Northwestern professors discuss depiction of slavery, race in TV, movies


Stephanie Kelly/The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern Prof. Miriam Petty presents her views on how slavery and race are depicted in television shows. Professor Nick Davis also joined Petty at the event, called “Slavery on Screen,” on Thursday night at the Evanston Public Library.

Stephanie Kelly, Assistant City Editor

Two Northwestern professors discussed Thursday the ways in which slavery and race are depicted on screen, in both films and television ranging from “12 Years a Slave” to the “Roots” miniseries.

In front of an audience of about 30, profs. Nick Davis and Miriam Petty presented their views on how certain movies and TV shows have impacted societal discussions surrounding race.

The Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities presented the event, “Slavery on Screen.” The discussion is also a part of the Evanston Public Library’s program series called “11 Months of African American History” and the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center’s collaboration exhibit, “RACE: Are We So Different?”

Lesley Williams, EPL’s head of adult services, said the presentation, which took place at EPL, 1703 Orrington Ave., is important because most people get notions of history from pop culture. This type of event sparks new conversations about black American history, she said.

“This really does it because they’re looking at films that really challenge that very superficial look at African-American history that more typically happens in a February African-American history program,” Williams told The Daily.

Petty began her presentation by talking about the burdens that black artists face when representing black history. She talked in particular about the expectations that black artists have to represent an entire group rather than just represent themselves.

“There’s a way that these sort of burdens complicate what it means to represent slavery, what it means to represent race televisually,” Petty said.

There is also a burden on TV shows that focus on slavery and race to feature familiar faces, she said. For instance, in the TV miniseries “Roots,” Edward Asner and Ralph Waite, two well-known actors, play characters involved in the slave trade.

Davis presented his views on movies that illustrate black history and culture, such as Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” and Lars von Trier’s “Manderlay.”

In “Manderlay,” von Trier includes a lot of metaphors wrapped into the film’s depiction of a secret slavery plantation in 1930, Davis said. By eliminating a background landscape and centering the movie on a stage, von Trier directs the film in such a way that the system of slavery is the focus, Davis said.

Davis also said that Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” which won the 2014 Academy Award for Best Motion Picture of the Year, brings together a lot of what both he and Petty discussed.

McQueen pulls from his gallery artist background to focus on objects in the film and make the audience think about all the stories these objects contain, including how black bodies were treated as objects in the time of slavery, Davis said.

A discussion followed the professors’ presentations.

Audience member Alfred Martin, a graduate student at the University of Texas-Austin, said it troubled him how American blackness gets portrayed internationally.

Davis responded by telling a story of how he once was in Turkey and was asked almost immediately about Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” because of his nationality. The film would not be the first film he would pick to represent America and its black history, he said.

“That film did provoke an incredible amount of discussion,” Davis said, “and I don’t mind being thrown back onto all of our heels to know why we’re taking the position we’re taking or why we reacted the way we did. I admire that about it. I think it’s interesting that because of the kind of film it is, when it gets exported, it gets received very differently.”

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