Slavery characterizes one of the most dehumanizing periods in history and has affected the lives of numerous people. When discussing the sorrows of enslaved people, it is crucial to consider their agency and its effects. Although there are several ways to address slave agency, one such way is by looking at it from the perspective of cinema. Films can represent enslaved people’s agency and provide more insight into the hardships they had to overcome.
The Concept of Agency
Before analyzing the representation of the agency of enslaved people in films, one should explore the concept of agency. Agency in the history of slavery has been discussed from various perspectives and, according to Johnson (2003), can be referred to as “opposition to the condition of slavery” (p. 115). In other words, agency can be perceived as one’s volition, independent will, and choice of action (Johnson, 2003). Moreover, agency can be seen as resistance to slavery, which can be achieved through a collective effort and alliances (Johnson, 2003). Furthermore, while Johnson (2003) mentions the fact of enslaved people striving to preserve their humanity, it is questionable if they succeeded in doing so and how cinema portrays it. I have already argued on such a question in my previous assignment, but this time I would like to explore it, emphasizing whether endangering one’s humanity was the only source of agency. Overall, as many as there are approaches to the concept of enslaved agency, it can be associated with freedom of choice and one’s power over their actions.
Following that, one should examine the need of enslaved people to claim their agency. For instance, in the book Twelve Years a Slave, the narrator describes his encounters with people in slavery at the time when he was still a free man (Northup, 2014). Solomon Northup states that, despite “living apparently an easy life,” those slaves longed for liberty but did nothing in fear of punishment (Northup, 2014, p. 12). With that being said, one can assume that although enslaved people wanted to be freed, many of them could not do so. However, films often portray characters who had no choice other than to discover ways to have power over their own lives. Because of experiencing numerous hardships, people in slavery began to resist their masters and draw on various tools of agency in the face of fear.
One can seek sources of enslaved people’s agency in the film Amistad, which I have discussed in my previous essay, but now I would like to focus on the movie’s other aspects. Amistad portrays the story of a group of African people against the US judicial system (Spielberg, 1997). Those people, among whom initially were men, women, and children, were kidnapped, enslaved, and forcibly taken away from their homeland to where they strive to return throughout the film (Spielberg, 1997). On their way from Africa, they were humiliated, tortured, and killed by slave traders (Spielberg, 1997). However, despite the events of the movie happening after the abolition of slavery, in 1839, upon stepping on American land, none of those people were set free (Spielberg, 1997). Instead, they were imprisoned, accused of murder, and were not treated like human beings (Spielberg, 1997). Because the enslaved people in Amistad were forced to leave their homes, they had to find ways to reclaim their freedom.
While several enslaved people strive to be freed in Amistad, they are represented by one character, Cinque, which, however, suggests a lack of agency in the film. The enslaved people are shown to have temporary control over their actions only when they kill the slave traders but are then denied any power (Spielberg, 1997). For the majority of the movie, the people from Africa are imprisoned by either slave traders or the US judicial system (Spielberg, 1997). Their limited sources of agency, if any, seem to come only from Cinque. Cinque is the one to start a riot on “La Amistad” ship, he is the one to converse with people representing the case, and he is the one to suggest ways for their freedom (Spielberg, 1997). The enslaved people failed to form a community and relied on Cinque, who tried to resist but had to become their agent, driven by a desire to return to his family (Spielberg, 1997). Even though Cinque cannot obtain much control over his actions, without him, the enslaved people would probably have no agency at all.
More sources of agency can be found in the movie Harriet. The film’s main character, Minty, later known as Harriet and Moses, lives as a slave in 1849 (Lemmons, 2019). Minty was supposed to be freed years ago but still lives in captivity because her master would not let go of her (Lemmons, 2019). She is married to a free man with whom she wants to have a free child but is denied permission for that from her master (Lemmons, 2019). Eventually, when Minty is to be sold away and separated from her loved ones, she decides to escape the captivity (Lemmons, 2019). In another state, Minty finds her freedom and then is determined to free her family and all those who want to come along (Lemmons, 2019). As for many years Minty was denied simple happiness, she decides to obtain control over her life and help others do so as well.
Harriet represents differences in agency of enslaved and free Black people. Although Minty was born a slave, her life in captivity is shown rather shortly, but one can conclude that her sources of agency are limited to religion and community. Minty has a family who loves and supports her and with whom she can maintain close relationships (Lemmons, 2019). Minty also has access to religion and church services, finding some comfort in praying (Lemmons, 2019). However, when she becomes Harriet, a free escapee from slavery, she finds more control over her actions. As a free Black woman, Harriet can choose her occupation and friends, she can take warm baths and express her opinions (Lemmons, 2019). Later, when she becomes Moses, she can go whenever she pleases, shoot a gun, and make her own choices (Lemmons, 2019). Moses finds comfort in God and her new community represented by family, friends, and members of the Underground Railroad (Lemmons, 2019). Harriet shows that enslaved people had little to no power compared to those who were freed, but for most of them, the main sources of agency were supported by their communities and beliefs.
