As a society, it's important that we don't hide our history in the shade due to shame, guilt, or ignorance—which is why it's so important that there are movies about slavery being made.
Cinema provides an avenue to bring attention to buried stories and give voices to the voiceless. In doing this, the hope is that we—as a society—confront reality and prevent history from repeating itself.
We like to think that our modern world is free of slavery, that all those chains were cast aside when the slave trade was abolished in the 1800s. Sadly, that's far from the case.
Here are some of the greatest movies about slavery that serve as reminders of how evil humanity is capable of being and what we must work towards ending once and for all.
20. The Birth of a Nation (2016)
Directed by Nate Parker
Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller
Biography, Drama, History (2h)
No, we aren't talking about D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation from 1915, which was praised as a technical feat but ultimately disappointing because it was pro-KKK.
We're talking about Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation from 2016—his directorial debut—that harks back to the former racist landmark with a story about a slave rebellion in Virginia, 1813.
The poignant voice of Nina Simone singing "Strange Fruit" (first performed by Billie Holiday and met with retaliation because of its lynching metaphor) rings across the cotton fields as the men prepare for an uprising led by Nat Turner (Nate Parker).
19. Harriet (2019)
Directed by Kasi Lemmons
Starring Cynthia Erivo, Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom Jr.
Action, Biography, Drama (2h 5m)
"Be free or die" was Harriet Tubman's great motto, and the fact that she's reduced to such an extreme quote is heartbreaking in itself. But prepare for even more sorrow in Harriet!
Cynthia Erivo stars in Kasi Lemmons' biopic of Harriet Tubman, the ex-slave who rescued approximately 70 people using the Underground Railroad network of abolitionists.
The narrative of Harriet might be somewhat formulaic, but Erivo shines with her powerhouse performance that infuses this film with soul.
18. Emancipation (2022)
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Starring Will Smith, Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa
Action, Thriller (2h 12m)
Abraham Lincoln may have issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963, but that didn't mean all slaves were freed overnight.
In Emancipation, Peter (Will Smith) is based on a real black slave known as Whipped Peter (who may have actually been two men). Whipped Peter is most famous for the iconic photograph of his scarred back—an image that makes us wince just to look at.
The only color that pops out of Emancipation's grayscale palette is red, reminiscent of the tragic red coat in Schindler's List.
17. The Butler (2013)
Directed by Lee Daniels
Starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack
Biography, Drama (2h 12m)
The Butler isn't just about slavery—it's about the greater history of racism in America, told from the viewpoint of one man who lived through all of those major changes.
Loosely based on White House head butler Eugene Allen, Cecil (Forest Whitaker) recalls his life climbing from the depths of slavery in Georgia and through racial integration, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panthers, the Vietnam War, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.
The Butler manages to be both super sad and uplifting, at least more uplifting than most of our other picks. Either way, it's one of the best historical movies about slavery.
16. I Am Slave (2010)
Directed by Gabriel Range
Starring Wunmi Mosaku, Isaach De Bankolé, Lubna Azabal
Biography, Drama, Thriller (1h 22m)
Gabriel Range's I Am Slave is a true story that exposes the modern slave trade that we all tend to forget continues to rage on.
Now a Sudanese author and activist, the real person of Mende Nazer spent eight years as a slave—first in Sudan, where she was kidnapped during a village raid, and then in London.
Wunmi Mosaku stars as Malia (based on Nazer), who was just a child when she was abducted and made a slave.
This Channel 4 drama is a gripping tale that probably flew under your radar, so we're here to bring it back to light.
15. The Woman King (2022)
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood
Starring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch
Action, Drama, History (2h 15m)
Sweat, fire, adrenaline, plus Viola Davis showing everyone who's boss as a cross between goddess and superhero. That's The Woman King in a nutshell. What's not to love?
General Nanisca—or the "Woman King"—frees slaves and trains them to fight against their owners in 1823. And yes, the Agojie were a real, all-female army in West Africa!
The Woman King is a sensationalized action flick, scored to Beyoncé and with an air of Marvel about it. However, it's also feisty, empowering, and infused with enough heart to overcome its generic script.
14. Beloved (1998)
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Starring Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Yada Beener
Drama, History, Horror (2h 52m)
The title Beloved is a reference to the real-life Margaret Garner, an African-American slave who inspired various paintings, poems, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that this movie was based on.
