Erica Armstrong Dunbar (University of Delaware) at Process History on slavery in films:
Shortly after its premier, Roots was plagued with controversy regarding the authenticity of Haley’s research and scholarship. But families like mine held fast to the importance of the miniseries. We had no alternatives. Many criticized the romanticized relationships that appeared in Roots, but it didn’t matter to us. We were grateful. Grateful to see our history find its way to primetime. Grateful that the stories of the enslaved were available to a large audience. Grateful that Kunta Kinte had become a household name.
In fact, it was the character Kunta Kinte that made the television production so powerful. It was Kinte’s strength, power, and intelligence that kept the rapt attention of viewers. We witnessed the capture of a young man and followed him along the transatlantic slave trade. We watched him land in Annapolis, Maryland, prior to the Revolutionary War and followed him as he carved out a life as an enslaved man in Virginia. We watched as plantation slavery spread to the newer states that entered the union and we saw his family members and others sold to quench the thirst of southern slavery. My sister and I closed our eyes when actor John Amos received what has become an iconic example of slavery’s torture. I remember the shininess of the axe that was used to dismember Kunta Kinte, tied to a tree after an unsuccessful escape attempt. I had never seen such barbarity in my life. That scene lodged itself into my memory and became wedded to my understanding of human bondage.”
The American Historical Association has awarded Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave the John E. O’Conner Film Award for “outstanding interpretations of history through film” in the category of “Dramatic Feature.”
A second film about slavery, Ghosts of Amistad: In the Footsteps of the Rebels, directed by Tony Buba and produced by Marcus Rediker, won for “Documentary.”