Similar to how Harriet portrays differences in how much power over their actions enslaved and free Black people had, the film Django Unchained shows the experiences of a freed person and people in slavery. Django is portrayed as a married slave who is freed by Doctor Schultz, a bounty hunter (Tarantino, 2012). When in captivity, Django and his wife Broomhilda tried to escape but were caught, punished, and separated, so during the course of the movie, Django strives to reunite with her (Tarantino, 2012). Although he is no longer a slave, society restricts Django from basic actions such as entering a bar or riding a horse (Tarantino, 2012). On the other hand, Django being resisted from horse-riding is smaller trouble, compared to enslaved people’s fate whom he sees whipped, forced to fight, tortured in a “hot box,” and bitten by dogs (Tarantino, 2012; 01:31:30-01:35:00). While Django is a free man, he is hardly perceived like one and continues witnessing inhumane treatment of Black people.
Django Unchained represents agency through its main character, who wants to perform actions that may seem simple but are portraying the limited amount of enslaved people’s choice. In particular, after being freed, for the first time in his life, Django can dress how he likes, can earn and spend his own money, and can choose his own path (Tarantino, 2012). Regardless of what he does or says, Django’s opposition to slavery is supported by the desire to reunite with his wife and live with her, free of any masters (Tarantino, 2012). To fulfill that desire, he relies on weapons, the assistance of Doctor Schultz, and the vision of Broomhilda (Tarantino, 2012). With that being said, one should mention that enslaved people in the film have completely no agency. For example, Broomhilda is only taken out of the hot box to be sent to please Doctor Schultz, and a limped fighter, D’Artagnan, gets to be mauled by dogs when he tries to resist fighting (Tarantino, 2012). Django Unchained shows that, regardless of being treated poorly by society, a free Black person has more agency than those in captivity.
Unlike the films described above, Beloved mainly focuses on free Black people. The movie’s events take place in 1873 and portray the lives of Sethe, a former slave, and her daughter Denver as they encounter a ghost (Demme, 1998). Regardless of paranormal activities in Beloved, the film shows a story of a woman haunted by memories of her years in slavery (Demme, 1998). Although not much is revealed about Sethe’s previous life, the audience learns that during her captivity at Sweet Home plantation, she was tortured and viciously sexually assaulted by her master’s sons (Demme, 1998). During the assault, Sethe was already pregnant and, after the incident, decided to escape to her mother-in-law (Demme, 1998). Sethe had to run away by herself, was alone on her journey, and had to give birth to Denver in the wilderness with the help of a stranger (Demme, 1998). Beloved shows the story of a woman tormented by her life as a slave.
As Sethe’s life in slavery is not demonstrated much, the film portrays only a few examples of her agency. At first, Sethe successfully escapes her captivity and gives birth to Denver, whom she plans to raise as free (Demme, 1998). When Sethe reaches her mother-in-law’s house, she reunites with her other children, learns to live again, and finds support in the people she meets (Demme, 1998). However, after several days her master discovers Sethe’s location, and the movie shows the last example of her agency (Demme, 1998). Before Denver, Sethe had three children living with her mother-in-law and whom she now decides to slay in order to save them from being taken away into slavery (Demme, 1998). She manages to slit her oldest daughter’s throat before people interfere and is shown to believe that it is the only way to resist slavery (Demme, 1998). Beloved shows that even after years of free life, former slaves are haunted by memories of captivity and the consequences of sacrifices they had to make to claim power over their lives.
Representations of Agency
The films reviewed above represent agency of enslaved people, but one should mention that neither of the characters managed to truly distort the larger structures of subordination. As the events of the movies are set in different years, starting with Amistad in 1839 and finishing with Beloved in 1873, they portray the changes in Black people’s power. Amistad shows that after the abolition of slavery, Black people were looked down on and were easily taken into captivity, with little to no control over their actions (Spielberg, 1997). Harriet suggests that Black people, regardless of being free or in slavery, had limited independence and control, with their freedom being taken away at any moment (Lemmons, 2019). Django Unchained proposes that free Black people were not able to act freely, judged by both Black and White populations (Tarantino, 2012). Beloved implies that after years of freedom, memories of captivity interfere with one’s personality and affect their life (Demme, 1998). While some characters’ actions in the films are shown to make certain changes, they are also shown not to change the course of slavery significantly.
