Stephen Arnell

Before The Underground Railroad – 10 films about slavery in America

  • From Spectator Life
Credit: Kyle Kaplan, Amazon Studios

Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad is earning rave reviews. The 10-part Amazon Prime mini-series imagines an alternate history where the abolitionist route for escaped slaves prior to emancipation is an actual, physical subterranean railway.

Incidentally, the fantastical railway trope is the chief feature of Netflix’s sci-fi show Snowpiercer (2020-), whilst the rocket-powered ‘Bullet Train’ is prominent in the last season of Amazon’s alt-history Man in the High Castle (2015-19).

When looking at motion pictures dealing with the subject of slavery in the United States, one must be aware of the seismic shift from its early onscreen depiction in movies such as D. W. Griffith’s 1916 Birth of a Nation (originally titled The Clansman) and the (slightly) more evolved Gone with the Wind (1939).

Antebellum (2020) – Sky Movies, NOW TV

Sky Cinema Originals probably thought they were on to a Get Out-style hit with Antebellum, where a Civil War Louisiana slave plantation is revealed to be not quite what it at first appears.

Unfortunately for writer-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, the movie is closer to M. Night Shyamalan’s silly The Village (2004) than Jordan Peele’s now classic thriller.

If Antebellum doesn’t sate your appetite for this kind of cinematic Three-card Monte, you may want to keep an eye open for the upcoming Alice, where a slave on what we are told is an 1800s estate in the Deep South discovers that it is actually 1973.

Emperor (2020) – Amazon Rent/Buy


The little seen movie tells the story of Shields ‘Emperor’ Green (Dayo Okeniyi) and escaped slave who teams up with abolitionist firebrand John Brown (James Cromwell) to help lead the notorious 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia.

This event led directly to the outbreak of the Civil War two year later.

After initial success, the attempt to secure arms for a prospective slave army was put down in a strange twist of fate by none other than Lt, Col Robert E.

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