Certain experiences in life are meant to be enlightening and educational, but never entertaining. Visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., or the Middle Passage exhibit in South Carolina, or even the post-Katrina lower ninth ward in Louisiana where the levies broke all fall under this umbrella. In many ways, these sites are as sacred as any holy place—when you enter them, you’re expected to reflect, and perhaps to weep.The last thing you’d do in these kinds of places is laugh out loud, or behave as if you are enjoying yourself in any way.
The same is true for slave narratives, in literature, film or TV. These stories are told in an attempt to share the important and tragic stories that shaped this nation. 12 Years a Slave is probably the most recent example of a slave narrative that was meant to be primarily difficult to watch. Even those of us whose parents made them watch Roots at a young age struggled to get through Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir. And that’s how it’s supposed to be—or, at least, that’s how it’s always been.
Something changed, however, after Django Unchained—and the exquisite, near-spiritual experience that came with it for me and many others. There came the realization that a slave narrative could be something different. It’s almost blasphemy to say this, but I became convinced that, particularly from the angle of vengeance and/or rebellion, such stories could become entertaining. Of course, we still need films like 12 Years to tell a story with an unapologetically difficult framing (and Django was difficult as well)—these are accurate stories and no, there are not enough of them. But we also need to open up the doors for creative, risky approaches for these period pieces in TV and film that seek to enlighten, educate and—yes—entertain. The fact that I write such a sentence and exhale a sigh of relief that my mother (who was a professor of African-American history) is no longer of this world and, therefore, cannot chastise me for making such a statement is proof that such a move is dangerous, and goes against the way we’ve always done things before—what we’ve been taught about the proper way to pay homage. But this is why we need to pay close attention to WGN’s Underground series and Nate Parker’s Nat Turner biopic, The Birth of a Nation—because in 2016, a change is surely gonna come.
And not everyone will be on board. Underground (from creators Misha Green of Sons Of Anarchy and Heroes, and Joe Pokaski of Daredevil and Heroes) is going to come under attack for its unique style and presentation. The series premieres in March, and it’s taking every bit of my restraint to honor the press regulations and not reveal specific details this early on, but suffice it to say, this is not your mama’s (or my mama’s) Underground Railroad story. In a typical slave narrative the good guys and the bad guys are fairly simple to categorize—and then, of course, there’s often a white savior who arrives right on time. Underground naturally adheres to some of this, but it also deviates in surprising ways; and these deviations will offend some people, especially people of color.
What will be most difficult for viewers from all backgrounds to reconcile will be the strangeness of a show like this being wildly entertaining. Underground is, at different times, all of the things that stories set during slavery are not allowed to be: it’s funny, it’s sexy and it’s a thrill ride. WGN is bringing a series that fits in perfectly with our very modern-day binge-watching experiences. But, because of the content, audiences will experience a certain disorientation. “Am I supposed to be enjoying this so much?” is a question I asked myself repeatedly, as I flew through the first four episodes made available. Where I was expecting to experience those familiar pangs of anger and grief (and, of course, those did occur), I felt many other things—pride in the rebellious nature of many of the characters, certainly, but also a unique sense of fascination with them. Everyone is presented with such specificity and nuance, that I realized I’d been guilty of doing what so many others have before, of categorizing nearly all slaves as one. Or, at most, making the distinction between house slaves and field slaves. But Underground will serve as a powerful reminder that every enslaved black was a human—complex, messy, intelligent—and, yes, intellectual—sexual beings. It’s time all those complexities were given their due, and Underground is a fantastic attempt at doing so.
And the film world has Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (an excellent title, by the way) to look forward to, and it’s going to be very interesting to see how it’s received. Nat Turner is, for so many, the antithesis of black respectability. Highly-anticipated period pieces about the fights for black rights in America tend to spin a familiar tale of brains over brawn. Martin Luther King Jr. was non-violent (though it’s important to note that Ava DuVernay’s Selma did an excellent job in complicating this notion); Malcolm X may have been, for much of his life, opposed to non-violent teachings, but in his biopics he’s presented as an intellectual who believed in the right to self-defense. But Nat Turner would, today, be categorized as an actual terrorist. Slave revolts are not the typical fodder for slave narratives in part because they show a side of enslaved blacks that we’re not supposed to talk about: the vengeful, by-any-means-necessary side, wherein some blacks refused to wait for a white savior, or for their freedom to become legalized. Nat Turner was accused of killing over fifty white people in 1831 (including women and children)—it is no small thing that a 2016 movie is going to present him as a hero, a redeemer.
The cry for nonviolence is still a favorite means of quieting black Americans who are continuously faced with violence of many forms. The Birth of a Nation will likely send a very different message about what is an acceptable form of rebellion against a state that seeks to destroy black lives. Although we haven’t even seen a trailer for the film (just a few beautiful stills), in the hands of Nate Parker (who has delivered powerful performances in such films as The Great Debaters, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Beyond the Lights), I anticipate greatness.
Like Underground, I believe The Birth of a Nation will part the red sea so to speak, and make the space that film and TV need for period pieces set during American slavery. It’s not enough to have one or two of these stories a year, when there are still countless slave narratives to be told. And in 2016, audiences will be given permission to enjoy and be entertained by such stories—difficult though they may be. We’ll also have traditional notions of good vs. evil problematized, and black rebellion (violent and otherwise) elevated and even honored. It’s not what we’re used to at all, but in my book, this is the best of what’s next for stories about the black experience.
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Salon and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.