One of the most anticipated films of 2012, promised for a Christmastime release, is Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, the writer-director's melding of the spaghetti western and "slavesploitation" genres starring Jamie Foxx. In a sign that Django might start a trend, the Saratogian newspaper reports on the plans by Brad Pitt's production company to make a true-life slavery movie. Plan B Entertainment is still in pre-production on Twelve Years a Slave, which would be the British Steve McQueen's directorial follow-up to his highly acclaimed features Hunger and Shame and will reportedly feature Michael Fassbender, the star of both films, along with Pitt in a role to be determined and UK star Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a man who lived through an African-American nightmare. Born free, Northup was kidnapped and sold into slavery, which he endured for the title duration before managing to escape and publicize his ordeal. It seems such a naturally cinematic story that you wonder why Hollywood hasn't done it before.
So do two films make a genre? Hard to say; the pedigree behind Twelve Years doesn't imply an exploitation approach but the material is potentially so provocative that any treatment might qualify as an exploitation film. In cinema, slavesploitation denotes an allegedly insensitive emphasis on the degradation of slaves, particularly the violence inflicted on them and the sexual servitude to which they were reduced. Its roots are in literature, from William Styron's ambitious Confessions of Nat Turner to Kyle Onstott's Mandingo and its sequels, as well as global interest in the U.S. civil rights movement and race riots of the 1960s. Its magnum opus is Jacopetti & Prosperi's time-travel shockumentary Goodbye Uncle Tom but its best known product remains Richard Fleischer's 1974 film of Mandingo -- though some might include the Roots TV miniseries as part of the trend. The genre as a whole has a bad reputation because of the subject matter's provocative and potentially prurient nature, the horrors of slavery allegedly arousing some viewers while enraging others. I expect just such a response to the Tarantino film, as no doubt Tarantino himself does. Whether Twelve Years a Slave, or whatever it finally gets called, will position itself as the respectable, responsible slavery picture, or whether it will milk the outrage that any viewer should feel over Northup's story to controversial effect, is impossible to say right now -- it's still possible that the film will never get made. Still, it's an interesting coincidence to see two slavery films in the works all of a sudden, and I wonder what it says about 2012 compared to the combustible years when slavesploitation first cast its shadow across theater screens. I look forward to finding out in either case.