Slavery's Afterlives on Screen: A Crossdisciplinary Conversation on Historical Memory and Film

AHA Session 271
Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Adams Room (Palmer House Hilton, Sixth Floor)
Elizabeth Kowaleski Wallace, Boston College
Allison Perlman, University of California, Irvine and Ellen Scott, University of California, Los Angeles

Session Abstract

From the critical acclaim of 12 Years a Slave to the commercial failure of Birth of a Nation; from the remake of the foundational television series Roots to original creations like WGN’s Underground; from dread caused by the announcement of HBO’s Confederate to the eager anticipation surrounding Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, the history of chattel slavery occupies an enduring yet ambiguous place in contemporary U.S. visual culture. Papers in this panel examine three very different movies as a means to grapple with various fraught meanings of slavery in American popular memory, showing in each case that film can provide a generative venue in which to address its enduring legacies.

Dexter Gabriel locates the historical roots of Jordan Peele’s modern horror Get Out, arguing that allusions to slavery—night doctors, social death, the auction block—speak to the continued “psychic hold” the "peculiar institution" in a “present where inequality, violence and racial terror remain a part of the African-American experience.” Diana Leong also examines the appearance of tropes of slavery—miscegenation, marronage, medical experimentation—in a postemancipation historical moment; Leong reads these aspects of Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water as expressions of tension between particular histories of racial oppression within human populations on one hand, and an epoch defined by broad human influence over “the natural systems of the earth” on the other. Adam Thomas argues that the use of vampirism as a metaphor for slaveholding in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter evokes the destructive power of slavery while portraying emancipation as a battle against death in which enslaved people as a group are engaged. The appearance of this historical truth in a frequently ignored B-movie, and its corresponding absence from films marketed as “authentic,” reveals the unthinkable nature for many filmmakers and moviegoers of political freedom won by black struggle. Each paper shows how the most speculative film genres—horror, science fiction, fantasy—create space in which to interrogate not just slavery’s powerful hold on the American imagination, but also its material impact in terms of inequity, violence, political exclusion, and social precarity in the present.

Taking advantage of possibilities for cross-disciplinary conversation offered by the AHA’s badge-sharing agreement with the MLA, this panel brings together scholars of English, History, Film & Media Studies, Africana Studies, American Studies, and Environmental Humanities to consider the promises and limits of different approaches to analysis of popular memory on screen. In keeping with the AHA’s conference theme, the panel will consider what loyalty to particular disciplinary methods reveals or obscures about how slavery still haunts the present. Short papers and two sets of comments will serve as the basis for extended discussion between panelists and audience.

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