journey of August King (1995), though a minor classic, is essentially a two person play. Nightjohn (1996) is esthetically the best film by far on American slavery but it was made for TV and never had theatrical release and had no stars, other than its director, Charles Burnett, the dean of African American filmmakers.

There has yet to be a feature-length film devoted entirely and exclusively to the life experience of American slaves on the scale of the Southern white-suffering epics. Jim Webb has complained about the "Nazification" of the Confederacy; that is, historians noting the obvious parallels between the two regimes. The Holocaust has Schindler's List. Where is the equivalent for American slavery?