In 1997, following the great critical and commercial success of Schindler’s List (1993), Steven Spielberg released Amistad, a film dealing with a historical episode in 1839 in which a case dealing with the legal position of blacks enslaved by the Spanish reached the US Supreme Court, which freed the men and women concerned. For a range of reasons that will be discussed later, Spielberg’s film about the treatment of slaves was considerably less successful than his film about the Holocaust. But that he attempted to deal with the issue of black slavery at all was unusual in American cinema. For a variety of reasons connected with guilt, embarrassment, ignorance, apathy, and an accurate assessment of what most moviegoers would actually pay to see, white American filmmakers—that is to say the great majority of filmmakers in the United States—have traditionally fought shy of representing slavery on film in any meaningful sense.
During the first two decades of American film, there were a small number of early films that attempted to convey the brutality of slavery. The Slave Hunt, a Vitagraph production from 1907, showed a planter cruelly beating a slave woman with a whip. A young man, presumably her son, rescued her by killing the planter. He fled, pursued by bloodhounds, but was eventually caught and killed. According to the Variety critic, the film was “not at all refined or agreeable and leaves a bad taste.” The following year, The Slave’s Vengeance had a slave whipped at the stake on the orders of his master. In revenge, he kidnapped his owner’s young daughter and ran away. When he was caught, the little girl pleaded for his life. A reviewer praised this “pathetic finish” to what had otherwise been “a stirring if not happily chosen subject.”1