Furthermore, the permanence of slavery in the discussed films can be seen in connection to the Denmark Vesey conspiracy. The conspiracy that ended in the deaths of multiple Black men is perceived to be kept alive by historians who accept judgments of the court “while rejecting its morality” (Johnson, 2001, p. 971). Similarly, when reviewed together, the movies suggest that some people tended to accept the position of the established system of slavery rather than question it. For instance, in the films, slavery was supported by masters and traders but also by enslaved people themselves. In particular, in Django Unchained, a slave woman is shown to associate freedom with skin color, and another house slave tries to prevent Django from saving his wife (Tarantino, 2012). Slavery is presented to be engraved in people’s minds and difficult to distort.
With that being said, the movies also demonstrate that enslaved people kept attempting to change the system over and over again. In the mentioned above book Twelve Years a Slave, the author states that “scars upon a slave’s back” served as “evidence of a rebellious or unruly spirit” (Northup, 2014, p. 53). Such scars are shown on the backs of many Black characters in the discussed films, whether they were slaves or escaped slavery, indicating the times enslaved people tried to claim their agency. Moreover, while it is important to remember the truth behind the Vesey conspiracy, one should mention the thought that the spirit of Vesey’s rebellion can be dated back to his life as a slave (Johnson, 2001). Similarly, the scars of the movies’ characters can be perceived as indicators of many situations guiding them towards freedom. Agency is not an occurrence of one time, as there are multiple events that can lead enslaved people to claim power over their lives.
Tools and Sources
As scars on enslaved people’s bodies can symbolize their attempts of declaring agency, it is crucial to explore their sources and tools of agency. One can argue that people in slavery relied on violence and weapons as tools and may be correct but only partially. In Amistad, African people started a riot and murdered their captors, and even though they the riot was successful, the freedom did not last (Spielberg, 1997). Amistad does not demonstrate agency properly, as the African people were soon imprisoned again, and, according to Johnson (2003), “murdering masters and overseers” strengthened slavery instead of weakening it (p. 117). In Django Unchained, Django kills his wife’s maters and sets their house on fire (Tarantino, 2012). The ending of Django Unchained is a smaller example of but an alike situation to Denmark Vesey “setting fire to the city” and “slaying all whites” (Johnson, 2001, p. 915). While it is unknown what happens to Django after, one can assume that his fate may be similar to Vesey’s, with him and Broomhilda being captured. Amistad and Django Unchained demonstrate the inefficiency of violence as a tool of agency.
Harriet and Beloved also represent the use of weapons and violence to take control. In Beloved, Sethe slit her oldest daughter’s throat to save her from becoming a slave, as she remembered her own traumatizing experience of being assaulted (Demme, 1998). However, while Sethe believed she had freed her child from a life of a slave, she also robbed her daughter of living a life and a chance to be her own agent. While, according to Northup (2014), the grave is “the only resting place” of a slave, one can argue that Sethe did not give her daughter freedom by killing her but took it away (p. 33). On the other hand, while in Harriet, the main character used weapons as tools, neither Harriet nor Moses relied on violence (Lemmons, 2019). Harriet carried a gun with her but never used it, whereas Moses used it but not to kill (Lemmons, 2019). Moreover, Moses did not kill her former masters, although she had opportunities to do so (Lemmons, 2019). Beloved and Harriet show that what matters is not a tool but the way people employ it.
While the use of tools is important, one should also consider sources of enslaved people’s agency that gave them strength and reasons to claim freedom. Although little to no power is given to African people in Amistad and the captives rely on Cinque to save them, Cinque is motivated to return home to his wife and child (Spielberg, 1997). In Django Unchained, whether as a slave or a free man, Django strives to live with his wife without oppression from masters (Tarantino, 2012). In Harriet, the main character escapes slavery when she is about to be taken away from her family and then comes back multiple times to rescue her loved ones (Lemmons, 2019). In Beloved, Sethe runs away to be with her children and is even willing to slay them rather than let them experience the life that she had (Demme, 1998). In all the movies, enslaved people longed to live with their loved ones as free people, and that longing gave them support to oppose slavery.
To summarize, the representation of enslaved people’s agency in films enables a more authentic relationship to the past as it shows the power people in slavery had or did not have over their own lives. While many people used weapons as tools to ensure freedom, the analysis shows that not all had to rely on violence towards slavers. The characters in the films strived to live freely with their families and, for that, became their agents.
Demme, J. (1998). Beloved [Film]. Touchstone Pictures.
Johnson, M. P. (2001). Denmark Vesey and his co-conspirators. The William and Mary Quarterly, 58(4), 915-976.
Johnson, W. (2003). On agency. Journal of Social History, 37(1), 113-124. Web.
Lemmons, K. (2019). Harriet [Film]. Perfect World Pictures.
Northup, S. (2014). Twelve years a slave. Hesperus Press.
Spielberg, S. (1997). Amistad [Film]. DreamWorks Pictures.
Tarantino, Q. (2012). Django Unchained [Film]. Columbia Pictures.