5 eye-opening series and movies about abolitionism
The slave trade has been around for millennia, from the building of the Great Pyramids right up to the 21st Century. It’s a terrifying business, one where lives are bought, sold and traded into lives of hard labour.
But the last few years have seen an upswing in tales of abolitionists, people and movements who’ve stood up against slavery and the bondage of lives, who’ve led rebellions to right the social atrocities and free those still in chains. Streaming platforms in South Africa have a number of productions for you to stream, including a drama series and an eye-opening documentary epic from 2020.
(It goes without saying that these series, movies and documentaries aren’t for kids or sensitive viewers.)
The Good Lord Bird (DStv)
This series is based on the real life of US abolitionist John Brown (Ethan Hawke) and his army of rebels. But it’s not told from his point of view, instead exploring the abolition of slavery through the eyes of Henry Shackleford aka Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson), a slave boy freed by John and mistaken for being a girl.
It’s gritty and dirty and there’s a lot of shouting and shooting, which sets the scene perfectly during John’s ill-fated raid on the Army Depot in West Virginia in 1859, one of the most important contributing factors to the start of the American Civil War.
Samuel L Jackson is one of the most recognisable men on the planet but very few people knew that his family were slaves. And it’s not something he is ashamed of, as the actor (Nick Fury in the Avengers movies) investigates the Transatlantic Slave Trade over the last 400 years and the unseen, unspoken of brutality of it.
Accompanied by experts and with access to original, authenticated documents including slave ship manifests, Samuel traces his family back to Africa, where they were stolen from Gabon and shipped thousands of kilometres across the ocean. There are also dramatic re-enactments to drive home the cruelty of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, including practices of sinking ships loaded with slaves in order to collect insurance payouts.
Django Unchained (Netflix, 2012)
Freed slave Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx) and his bounty hunter companion Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) travel through 1835 Tennessee’s plantations in search of Django’s slave wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).
She’s been bought by a cruel and vindictive slave owner named Monsieur Calvin J Candie (Leo DiCaprio) and is his prize possession, alongside his trusted manservant Stephen (played in miserable mumbling glory by Samuel L Jackson). On their journey and rescue mission, King makes it clear to Django that he never has to worry about being someone’s possession ever again and he can do as he pleases, to whomever he pleases, for whatever reason he feels fit. Including beating a plantation owner with his own whip.
Harriet (Showmax, 2019)
The name Harriet Tubman means very little outside of the United States. But across the North American country, she’s revered and recognised as a slave abolitionist hero. Played by Cynthia Erivo (The Outsider), Harriet starts the movie bonded into a life of servitude when the document declaring her freedom at the age of 45 is torn up.
What follows is a true account of how Harriet escaped after recruiting a movement to help her, how she led the fight back against the slave trade, and how she went about freeing her slave brothers and sisters to become a historical figure in the abolition of slavery.
Did you know? Rapper Kanye West received backlash earlier in 2020 for a tirade denouncing Harriet Tubman and her efforts.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (Amazon Prime, 1974)
This movie won nine Emmy Awards (including Actress of The Year and Best Directing in Drama) and tells the story of 110-year-old Jane Pittman (Cicely Tyson), a former slave who recalls her life-story for a journalist as a protest to save a little black girl from being arrested for simply drinking at a whites-only fountain.
It’s old, so don’t expect hi-def colours, crystal-clear audio or any modern terms. It’s also brutally honest of the times, showing how people were treated as slaves, how they never buckled under the horrors of their situations, and how they fought back through the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s for equality that still hasn’t fully been realised today.
Bonus pick: 7 slave-topic doccies on Amazon Prime Video
- Servant or Slave (Amazon Prime, 2016): thousands of Aboriginal girls were sold as domestic slaves by the Australian Government (scarily similar to The Handmaid’s Tale)
- Stolen Children (Amazon Prime, 1994): the Renamo militia kidnapped over 100 000 African children to serve as child soldiers
- Emancipation Road (Amazon Prime, 2014): the African Slave Trade in the US is revisited, from the first permanent English Colony in the 1700s, through to the modern day
- Undercover Asia: Black Markets and Slave Trade (Amazon Prime 2016): in Asia, the trade of children isn’t just for slavery, but for organ theft and organised crime as well
- Whispers of Angels: A Story of the Underground Railroad (Amazon Prime, 2007): Harriet Tubman’s underground railroad escape is explored and how it helped free slaves
- The Apology (Amazon Prime, 2016): three former sex slaves in Japan try to reclaim their lives after being among 200 000 young women kidnapped and forced into military sexual slavery by the Imperial World War II Japanese Army
- The Cost of Cotton (Amazon Prime, 2017): the cotton industry has long been connected to slavery and plantations in the US South