The Founding Fault: Representations of Slavery in TV Miniseries (edited volume)
After the groundbreaking TV miniseries Roots (1977), it took a relatively long time for another epic dealing with slavery and the American South to come to television. The first two installments of the successful, albeit quite melodramatic, ABC miniseries North and South are set before and during the Civil War (1985 and 1986), but did not have the lasting impact of Roots. Fueled by the large budgets of competing streaming services looking for a prestige event, the last few years have brought a spate of TV miniseries dealing with slavery and racism. While some shows follow the established rules of historic realism (the 2015 Canadian production The Book of Negroes and the 2016-17 Underground, for example), others feature a heightened realism (the 2020 The Good Lord Bird) or even magic realism, such as the new Amazon production The Underground Railroad (2021). Some miniseries present slavery as a horror that is still haunting the United States, e.g., Lovecraft Country (2020) and Them (2021). Similarly the docuseries, Exterminate All the Brutes (2021)–a synergy of archival material, animation, and interpretive (sometimes counter-factual) scenes–links American Slavery, the genocide of Indigenous Peoples, and the Holocaust to a colonial culture that persists in American life. While different in genre and style, all of these recent TV miniseries appear to present slavery as a founding fault line that is the root cause for fractures in present-day American society. There is also a common pedagogical impetus aiming at educating the viewers about the brutal reality of slavery. Arguably, this intention has resulted in an increasing realism, leading to excruciating scenes of rape, torture and mutilation.
Moreover, a landmark TV miniseries about another mass atrocity, Holocaust, aired one year after Roots in the US in 1978, but the legacy of the former miniseries has not seen an uptake of similar miniseries productions, as is the case with the latter. Given the relatively long planning and production timeline of contemporary miniseries about slavery, one is tempted to credit the Zeitgeist for this long overdue and unfinished reckoning with an atrocity on US soil, not unlike the overdue reckoning of Germans with the Holocaust. With the concomitant 1619 Project aiming at the way history is taught in schools, as well as the protests against public monuments dedicated to Confederate soldiers in 2019 and 2020, and, above all, the Black Lives Matter movement, there are certainly societal factors to consider. At the same time, several states have recently passed or have pending legislation aiming at banning exactly this type of critical teaching of history. Indeed, in an Op-Ed criticizing The 1619 Project, Newt Gingrich diagnoses “two generations of growing anti-American hostility in the education community and in Hollywood. From this perspective, any representation of slavery is therefore always already political and implicitly unpatriotic.
This collection is looking for original contributions on TV Miniseries representing slavery and racism in the US. Suggested topics include, but are not limited to:
Genre (historical/period drama, horror, magic realism, alternative history); history as intertext (i.e., the appearance of historical characters, such as Harriet Tubman); Roots as the mother of this sub-genre; the explicit or implicit critique of racist Hollywood movies (such as Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, and others); a comparison to miniseries that treat other mass atrocities; trauma studies; #BLM, representations of religion, spirituality, and the spectral; the influence of Jordan Peele’s movies Get out and US, and the recent backlash against so-called “critical race theory.”
Roots; 9h 48min | Biography, Drama, History (1977) and its remake
Roots; TV-MA | 4 x 1h 30min | Biography, Drama, History | TV Mini-Series (2016)
North and South [American television miniseries broadcast on the ABC network in 1985, 1986, and 1994. Set before, during, and immediately after the American Civil War]
The Book of Negroes; 4h 25min | Drama, History, War | TV Mini-Series (2015)
Underground; TV-MA | 43min | Adventure, Drama, History | TV Series (2016–2017)
Lovecraft Country; TV-MA | 1h | Drama, Fantasy, Horror | TV Series (2020– )
The Good Lord Bird; TV-MA | 5h 35min | Drama, History, War | TV Mini-Series (2020)
Exterminate All the Brutes; TV-MA | 3h 52min | Docuseries | TV Mini-Series (2021)
Them; TV-MA | 45min | Drama, Horror, Thriller | TV Series (2021– )
The Underground Railroad; TV-14 | Drama, History, War | TV Series (2021– )
Oliver C. Speck teaches Film Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and is the editor of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained: The Continuation of Metacinema (2014). Trained as a comparative religious ethicist, Kate E. Temoney is Assistant Professor of Religion at Montclair State University. She is the American Academy of Religion co-chair of the Religion, Holocaust, and Genocide Unit and a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Committee on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust. Her international publications address the intersections of religion, human rights, mass atrocities, and theory of history.