Introduction xxiii African American museum architect Philip Frelon (1953–2019) told the Baltimore Sun in 2005, “It’s not all about being a victim. The important part is that we persevered.” Ever since Twentieth Century Fox paid “a record sum of $600,000” for the rights to William Styron’s controversial, Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), in 1968, a film about the literate leader of the most well-known slave insurrection has been percolating in the collective consciousness (Ryfle 2016, 31). It took until 2016, however, for the film to get made. A labor of love for actor/director, Nate Parker, who cannily titled it The Birth of a Nation it’s a powerful, if flawed, film about a man some call a hero and some call a pariah. It’s a film suffused with reli- gion, prophetic vision, revolution, family, and moral suasion. Frederick Douglass, in his slave narrative, talks about the risks he took to learn to read. Literacy for Blacks was against the law. Race pseudosci- ence, like phrenology, shown in Django Unchained, unsuccessfully tried to prove that Blacks were intellectually inferior to whites. But whites knew that Blacks could learn and had intellectual capability. If Blacks could read, however, it would be impossible to keep them enslaved. Charles Bur- nett’s coruscating masterpiece Nightjohn (1996) about a free man of color going back into slavery to teach young people to read is about a freedom fighter. Literacy laws, as discussed in the book, were made harsher over time. One reason was the fear of Blacks being able to forge their own freedom papers. Films not discussed in the book but important to note include Herbert Biberman’s Slaves (1965)—a loose adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin— starring Ossie Davis and debuting a young Dionne Warwick, which high- lights resistance and rebellion. The screenplay was cowritten by John Oliver Killens, a well-known Black writer, educator, and leader of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s. Biberman was one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten his classic, visionary film Salt of the Earth (1954) is now considered a feminist and unionist classic. The lauded television series Underground (2016–17) uses thriller tropes to depict slavery and operators on the Underground Railroad. Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad (2020), based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize–winning eponymous novel, is a metaphysical atmospheric story that takes place, for the most part, outside the confines of society. And the adap- tation of James McBride’s National Book Award–winning novel The Good Lord Bird (Showtime, 2020) has as its lead character John Brown (Ethan Hawke)—the radical abolitionist who led a slave rebellion and attack on Harpers Ferry. Barack and Michelle Obama’s film company, Higher Ground Productions, is developing a film based on Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, Pulitzer Prize–winning David W. Blight’s 2018 biography this will be the first feature film about Douglass, arguably the most famous man in nineteenth-century America.
Previous Page Next Page