Publication Date

September 1, 2001

Natalie Zemon Davis is a distinguished professor of history with an interest in film, as demonstrated in her most famous book, The Return of Martin Guerre (1983). Slaves on Screen follows the program of its title in discussing the depiction of slaves in a small corpus of films from 1960 to 1999: from slaves in ancient Rome in Spartacus, to a variety of rebellions by slaves of African origins in Haiti (Burn!), Cuba (The Last Supper), and the United States (Amistad), as well as the question of slave history and memory in Beloved, Jonathan Demme’s film based on Toni Morrison’s novel. Undoubtedly the subject of Davis’s book, the largest part of which is devoted to the traumas and legacies of the barbarous “Middle Passage” on today’s African Americans, is topical and important. The book ends with a discussion of Amistad and Beloved, two films produced by three of the most influential people in today’s American cultural scene: Steven Spielberg (director of Amistad), Toni Morrison and Oprah Winfrey (one of the originators and star of the film version of Beloved). For this reason perhaps, but also because the earlier films are no longer widely seen, the reader’s interest increases as the book progresses.

Davis's prose is consistently clear and free of jargon and she conveys her historian's erudition in an uncluttered and direct manner. This is a short, economical book (too short even; one might argue for a wider range of films and certainly for a filmography, a bibliography, and an index). Slaves on Screen speaks vividly, and at times emotionally, to all those with an interest in slavery and especially in the relationship between African Americans and their past. Whether it speaks as eloquently to those interested in film is a different matter. Slaves on Screen falls within two related fields in film studies. The main one is that of film and history, the other—especially in the case of Beloved—that of literary adaptation. In both cases, and especially when writers in these fields come not from film studies, but from history or literature, film often ends up as the subsidiary term to a higher instance, be it historical “truth” or literature. “Film and history” is a large field in which the work of Siegfried Kracauer, Dudley Andrew, Richard Allen and Douglas Gomery, Marc Ferro, Michèle Lagny and Pierre Sorlin (to name the most prominent) has shown, through the decades since Kracauer’s 1947 groundbreaking study From Caligari to Hitler, the multifarious understandings of the relationships between film and history, taking aesthetic, economic, sociological, ideological, or cultural approaches. As Marc Ferro put it, “every film has value as a document, whatever its seeming nature” (Cinema and History, 1988). One can see how the genre of “historical film” would be of particular interest to a historian, but as the work of Ferro and more recently Lagny (De l'histoire du cinéma, 1992) show, the historian needs to be alert to the textual and contextual specificities of film, whether fiction, documentary, home movie, or whatever, and in particular to other films produced at the same time as the object of study. More recently still, an excellent study by Sylvie Lindeperg on the representation of World War II, the German occupation, and the Resistance in French films (the 1997 publication, Les écrans de l'ombre, La Seconde Guerre mondiale dans le cinéma français, 1944–1969) demonstrates how the basic historical events of the period were instantly mythologized and restaged differently in all sorts of texts and in waves of films to suit diverse ideological contexts over the decades, on an analogy with Georges Duby’s analysis of the representation of the 1214 battle of Bouvines in an array of written texts. The representation of slavery, from the racist early 1960s at the time of Spartacus (and of course from the earliest days of the cinema), to the more enlightened, and more politically correct 1990s, would, if such an approach were used, no doubt reveal an interesting and complex trajectory.

Davis's method in contrast consists in comparing each film in turn with the "real" events and, unsurprisingly, the film's shortcomings are exposed: simplifications, omissions, inventions, in short, betrayals. If I put "real" in inverted commas here, it is not because I don't believe in reality—and indeed Davis expertly marshals the empirical evidence for the events depicted in the films—but because the sources of such data (including literature) are assumed in this book to be self-evidently correct and transparently readable, rather than texts that are constructed and subject to a host of constraints, biases and manipulations, just like films in fact.

When it comes to the comparison between book and film, a similar hierarchy is at work: "In the movement from the miraculous prose of Toni Morrison to the screen, the story of Beloved has lost some of its breadth, complexity, and imaginative range.” (p. 108). Although in this instance, Davis goes on to say that the book’s “central messages have been sustained,” her position is within the classic paradigm of “fidelity” that has plagued studies of literary adaptations (see Brian McFarlane, From Novel to Film: An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation, 1996). It is not that Davis is not interested in films. There is valuable information on the production context and, as I said, she does praise the films at various points. But production context here means the decisions made by the people involved (drawn mainly from interviews) and not the wider context of generic trends and industrial strategies—for instance the production of particular genres in relation to technology (such as wide screen in Spartacus), stardom (for example, Brando in Burn!), and so on. Davis’s analysis also remains on the level of explicit content and narrative (each chapter contains lengthy plot commentaries) rather than symbolism and, crucially, cinematography and mise-en-scène. There is little detailed textual analysis and, more surprising, no interest in the reception of the film, whether by critics or audiences. There is an assumption throughout that the historian-analyst can, by measuring the film against the standard of “truth”, account for a unique and final meaning of the film—no reading against the grain here, no polysemy, no ambiguity; whereas, to take an example in a related topic, Jacqueline Bobo’s work (Black Women as Cultural Readers, 1995) on the reception of Spielberg’s The Color Purple by black women spectators showed precisely such complexity, turning on their head the standard readings of the film at the time. Davis, on the other hand, assumes that the audience (of Amistad) needs guidance and “should be let in on the game and not be given the false impression of a ‘true story'” (p. 131).

There is thus an oddly didactic slant to Davis's approach and she does not hesitate either to apportion blame and guidance to filmmakers on how to produce more accurate films. For instance, in reference again to Amistad, Davis declares, “There could have been other solutions ‘here the camera would offer'” (p. 92). Maybe this is interesting speculation to Davis, but what use is it to the viewer of the existing film? Davis concludes her book with the stern advice that “Historical films should let the past be the past.” Agreed, but then historians should also let films be films.

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