But don't Google her name just yet! Because you'll spoil yourself.
Instead, go into Beloved without knowing much about it—other than the fact Oprah gives a knockout performance in this supernatural horror drama set against the backdrop of the American Civil War.
Don't let the box office figures fool you, either! Beloved may not have pulled in lots of money, but it was nominated for an Oscar.
13. Uncle Tom's Cabin (1927)
Directed by Harry A. Pollard
Starring Margarita Fischer, James B. Lowe, Arthur Edmund Carewe
Drama, History (2h 24m)
Uncle Tom's Cabin is a complicated film. It was made in 1927, long before Hollywood even thought about depicting a racist America (like in 1956's Giant and 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird).
Harry A. Pollard's silent film, based on the 1852 novel that helped shape the abolitionist movement in the United States, shows the "moral and political evil" of slavery.
Even so, Uncle Tom's Cabin is still a whitewashed paternalistic movie that employs heavy use of blackface. As in, every cast member is Caucasian except Uncle Tom...
12. Sankofa (1993)
Directed by Haile Gerima
Starring Kofi Ghanaba, Oyafunmike Ogunlano, Alexandra Duah
Drama (2h 5m)
Writer/director Haile Gerima utilizes a super interesting concept in Sankofa to explore African culture and its historical entanglement with the slave trade.
Mona (Oyafunmike Ogunlano) is an African-American fashion model who doesn't know her roots. When she travels to Ghana for a photoshoot, she ends up transported back in time to experience slavery.
Sankofa is a sacred kind of movie that's in touch with the divine, set to a soundtrack that will send shivers down your spine. It's one of the most unique movies about slavery you'll ever see.
11. Belle (2013)
Directed by Amma Asante
Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson
Biography, Drama, Romance (1h 40m)
Belle is a different kind of period drama than what you'd normally see in, say, a Jane Austen adaptation. Instead of political courtships and power-feuding royalty, Belle is inspired by the painting of a real black gentlewoman in 1779.
Dido Belle is the illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy officer, deemed too "exotic" for the dining table yet too high-ranking to sit with the staff. Where does that place her?
Amma Asante directs Gugu Mbatha-Raw in this fictionalized tale of the elusive historical figure, where shame follows Dido like a shadow.
10. Glory (1989)
Directed by Edward Zwick
Starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes
Biography, Drama, History (2h 2m)
One of the Union Army's first African-American corps in the American Civil War was the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, led by Colonel Shaw (Matthew Broderick).
Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman star as members of that division, fighting off Confederates looking to enslave any black man in a uniform—especially in the Second Battle of Fort Wagner.
If you're interested in war history, Edward Zwick's Oscar-winning drama Glory is for you! It's one of the most engrossing movies about slavery in America.
9. The Help (2011)
Directed by Tate Taylor
Starring Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer
Drama (2h 26m)
The Help is a different kind of slave movie—one that depicts a transition that many black women faced in the 20th century: from plantation slave to domestic maid, which was still a kind of slavery, just without all the whipping and field work.
Reductively known as "the help," these women were there to raise the children of white socialites who were too busy gossiping in salons and attending parties to raise their children themselves.
While not slaves in the traditional sense, they certainly weren't free, being trapped in the systemic racism of the 1960s. It's just too ironic that the only way their voices can be heard is through a white woman: a journalist, played by Emma Stone.
8. Amistad (1997)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, Anthony Hopkins
Biography, Drama, History (2h 35m)
The notion of people being "property" is ludicrous—a point emphasized in Steven Spielberg's not-so-family-fun film Amistad.
La Amistad was a Spanish slave ship that staged an unexpected kind of mutiny in 1839: the captives took control of the deck.
Sadly, they still ended up in US waters, where a legal battle ensued.
One of the few slave movies that's blended with courtroom drama, Amistad stars Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, Anthony Hopkins, and Morgan Freeman (though some historians deemed it too "soft" a depiction of the real events).
7. The Northman (2022)
Directed by Robert Eggers
Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang
Action, Adventure, Drama (2h 17m)
The Northman is a very different kind of slave movie—not about the black slavery of American history, but a kind of slavery that happened in Scandinavia.
In The Northman, an 8th century Viking prince named Amleth heads down a path of vengeance when his father is slain by his uncle.
