Over the last decade a number of historical dramas, including Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014), Twelve Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013), and The Birth of a Nation (Nate Parker, 2016), have been the recipients of numerous accolades, screening at festivals and winning prestigious awards. The films are linked by a focus on the past, particularly the antebellum and Civil Rights eras, and a shared commitment to providing historical narratives from African American perspectives. In many ways, they continue in the tradition of the slave narrative/abolitionist melodrama, with Twelve Years a Slave perhaps the closest embodiment of the genre and Selma, despite its more contemporary setting, a close second.
At first glance, the green-lighting of such historical films, particularly those that capitalize on the genre's melodramatic aspects, can be interpreted as signaling the industry's belief that antiblack racism is a thing of the past, or perhaps a conviction that American society is ready to face its “original sin” of slavery. A more generous interpretation might suggest a genuine media interest in African American history. Regardless, the continuing engagement with such narratives raises important questions about the longstanding relationship between cinema and history, and the former's capacity to relate African American stories within a medium that has its own troubled representational past as a birthright, one memorialized in D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915). Films such as Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation and Selma reflect upon and refract many pasts and presents, prompting considerations of what's changed, and, more importantly, what hasn't. They also raise questions about the feasibility of the historical genre's ability to convey black history, especially when the form is overdetermined by contemporary expectations of historical accuracy. If Hollywood's plantation/Civil Rights formula no longer works, then productive alternatives can be created, either in fiction or nonfiction film, that cannot only relate the past but also link that past to the ongoing effects of antiblack racism in the twenty-first century.