Slavery is perhaps the biggest taint on mankind’s existence. The macabre evil evokes the most loathsome responses from people, even when it is mentioned in hindsight. Due to the relentless efforts and endeavors of the great Abraham Lincoln, the world moved in a direction that relinquished the ironic comforts of slavery. Hollywood has been vociferous and unforgiving in its stance against the same. Numerous powerful social campaigns and awareness programs have been initiated to completely eradicate slavery.
Over the years, film-makers have relayed their indignation and frustration on the subject, and America’s pioneering role in the founding of the concept, through soul-moving slavery movies. The emotive pieces of cinema prompt evocative emotions, which we all at some point in time deal with. So, here is the list of top slavery movies ever that might break your heart. If you are lucky, you might be able to find several of these good slavery movies on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime.
20. Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)
A biblical drama focused on forced slavery of Hebrews at the hands of the elite and Pharaohs of ancient Egypt. The film is told from the perspective of two main biblical characters, Moses and his adoptive brother Ramesses. When Ramesses, the legitimate son of Pharaoh Seti, is threatened by a prophecy and Moses’ sudden revelation of him being a Hebrew, he exiles his brother. What follows is Moses’ fight against the Egyptian kingdom to relieve the slaves from servitude and the Bible’s manifestations of God that may bring wrath upon the condemned human race.
The film is worth a watch for its performances by Joel Edgerton, Christian Bale, Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver, and Ben Kingsley. Moreover, the production design and the visual effects add up to the aesthetics of the film. However, the long-running time and the flawed screenwriting make the film boring and unconvinceable at some points. This may be the reason for the box-office failure of the film, where it made only $260 million over a 200 million dollar budget; despite having a great cast and director Ridley Scott at the helm.
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19. In Dubious Battle (2016)
Slavery comes in many forms, be it racial or based on status and authority. ‘In Dubious Battle’ is the story of various laborers working during the era of Great Depression, who were forced to work on lower wages, threatening their and their families’ survival. While the authoritarians and the badge-wearing people thrust their power onto the weak and poor, the workers slave into the powerful clenches and chains of the upper-class management, leading to their misery. The film tells the story of two workers who protest against this cruelty by organizing the first major workers’ strike, which eventually led to the establishment of labor laws and labor unions in the country, thus accepting workers’ rights and freedom for fair pay.
Directed by James Franco, the film stars an ensemble including Natt Wolff, Selena Gomez, Josh Hutcherson, Zach Braff, Ashley Greene, and Franco himself; joined by the veterans Vincent D’Onofrio, Ed Harris, Bryan Cranston, Sam Shephard, and Robert Duvall. Despite negative reception, Franco’s subtle and captivating direction, as well as the collective of the excellent performances by the cast members, makes ‘In Dubious Battle’ watchable.
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18. Amazing Grace (2006)
Abe Lincoln is the man whose name has shone throughout history as the person who eradicated slavery in the United States. However, there is little is known about the struggle and political fight of William Wilberforce, the man who brought a similar change in the more sophisticated, traditional, and harsher culture of Britain when he had a legislative bill pass in the British parliament. ‘Amazing Grace’ is the story of the same man and his 20-year long battle against Britain’s House of Commons to have slavery and slave trade abolished in the English land and colonies.
The film stars Ioan Gruffudd (Fantastic Four) as Wilberforce with an ensemble cast in support featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, and Toby Jones. ‘Amazing Grace’ was a box-office failure and was moderately appreciated by critics, given to the non-innovative screenwriting and un-astonishing performances. This has, since then led the film to be forgotten in the past years. However, it won’t be wrong to say that the story and the overall presentation and acting performances do make an exceptional contribution to the genre, thus making it worth a watch.
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17. Unbroken (2014)
At the core of WWII, the tension between Japan and the United States grew strong after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour. The States’ entry into war saw many young lads enlisting into the forces so they could serve the greater cause. ‘Unbroken’ follows the true story of a similar lad named Louie Zamperini, an Olympic distance runner turned US Air Force bombardier. Zamperini was one of the hundreds of American soldiers kept in captivity by the Japanese Imperial Army as Prisoners of War, whereby they were subjected to evil abominations, including forced slavery.
