Publication Date

September 1, 2001

Slavery has often provided filmmakers with rich symbolism and drama. In The Phantom Menace, for instance, George Lucas originates the Star Wars epic in the slave quarters of Mos Espa on the planet of Tatooine, where young Anakin Skywalker (later to become Darth Vader) lives with his mother. But you don’t need to travel to a galaxy far, far away to encounter slaves on screen, as Natalie Zemon Davis’s fine new book demonstrates.

In Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision, Davis examines five movies having to do with slavery and, in particular, slave resistance: Spartacus (1960), Burn! (1969), The Last Supper (1976), Amistad (1997), and Beloved (1998). Davis admires these movies’ historical consciousness, but criticizes them for needless departures from the historical record. None of these movies is a perfectly accurate depiction of historical events, but all have a verisimilitude, an appearance of truth, that distinguishes them from more purely romantic fantasies like Gladiator. Even Beloved, a movie that frequently reminds the audience of its fantastical qualities, derives much of its emotional force from the knowledge that something like it actually happened. It is this verisimilitude that warrants historians’ scrutiny. At their best, as in The Last Supper, movies can offer a richly imagined depiction of the complex social relations that gave rise to slave resistance and rebellion. But under the guise of historical authenticity, as in Amistad, movies can end up reinforcing stereotypical and simplistic understandings of the history of slavery.

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's The Last Supper stands out as a model of the collaboration between scholarship and art. The Last Supper vividly depicts the clash of religious traditions—Christian and African—that gave spiritual meaning to the conflict between slave owners and slaves. With the assistance of Manuel Moreno Fraginals, an eminent historian of Cuban slavery, Gutiérrez Alea depicted the true and fascinating story of the Count de Casa Bayona, a devout sugar planter who recruits 12 of his slaves to participate in a re-creation of the Last Supper in honor of Holy Week, only to have the slaves lead a revolt against him, killing his overseer and burning down the sugar mill. Feeling betrayed, the irate count hunts down 11 of the rebels, has them executed and their heads mounted on stakes. Only Sebastián, the leader of the revolt, escapes. The movie’s departures from the historical record are minor and plausible, filling in the gaps in that record with vivid characterizations. Davis draws attention to Gutiérrez Alea’s nuanced portrayals of the various enslaved men around the Count’s supper table. Each man has a unique background and a different story to tell, illustrating the diversity within Afro-American slave communities.

Amistad, on the other hand, distorts the history of slavery in intentional and unintentional ways. Amistad‘s images of the Middle Passage are powerful and its portrayals of Cinque and the other captive Africans are nuanced. But the movie takes gratuitous liberties with the historical record. It invents one important character (Theodore Joadson), substantially alters another (Roger Baldwin), and distorts the contributions of a third (Lewis Tappan). It caricatures almost all the leading politicians who enter the story, especially John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren, whose careers with respect to slavery were vastly more complicated than Amistad indicates. Finally, the movie exaggerates the significance of the Supreme Court’s action in the Amistad case, which was decided on rather narrow, technical grounds and did not free any person legally held as a slave in the United States. Just as Schindler's List plucked an exceptional story of goodness out of the brutal history of the Holocaust, Amistad depicts one of the rare antislavery victories in the dismal history of slavery in antebellum America. Spielberg would have had to make a rather different movie about Nat Turner’s insurrection or the slave revolt on board the Creole, an American vessel carrying American-born slaves from one port in the United States to another (see Eric Foner, “Hollywood Invades the Classroom,” theNew York Times, December 20, 1997).

For historians, the most interesting aspect of the book may be the way that the historiography of slavery has been consciously and unconsciously incorporated in film. The modern debate among historians over slavery began in the late 1950s with the publication of Stanley Elkins's Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), which argued that both the plantation and the concentration camp reduced their victims to psychological dependence. Much of the historical scholarship that followed Elkins tried to show that enslaved people resisted slavery in myriad ways, and in resisting, carved out a space for themselves that enabled them to survive and endure its brutalizing pressures. This opposition between victimization and resistance has been important to the modern study of slavery and is central to all the movies Davis analyzes. But, as more than one generation of historians has demonstrated, stories of slave resistance and rebellion do not represent the sum total of the history of slavery. The daily round of work, family, and religion has yet to find its way into film. Not as dramatic or overtly heroic, the quotidian aspects of slave life remain the province of historians and the people who read their books.

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