Colloquium | Sharon Willis

Wednesday, October 10, 2018 - 12:00pm

Sharon Willis

Shock, Spectacle, Specters: Django Unchained (2012) and Twelve Years a Slave (2013).

The striking—if not uncanny—coincidence around five years ago of two challenging films about enslavement raises some interesting questions about its iconography in US visual culture. Though Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) could hardly appear more different, what tropes and strategies they share are telling. Equally significant are claims—both by the directors and by critics—for the historical originality of the films..

Both directors assert the novelty of their approaches in visual terms. Through very different strategies of aestheticization, distanciation, and de-familiarization, these two directors take critical aim at the nostalgia infused “plantation” genre that has delivered our popular representations of enslavement—going back, arguably—to Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915) and carrying through Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939), and Band of Angels (Raoul Walsh,1957), Mandingo (Richard Fleischer, 1975), and Roots (1977 miniseries, ABC). And, yet, even as their films seek to rewrite, perhaps to deconstruct the history of such representations, they frequently to become ensnared in its imagery, as they reiterate the central tropes of abolitionist and slave narratives—anchored, almost inevitably, to hideous violence leading to the victim’s abjection, embodied particularly in flogging scenes. This paper explores the peculiar resemblances that mark these radically different films, and it interrogates the stubborn persistence of such imagery in our cultural imaginary.

Sharon Willis is Professor of Art History and Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester. A Co-Editor of Camera Obscura, she is the author of Marguerite Duras: Writing on the Body, High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film, and The Poitier Effect: Racial Melodrama and Fantasies of Reconciliation, and numerous articles on race and gender in popular cinema.

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