Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Why Not a Movie About Frederick Douglass?

I teach the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass every Fall semester in my United States history survey course.  I tell my students that they cannot claim to be an educated person unless they have read this classic piece of American literature and explored its historical context.

As we discuss the text in class I am often asked if there has ever been a movie made about Douglass's life. The narrative has so many dramatic scenes--the shooting of Demby, the wrestling match between Douglass and Covey, the pensive Douglass staring out over the Chesapeake longing to be free, and Sophia Auld's change of heart after her husband forbids her to continue teaching Douglass how to read.  This has all the makings of a big time feature film.  (If a film has been made about the Narrative, I am unaware of it).

Writing at his blog at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers some suggestions as to why characters like Douglass or Harriett Tubman have not found their way to the big screen.  Here is a taste:

One of the rather frequent responses I get when posting the stories of people like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, or Robert Smalls is that their story deserves to be a movie. A biopic is seen by a lot of us as the ultimate testimonial to a person's life. Moreover, movies have the unique power to reach and influence millions of people. Finally, movies offer the possibility of all the imagery and input we hold when thinking of, say, Harriet Tubman to be made manifest before the world. I think this impulse is basically correct. It is especially correct given that Hollywood doesn't just ignore slavery and the Civil War but turns out revisionist dreck like Gods and Generals.

At the same time I think it's important to not talk as though it were an entity separate from the politics, economics, and history of America. The person who would bankroll a Harriet Tubman biopic would likely be someone who was particularly touched by her story. Such a person would not have to be black, but I don't know how you separate the paucity of black people with the power to green-light from the paucity of good films concerning black people in American history.

Moreover, movie-making is risky and expensive. Any discussion of the lack of a Harriet Tubman biopic should begin with the shameful fact that median white wealth in this country stands at $110,000 and median black wealth stands at around $5,000. It would be nice to think that this gap reflected choices cultural and otherwise, instead of the fact that for most this country's history its governing policy was to produce failure in black communities, and most of its citizens supported such policies. It would be nice if Hollywood were more moral and forward-thinking than its consumer base. But I would not wait around for such a day.