Black History Often Miscast in Hollywood

Films without a central white character are still a tough sell in Tinseltown.

ByABC News
February 1, 2013, 12:38 PM

Feb. 4, 2013 — -- In this year's Oscars race for best picture, there are two very different films that deal with perhaps the most significant aspect of black history in America: slavery.

The black characters in "Lincoln" primarily take a back seat in Steven Spielberg's drama about President Abraham Lincoln's battle to get the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery passed through Congress.

Whereas, in "Django Unchained," Quentin Tarantino's slave-revenge western, the title character, played by Jamie Foxx, is a freed slave-turned-bounty hunter who rescues his slave wife from a ruthless plantation owner in a hail of violence.

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Both films have their detractors among black audiences.

Kate Masur, a history professor at Illinois' Northwestern University, called "Lincoln" an "opportunity squandered" in an op-ed piece for The New York Times. "It's disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them," she said.

She added that "perhaps the greatest rhetorician of the 19th century, Frederick Douglass, who in fact attended the White House reception after Lincoln's second inauguration in March 1865, is nowhere to be seen or heard."

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Although he had no plans to see "Django," director Spike Lee tweeted before the movie's release: "American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them."

That prompted Foxx to respond, "I think he's sort of run his course. I mean, I respect Spike, he's a fantastic director. But he gets a little shady when he's taking shots at his colleagues without looking at the work."

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No matter which side of these controversies you come down on, the bottom line is Hollywood's portrayal of black history is still a work in progress.

"I think there are so few films made that the commentary on them obviously becomes hyper-critical," Vicangelo Bulluck, the executive director of the NAACP's Hollywood bureau, told

Mia Mask, the film department chair at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., shares the sentiment. "For black subject matters -- whether political, historical or entertainment figures -- there's so much at stake, because there's so little opportunity to get these films made," she said.

The risk, however, is not as great for someone like Spielberg or Tarantino, who took head on the so-called third rail of black history: slavery.

"He [Tarantino] grew up around black people, he lives in film and he loves revenge movies, and he saw that there was this huge thing missing in the cinematic history," said author and screenwriter Steven Barnes, who calls "Django" "Shaft" meets "Gone with the Wind."

"And he put his cultural capital behind this movie."

Barnes points out that there are few, if any, black directors who would have been able to do the same thing: raise $100 million on a passion project and sell it to white audiences.

Bulluck agrees that most African-American directors end up working with budgets around $20 million or less. "Tyler Perry keeps his budget in the 20 to 30 million range," he said. "Everybody knows that's good business if only the African-American community shows up. You get above that and you're making something that has to cross over."

That said, Bulluck added, "I would be very excited to see Spike Lee's $100 million movie about slavery."

Even white directors who make black historical films without a central white character discover it's a tough sell in Hollywood. That's what George Lucas found out when he made 2012's "Red Tails" about World War II's black Tuskegee Airmen, and was turned away by every major Hollywood studio.