Moving Slave Narratives from Film to Comics

A scene from Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation.

Comics might not be the first place you’d think to go to for profound meditations on complex topics like war, genocide, and slavery, but if you look hard enough that is exactly what you will find. Critics began to recognize this potential when Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his Holocaust epic Maus.  J. Spencer Clark, an education specialist at Kansas State University, argued that “Spiegelman’s work demonstrated that graphic novels could meaningfully depict the ways structural forces and individuals have collided in history,” while others considered it to be “the most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust.”1

Just as Spiegelman used comics to effectively engage with the complicated history of the Holocaust, several authors and artists have done the same with the history of slavery. Whether it’s the 2006 graphic novel Nat Turner, the 2015 graphic novel Abina and the Important Men, or Damian Duffy and John Jennings’ graphic adaptation of Octavia Butler’s sci-fi classic Kindred, comics are adding a voice to the conversation on slavery that shouldn’t be ignored. In fact, comics can deal with slavery in a way that avoids the pitfalls that slave narratives face on film.

The main problem with depicting slavery on film is the violence that is simulated on real black bodies. Twelve Years a Slave won the 2014 Academy Award for Best Picture, but in an article for Slate Dana Stevens wrote “I’m just not sure I’m down with body horror as a directorial approach for a movie on this subject. After a certain point it seems to serve more to shut out (and gross out) the audience than to make them think, feel, and engage.” Two years later when Nate Parker’s Birth of the Nation hit theaters, Kara Brown admitted that “part of me is torn about sitting through yet another film that centers around the brutalization of black people. Frankly, I’m tired of slavery movies.” 2016 saw another slave narrative on film with the History Channel’s remake of Roots, and this time Snoop Dogg unleashed the full fury over “yet another slave movie.” In 2017, Snoop Dogg’s feelings over slavery in film found a perfect comedic expression in the HBO show Insecure. Creator Issa Rae explained that “there’s [been] such an obsession with depicting slavery that the last few years, I have been kind of slaved-out…So we thought it would be funny to have the characters obsessed with this new slave interracial drama [called Due North].” Just when it seemed that slave narratives on film had hit a brick wall and sunken into parody, HBO announced that the creators of Game of Thrones would soon deliver a new show called Confederate that “imagine[s] a world where slavery still exists as a modern institution.”

In an op-ed for the New York Times titled “I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fan-Fiction,” Roxane Gay pointed to the violence against black bodies on screen as the central problem with Confederate, writing that “this show is the brainchild of two white men who oversee a show that has few people of color to speak of and where sexual violence is often gratuitous and treated as no big deal.” Gay “[shuddered] to imagine the enslaved black body in their creative hands.” Richard Brody had similar criticisms of the 2016 film Detroit, where a white production team engineered brutal violence on black bodies:

Were the filmmakers—Bigelow and her crew—able to stay coolly professional while they imagined, blocked out, framed beatings and murder? Were they able to stay above the fray as they saw to placing just the right color and amount of blood in just the right place on the temple, made the contusions the right shape and size and shade, made the nightsticks and gun butts come crashing down on faces and bodies at just the right speed and angle?

This issue of white producers, writers, and directors simulating violence on black bodies is one that gets to the heart of why depicting slavery on film is so problematic. At a time when black men and women are still being gunned down in the streets by police officers, and videos of these incidents play on endless loops on the daily news, it can be difficult to pay to watch more of the same brutality. This anger also addresses the real inequalities of representation and opportunity for African Americans in the film industry today. The lack of diversity in Hollywood recently took center stage with the spread of #OscarsSoWhite, and it is easy to understand the annoyance with “yet another slave movie” when we are still breaking through “barriers” such as Donald Glover recently becoming the first black director to win an Emmy in Comedy. However, at the same time one could argue that what is needed is more depictions of slavery, not less, because there is a persistent and dangerous movement to obscure the truth of slavery for political gains.

Seeking to distort and downplay the reality of slavery is not a new trick, but it intensified after the election of America’s first black President. In 2010, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell was forced to go on an apology tour after he failed to mention slavery in his proclamation to declare April Confederate History Month. More recently President Trump asked a crowd, “Why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?” Just as the White House’s statement on the Holocaust left out the primary victims, the Jews, Trump’s statements on the Civil War left out the primary cause: slavery. Additionally, alongside this campaign of forced historical amnesia has been a trend of downplaying the brutality and dehumanization of slavery. When it comes to teaching slavery to children, parents have complained that books like A Birthday Cake for George Washington present smiling slaves as joyful and content, while some textbooks for older children label slaves “workers”or “immigrants.” Clearly, it is more important than ever to promote an accurate and empathetic engagement with the history of slavery to be able to understand not only the country’s history, but its current predicament, racial problems, and much needed solutions.

Images from Cumbe (Run For It: Stories of Slaves Who Fought for their Freedom).

Since depicting slavery on film is problematic, yet there is a great need for accurate representations of slavery available to the public, comic books and graphic novels can serve as a new medium to explore. One of the best examples is Marcelo d’Salete’s 2015 graphic novel Cumbe (Run For It: Stories of Slaves Who Fought for their Freedom). Cumbe is a black and white graphic novel that follows five enslaved Africans in Brazil who all rebel against their masters. In a review for the Huffington Post, Priscilla Frank noted that one of the most unique and radical aspects of the book is that “the story is told through the perspective of the victims, most likely for the very first time.” Not only do comics offer the opportunity to tell these new narratives, but the comic artist has more freedom to explore the areas that might be cut from a major motion picture. For example, Frank admired how in Cumbe “factual elements are juxtaposed with fantastical imagery and hallucinatory details, depicting the powers of the mind to prevail even as the body suffers.” This ability of the mind conquering the pains of the body is often missing from the screen, and all the audience is left with are brutalized black bodies. Because of the format and the mission of the author, Cumbe transcends these obstacles and creates a space to learn about slavery while seeing the enslaved as human beings. Frank concluded that “D’Salete’s bold and graphic journey reveals that even if artistic expression can’t change the past, it can certainly convey it in a new, more accurate and generative light.” In today’s political climate, we need all the light we can get.

What comics and graphic novels depicting slavery reveal is that the difference between seeing slavery on film versus in a comic book is the difference between blood and ink. The bodies one sees on screen are real, and they exist within a world that is still permeated by racism and a lack of opportunity and access to resources for African Americans. When these bodies are hurt they bleed. The bodies that exist on the page are not real, but carry the message of real suffering in a powerful way. Comics and graphic novels should not be overlooked in the conversation on how to depict slavery, but should be explored as an alternative way to tell a story that always needs to be remembered and told.

  1.  J. Spencer Clark, “Encounters with Historical Agency: The Value of Nonfiction Graphic Novels in the Classroom.” The History Teacher 46 (2013): 489.; Russell Miller, “Tragicomics: Despite Acclaim for ‘Maus,’ Art Spiegelman Worried About Trivializing the Holocaust,” The Los Angeles Times, November 22, 1991.
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Nathan Moore

Nathan Moore is a history professor at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, VA. He currently attends American University where he is pursuing a PhD in European History. His research focused on British Communism in the Interwar Period and he is currently working on his dissertation that centers on a trial of twelve British Communists in 1925.