It is arguable that ‘Unbroken’ is a PoW film, rather than falling into the genre of “slavery-films”; however, the film’s depiction of the related horrific events of PoW camps in Japan qualify it for the list. The film primarily focuses on the camp, where Zamperini was held by a Japanese officer, Mutsushiro Watanabe, a listed war criminal in the US WWII records. The film is a jaw-dropping and harrowing showcase of forceful slavery, which has been brilliantly and flawlessly put on-screen by Angelina Jolie in her directorial debut. The film was widely applauded for its historical accuracy and Jack O’Connell’s portrayal of Zamperini. Nominated for three Academy Awards, ‘Unbroken’ also includes Joel and Etan Coen in the crew as screenplay writers, which gives us another reason not to miss this film.
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16. Free State of Jones (2016)
Starring Matthew McConaughey, ‘Free State of Jones’ is a story about Newton Knight, a deserter from the Confederate Army fighting Lincoln’s US government in the American Civil War. While the States were submerged in the war between freedom and slavery, Newton Knight united the free men and the slaves at a single place, long before the nation and the constitution of the US reached a consensus on the subject. The film depicts Newton’s life during the war when he captured and established ‘Free State of Jones’ in SE-Mississippi, a place with equal rights for both Black and White folks, as well as his continued war against racial inequality in post-war and post-Lincoln America.
‘Free State of Jones’ had brought the world audience a chapter of American history, which had been hidden and forgotten, and even unbeknownst to many people in the modern generation. However, the film failed to match up to other spectacular movies that Hollywood has produced on the subject of slavery and racial inequality. The film scored moderately on the critics’ chart and failed to earn significant profits. It’s McConaughey’s acting that drives you through the film, as his character solely shapes the heart and soul of the film.
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15. Belle (2013)
‘Belle’ is a true story about a legitimate African-British, Dido Elizabeth Belle, who is denied her free status in British society, despite being brought up in an aristocratic household. ‘Belle,’ as said by film theorists, is the film about the flaws of the British culture, which was then defined by race, color, and slavery. The accounts of the film take us to the times when the slave trade was at its peak in Britain. ‘Belle’ is not centered around the violence associated with slavery but focuses on the issue of racial prejudice and discrimination, which, in turn, was embedded into the English mindset by the acts of slavery and slave trade commissioned by the Empire against Spanish and African citizens.
‘Belle,’ though reminds the viewers of the Song Massacre, whereby more than a hundred slaves were murdered by the crew of slave ships that served the Empire’s interests. This particular event in the film reflects the truth behind the British high-class societies, which kept quiet while innocent men suffered due to their racial indifference. The film is widely acclaimed, especially among the critics of the African-American Film Critics Association. Though criticized for certain historical inaccuracies, it remains one of the most excellent movies made regarding the subject of slavery.
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14. The Birth of A Nation (2016)
Carlyle once said: “History is but, a biography of great men.” While he gave that definition, he didn’t define great men. In my personal views, Nat Turner was one. The brainchild behind the slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in the year 1831, started the revolution that eventually led to the emancipation proclamation. The film chronicles his tumultuous days and his constant striving to free himself and million others in bondage. It opened at the Sundance film festival, where it bagged the Grand Jury award and came in for special praise for its direction, acting, writing, and cinematography. Its Oscar chances were maimed due to the alleged inclusion of the director of the film, Parker, in sexual assault against a woman. Pity, how it couldn’t even make it to the nominations.
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13. Ben-Hur (1959)
The epic classic, ‘Ben-Hur’ is one of the most successful films of all time and is most likely featured in every other list lest this one. The film primarily chronicles the story of Jewish-born merchant Judah Ben-Hur and his relationship with his family and his troubles with his adoptive brother, Messala. When Ben-Hur is wrongfully exiled by his own brother, who is a Roman commander, he is forced to live a life condemned to the galley slaves. While the film primarily explores Ben-Hur’s efforts to restore his innocence and his destroyed life and family, a delicate portion of the film has depicted the lives of Jewish slaves subjected to the galleys by the Roman tribunes and soldiers. Ben-Hur gained a fair amount of critical acclaim for its depiction of the Roman use of galley slaves, which was a big deal in the 1950s due to the lack of available history concerning the galley slaves back then. The last recorded account of galley slaves, at the time of the release, was all in centuries-old manuscripts translated (maybe manipulated) over the course of time.