The Northman is an epic-scale medieval action movie that's heavily inspired by Norse mythology and stars co-producer Alexander Skarsgård, who poses as a slave on a ship to Iceland.
The dark, culty, and hallucinogenic themes of The Northman all point toward its auteur director Robert Eggers, who directs an all-star cast in what ended up being one of the best films of 2022.
6. Gladiator (2000)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen
Action, Adventure, Drama (2h 35m)
Gladiator is one of the most famous slavery movies, though you may or may not classify it that way. It started the 21st century off with a bang and shot up to become one of the most popular films ever made.
A revival of the historical epics loved by Classical Hollywood, Gladiator stars Russell Crowe as "the general who became a slave... the slave who became a gladiator." That line alone sends chills up our spines.
Set in a dusty, violent, and corrupt 180 AD, Gladiator centers on Maximus (Russell Crowe), who must avenge his family in the gladiatorial arena as Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) watches him with evil eyes and an eviler heart.
5. Lincoln (2012)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn
Biography, Drama, History (2h 30m)
Who better to play the earnest, patient, and forgiving old man of Honest Abe than Daniel Day-Lewis?
Despite being British, the esteemed actor perfectly embodies the US President in Lincoln, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation—the beginning of the demise of slavery in America.
Coupled with a world-class director like Steven Spielberg, Lincoln was almost guaranteed critical acclaim—and it certainly got it.
The biographical film covers the end of the American Civil War, which coincided with the end of Lincoln's life in 1865. To this day, it's one of the best movies about the American slave trade.
4. Ben-Hur (1959)
Directed by William Wyler
Starring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd
Adventure, Drama (3h 32m)
With Ben-Hur, we get a slave movie that also happens to be a classic historial epic from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
We're talking about the 1959 remake by William Wyler, not the 1925 silent film original and certainly not the unnecessary 2016 remake.
The story follows a similar arc to Gladiator: a nobleman-turned-slave (played by Charlton Heston) is out for revenge. But it's so much more than that. It's smart and emotional and epic in scale, with action scenes that still put modern blockbusters to shame.
As an adaptation of the 1880 novel titled Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, expect this film to be tinged with the usual religious hues found in studio movies of the time.
Ben-Hur is one of three movies to win the record for most Oscar wins (that's 11, as of this writing), making it one of the best historical movies about slavery worth watching. Just mind the runtime.
3. Django Unchained (2012)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio
Drama, Western (2h 45m)
Quentin Tarantino has built up a bit of a reputation for using racist language in his films, but he caught more flak than usual for his writing and direction in Django Unchained.
But you might argue it's all justified, especially in this one. After all, Jamie Foxx—the very star of this Revisionist Western film—said that Django Unchained is "supposed to make you angry [about racism]."
And it certainly succeeds at that!
Django (Jamie Foxx) is freed from slavery in exchange for helping a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) track down some plantation owners. The result is a stylish—and bloody—drama that's very much a slave film, but perhaps not the sort you're used to.
2. Spartacus (1960)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick and Anthony Mann
Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov
Adventure, Biography, Drama (3h 17m)
Spartacus is one of the greatest epic historical dramas in Hollywood history, the kind that could only be made by a true visionary with ambition. Of course, we're talking about Stanley Kubrick.
Kirk Douglas headlines as the "I am Spartacus!" leader of the slave revolt against the Roman Empire. And the best part? He's based on a real Thracian gladiator!
Spartacus met a bit of trouble at release because its screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and the original author Howard Fast were both blacklisted for their support of Communism.
Luckily for Universal Studios, Spartacus still broke records at the box office and won four Academy Awards!
1. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Michael Fassbender
Biography, Drama, History (2h 14m)
Director Steve McQueen isn't afraid of holding a long take—especially when it's to make us uncomfortable, as he does in 12 Years a Slave.
Adapted from the memoirs of Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave is a heart-wrenching biopic that'll have you fidgeting in your seat, itching to look away but knowing you shouldn't.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the born-free violinist who was captured and enslaved in 1841. The film also stars Michael Fassbender, Michael K. Williams, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Lupita Nyong'o, Brad Pitt, and Sarah Paulson, but you might not like all of them by the end...
12 Years a Slave is the quintessential slave film. It's the one to watch if you want an unapologetically brutal but deeply rewarding look at American slavery and the depths of racism therein.