Unfinished History on Film

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The empty pedestal of the statue of Edward Colton in Bristol, the day after protesters felled the statue and rolled it into the harbor. The ground is covered with Black Lives Matter placards. Source: Caitlin Hobbs, Wikimedia Commons

In 1995, Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot reminded us that “We are never as steeped in history as when we pretend not to be.” His landmark text—though I wonder how he would feel about such a description—Silencing the Past, stood as a strong rebuke against “false innocence,” against naiveté as an excuse (“for those who exercise power”) and a mistake (“for those on whom power is exercised”).[1] But if the exposition of power in the production of historical narrative was central to the remaking of our present and future, the production itself was not so easy to untangle. Historical thinking and historical production—not only practiced by professional historians but politicians, the public, artists, social movements, and filmmakers—involved layers of mentions and silences, competing threads of temporality which left origins and endpoints unsettled when critically examined. The messiness and complexity of that process of historical production had profound implications for our present.  

The fundamentally historical nature of the human condition ensured that we could not “step outside of history to write or rewrite it.”[2] Both our deeds and words were themselves part of the same historical process which they sought to narrate. Trouillot’s text ends with protesters taking history—in both senses as acts and narration—into their own hands. In Port-au-Prince, they topple a statue of Christopher Columbus, and dump it into the sea.  

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One of the films selected for this series, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991), opens with Viola Peazant turning around Shakespeare’s Tempest for her own use with a smile: “What’s past is prologue.” In the summer of 2020, another statue was dumped into the sea. This time, a monument to slaver Edward Colston was pulled from its plinth in Bristol, England. Black Lives Matter protesters dumped it into the harbor where ships carrying captives once moored. It was a fitting recontextualization for the statue of man who, during his time as an official of the Royal African Company, oversaw the enslavement of 84,500 African men, women, and children, of whom more than 19,300 died on the journey.[3]

The radical recontextualization of Colston’s statue was not an isolated event. Following the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020, uprisings erupted around the globe. The uprisings first spread across the United States, but quickly crossed the Atlantic and soon were global. These protests fit in many historical narratives. Many saw it as another chapter in a movement that gained national prominence after the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Others situated them in a longer history of resistance to racist policing and violence. Both were certainly true. However, by targeting of statutes of confederate generals, slavers, and colonists, the protesters drew public attention to the markers of a deeper history.

The monuments were a form of public myth-making, casting the meaning of events in stone and steel. As protesters organized to force a public reckoning with the reality of racist policing, they also forced a reckoning with historical narratives. In Richmond, Virginia, activists remade a monument to Confederate general Robert E. Lee into a memorial to George Floyd. Lee’s statue was finally removed by the city in summer 2021. Across Belgium, statues to Leopold II, who was responsible for genocidal violence in Congo, were set on fire, doused in blood-red paint, or pulled down altogether. These important acts of radical recontextualization, only a few examples of many, were a demand for a reckoning with historical narratives, not only in their individual national contexts, but in their shared history of colonization and slavery in the Atlantic World.

How will we remember these histories? How will reparations be made for past crimes? How will we ensure justice now, and in the future? While histories of the Black Atlantic are not the only entry point into these questions or debates, historians of Atlantic slavery and the Black diaspora have shown us the centrality of Black politics in both seeing the structures of power in the emergence of capitalist modernity in the Atlantic. Equally, they have focused our attention on how the enslaved and the colonized imagined freedom and belonging radically and capaciously. Saidiya Hartman has elaborated the stakes for such imagination: “old identities,” she writes in Lose Your Mother, “sometimes had to be jettisoned in order to invent new ones. Your life might just depend on this capacity for self-fashioning. Naming oneself anew was sometimes the price exacted by the practice of freedom.”[4]

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A film is not a monument, and yet, like monuments, they have become a source of intense debate. No wonder. Films and cinema houses have often become flashpoints as societies navigate the challenge of narrating history. Alongside narrative choices that invite new relationships with the past, the production process allows for complex engagement with narrative and memory by a wide variety of participants—not only directors, but actors, cinematographers, editors, casting directors, sound and lighting engineers, and more.[5]

Watching films and talking about them in public discourse has been no less political, as recent debates over Kasi Lemmon’s biopic of Harriet Tubman (Harriet, 2019) have shown. Lemmon’s film sparked a heated debate over whether historical films have an obligation to be “accurate.” The answer, as historian Keisha Blain put it, was complicated but ultimately obscured the real point of contention: the way the film’s narrative intervened in the present moment by placing Black women at the center of the story of how slavery ended in the United States.[6] The questions and debates recur because they are themselves historical. How should we remember the past? What is the relationship between our past and our present? How do and should films mediate the relationship between historical production and political imaginaries? It was not just historians grappling with these difficult questions. Filmmakers, cast and crew, and audiences all engaged in the discussion too, at the site where the stakes of narration were clearest.

With this film series, we are also looking to broaden our discussions on slavery and its afterlives by putting history, film, and memory in the Black Atlantic in conversation with scholars of slavery and memory in the Indian Ocean and Pacific worlds. Although a large group of scholars, including Lisa Lowe, Moon-Ho Jung, and Shona Jackson, have shown us the deep and persistent ties between the enslavement of Africans and other forms of enslavement and unfreedom in the making of the modern world, this complexity has rarely figured centrally in public memories of these histories. 

As cultural artefacts and within the narratives themselves, the films in this series meditate on how we live with history, and they offer new points of departure for imagining future liberation. The series’ films, created over the span of half a century on both sides of the Atlantic, reject nationalist freedom myths in search of what Hartman has called “the fugitive’s dream.”[7]

Our protagonists are maroons, rebels, fugitives, and migrants. In these films, people give their all to refuse the social death imposed by enslavement. Memory and narration are also central themes of these films, amplified by the fact that many of them were made amid crises and movements that demanded new kinds of memory about the history of the Black Atlantic. If these films feel urgent, it is because the “past” they depict has not finished with us. Indeed, the denial of justice and reparations for slavery and colonization have ensured the lingering of the past into the present. As Hartman reminds us, “If slavery feels proximate rather than remote and freedom seems increasingly elusive, this has everything to do with our own dark times. If the ghost of slavery still haunts our present, it is because we are still looking for an exit from the prison.”[8]

[1] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon, 2015), xxiii.

[2] Trouillot, 140.

[3] Saima Nasar, “Remembering Edward Colston: Histories of Slavery, Memory, and Black Globality,” Women’s History Review 29, no. 7 (2020): 1218–1225.

[4] Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008), 233.

[5] Natalie Zemon Davis, Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 12­–14.

[6] Keisha Blain, Twitter Post, November 2, 2019, https://twitter.com/KeishaBlain/status/1190609783570796545. Also see Kellie Carter Jackson, “What Harriet Gets Right About Tubman,” Washington Post, November 1, 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/11/01/what-harriet-gets-right-about-tubman.

[7] Hartman, 133.

[8] Hartman, 133.

Article by Trish Kahle, Assistant Professor at Georgetown University in Qatar