However, ‘Ben-Hur’ perfectly captured that part of the history, which became an important portion of the entire film, which gave lead actor Charlton Heston enough screen-time to leave his mark. These specific scenes became part of all the attributes of ‘Ben -Hur,’ which led the film to win 11 Academy Awards, a record it still holds and shares with ‘Titanic’ (1997) and ‘LOTR: The Return of the King’ (2003).
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12. The Pianist (2002)
When the Nazis took Poland in 1939, a famous pianist named Władysław Szpilman and a six-year-old boy, Roman Polanski, were among the few survivors out of the millions of Jews killed in the horrors of the Holocaust. Years later, the boy brought the story of the pianist in front of the modern world through a cinematic masterpiece, ‘The Pianist.’
‘The Pianist’ is the story of Władysław Szpilman, a Polish Jew who was forced into slave labor after he was saved from imminent death by an officer before his family was sentenced to the gas chambers right in front of him. Szpilman never saved his family but struggled in a series of slave labor camps while trying to fight for his life until the end of the war.
The film was a passion project for director Roman Polanski, who himself had lost his mother in the concentration camps during WWII. ‘The Pianist’ is just dazzling, and at the same time, frightening for every viewer, as it offers a brilliantly acted, exquisitely directed, and perfectly constructed and foretold story to the viewers; however, it also forces them to watch the condemnable abominations the innocent Jewish race faced through the story of a brave, disillusioned, and afraid man among them. A detailed and accurate insight into the events of the Holocaust and Nazi slave trade, ‘The Pianist’ is a critically acclaimed masterpiece, which would leave you awe-struck by its ambiguity and aesthetics.
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11. Sankofa (1993)
Not many production houses have dealt with the concept of slavery as honestly and brutally as ‘Sankofa.’ The word is derived from the Ghanian Akan language, which means “go back, look for, and gain wisdom, power and hope.” The film is a symbolic effort to nudge the people of African descent back to their original roots and the African culture. It is reflected in the film’s premise, which employs the concept of time travel, and uses a well-to-do model to go back in time, where she is readily enslaved. The beautifully made film’s engaging concept is depicted by a bird and the chants and drumming of a Divine Drummer.
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10. I Am Slave (2010)
While researching for this article, I came across this film, which has been largely neglected by the audience and critics alike, with no significant reviews or media attention given to it. However, its story and the real-life inspiration behind it prove how crucial it is to watch and admire this film and the central character’s story.
Malia comes from a powerful Sudanese tribe, her father being the leader of the community, thus making her a fearless and formidable woman. However, all is in vain when a group of mujaheddin kidnaps and sells her in British slave trade, subjecting her to years of servitude, discrimination, bigotry, violence, and pay-less work in the families that “purchased” her.
The film follows her subsequent struggles to regain her freedom from the unwanted and illegal slavery she has been forced to bear. An essential aspect of the film is that it is set in modern times, and the true story behind the film is not older than the 90s. Therefore, Malia (real name Mende Nazer) suffered through all this in time, when slavery was abolished and condemned by societies all over the world, reflecting the roots of slavery that are still clenching the world and the people living in it.
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9. Roots (1977)
The only thing is, this one’s not a film. It is a miniseries. But it is good. Nominated for a record 37 Emmy awards, the production went on to win nine awards. Its finale registered unprecedented Nelsen ratings and still holds the number three position in the history of television. It starred LeVar Burton in the role of Kunta Kine, a young man who is enslaved but harbors big dreams, one of which is to be liberated. It is a true account of Alex Haley’s egregious times in bondage. The mini-series is one of the best there is, willfully deciding to make the action in the script volatile in nature to accurately depict the mood in the times. One of the best black slavery movies.
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8. 13th (2016)
Many films have been produced across the world cinematic industries based on this subject, but if you are in for a real insight into the history of slavery and its continued use in the modern world in different forms, ’13th’ is the film for you.
’13th’, titled after the famous “Thirteenth Amendment” of the American constitution that legally abolished slavery, is a documentary feature that depicts the birth of slavery and its modifications into various virtual and modern forms over the years, which has ultimately led to racial discrimination, prejudice, crimes based on religious and caste differences, and societal divisions.
