The general public encounters and engages with history through a variety of media like novels, films, and museums. As a historian, I often get asked—generally by my mother (Hi Mom!)—if I’ve seen this historical movie and what do I think about it. In my experience, the best historical movies explore the context of their settings and characters, showing how humans lived and behaved in their times.
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is the best movie made about American slavery because it tells the true story of Solomon Northup, an African-American freeman from New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. The film provides glimpses into the various and horrifying features of American slavery that previously had rarely been depicted on film, including a dehumanizing trip to a slave market, the everyday animosities and jealously between poor whites and blacks (and white mistresses and their enslaved women) and the fleeting efforts of enslaved African-American women to avoid sexual exploitation at the hands of whites.
Northup’s first master, William Ford, is a religious man who rarely mistreats his slaves, but had no qualms about holding other humans in bondage or selling them to satisfy his debts. Northup’s second master, Edwin Epps, embodies the cruel excesses of American slavery. Holding the power of life and death over his bondspeople, Epps personifies the banality of evil. He stalks Northup in the night, holding a lamp up to the scared slave’s face. He uses another slave’s head as an armrest. He forces his slaves to dance in the middle of the night for his and wife’s entertainment. He whips a female slave whom he suspects of engaging in a sexual liaison with another white man. Unchecked power warps the mind of the master class. When Northup finally attains his freedom, the audience cheers for him, but mourns the others who cannot escape.
Bad historical movies, on the other hand, fail to meaningfully engage with their subject matter. Favoring gruesome effects or conventional tropes over exploring the nuances of their subjects. Take Mel Gibson’s The Patriot. In that film, we have Mel Gibson as a South Carolina plantation owner and pacifist who only (re)turns to violence after the British kill his son—turns out he’s so good at killing he had to give it up. He’s also the only plantation owner in South Carolina who doesn’t own any slaves, instead he pays them for their labor. This is a convenient cop-out of addressing slavery to get to the real meat of what Gibson thinks is important about the American Revolution, revenge. It’s basically Braveheart American Revolution-style. In Gibson’s world, the loss of a loved one justifies unparalleled levels of violence. The film’s climatic battle involves Gibson and a large American flag murdering the British officer responsible for his son’s death.
Nathaniel Parker’s Birth of Nation refuses to engage with the life of its historical subject. Instead Parker falls back on old tropes about African-Americans and slavery without saying anything new. In Parker’s film, Nat, a rebellious slave who led an insurrection in 1831 in Virginia, starts his rebellion after the rape of his wife. Yet the historical Nat left a confession explaining that he led his rebellion after receiving a signal from God. This shift of motivation eschews Nat’s real motive—his faith, one that got him in trouble with his fellow slaves for preaching submission to whites—for an easily understandable, but trite one—the rape of his wife. The film never explains why Nat would decide to rebel, at that moment. By shifting his motivations, Parker robs Nat of the thing that made him unique in the first place. Thousands of slaves witnessed the rape of African-American women at the hands of whites, but did not rebel. So why this one? Thousands of slaves didn’t receive apocalyptic visions that called for murdering whites. Maybe focus on that instead.
The best historical films are ones that have something to say, about the time and the place in which they occur. The worst don’t.