The film chronicles the presence of slavery and its reciprocation in American society from the viewpoints and experts of multiple academicians and historians. Rated one of the most excellent and detailed documentaries in the past years, the film holds a 96% aggregate on Rotten Tomatoes and is the recipient of multiple awards. The film was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
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7. Tamango (1958)
Now this one is a bit twisted and different in its discourse to depict slavery. It starred Dorothy Dandridge, the first actress of color to be nominated for an Academy Award. The film is a story set aboard a ship, helmed by Captain Reiker and his bonded men. It also included in its passengers, Aiche, a slave mistress of the captain. Tamango, one of the slaves, plans a rebellion and holds Aiche hostage for the same. When Reiker threatens to shoot them all with a cannon, Tamango pleads with Aiche to go away. She doesn’t, and true to his word, Reiker ends the group, silencing their liberation songs. The love scenes between Reiker and Aiche were unnecessary, but the film’s unwavering belief in its root concept makes it worth watching.
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6. Amistad (1997)
Whenever Steven Spielberg takes to the camera, you expect a warm feeling inside. His humane way of story-telling and its elan simplicity is what makes him the master raconteur. ‘Amistad’ is a historical drama, based on the true story of the events in 1839 aboard the slave ship La Amistad. The traveling enslaved men of the Mende tribe managed to gain control of the ship and abduct their original captors to set their course towards freedom. Their ambitions were cut short and soon subjugated by the US army. The case was decided in the Supreme Court. The movie is an enthralling experience, one which you aren’t going to forget too soon.
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5. Gone With the Wind (1939)
The film isn’t explicitly about slavery but is an essential and symbolic part of it. Probably one of the most iconic movies of all time, ‘Gone With the Wind’ is the apotheosis of a historical-romance movie. Despite being criticized for historical revisionism glorifying slavery, but, it has been credited for triggering changes to the way African-Americans are depicted cinematically. The film follows two dangerous individuals, a manipulative woman and a rogue-outcast man, and their blissful journey of unison. Set amidst the backdrop of the American Civil War and the turbulent period in the South, the movie dissects the varying emotions that persisted within the environs of the besotted state at the time with effortless ease. Love triumphs all, as they say.
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4. Glory (1989)
This is not the first film in the list centered around the American Civil War. But in a totally different context. ‘Glory’ tracks one of the very first military units of the Union army, consisting solely of African-Americans, except for the officers, who are white. It is told from the perspective of Colonel Shaw, the white commander of the battalion, and his unwavering relationship with his brave soldiers. The covey is fondly remembered for their acts of valor at Fort Wagner. The movie was nominated for five Academy awards, winning three, including one for the charismatic Denzel Washington. It was highly praised by critics and audiences alike.
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3. Django Unchained (2012)
Oh, now. This one is not your quintessential drama where Black people suffer in silence and wait out the struggle. No, sir. This is the one where they blow the brains out of their apparent masters with a .22 magnum shotgun. Quentin Tarantino’s action-filled drama is a gory-fest of the human body reduced to stinking and disgusting pieces of meat. The story follows Django, who is unchained and set free by a humble-liberal German dentist, Dr. Schultz. On the latter’s offer to join him in his crusade to kill bad white men, Django’s life gets a new direction and purpose: to reunite with Broomhilda. When they find her, they’ve to deal with a paranoid plantation owner who takes a liking to Django. Without over-dramatizing and weaving the fabrics of style with the story through utmost dexterity, Tarantino once again mesmerizes.
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2. Lincoln (2012)
Mmm. This one. I literally short fall of words whenever I mention ‘Lincoln’ in my breath. Apart from Abraham Lincoln being my idol, Daniel Day-Lewis is my favorite actor. Spielberg’s brilliant film about the divided Congress on the President’s historic emancipation proclamation is more than what meets the eyes. Centering on Lincoln and his disturbing visions of the drifting war, the film traces the whole political digression that emerged out of the amendment. ‘Lincoln’ is a different breed of a film, with its rich writing and perfect direction being complimented by a soulful background score. One of the very best!
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1. 12 Years A Slave (2013)
The indubitable number one on the list is Steve McQueen’s historical-drama movie, ’12 Years A Slave’, which was also the worthy winner of the Best Picture awards at the Academy Awards. Drawing the premise of its story from the slave-memoirs of Solomon Northup, the film follows his eviscerating journey into the jaws of the morbid disease, in spite of being a free man. The talented musician is allured into a lustful snare by two men posing as hires of a circus. Solomon travels from pone plantation field to other, facing the harsh whims and fancies of their berserk owners. The beautiful story about the struggle for freedom and the eventual emancipation is one of triumph and unbound inspiration. A wonderful watch for y’all (see what I did there?).
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