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7 Films About Slavery

Screening Slavery

by LOUIS PROYECT

In a podcast discussion between veteran film critic Armond White and two younger film journalists focused on their differences over “12 Years a Slave” (White, an African-American with a contrarian bent hated it), White argued in favor of benchmarks. How could the two other discussants rave about Steve McQueen’s film without knowing what preceded it? That was all the motivation I needed to see the two films White deemed superior to McQueen’s—“Beloved” and “Amistad”—as well as other films about slavery that I had not seen before, or in the case of Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Queimada” and Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Bailiff” films I had not seen in many years. This survey is not meant as a definitive guide to all films about the “peculiar institution” but only ones that are most familiar. Even if I characterize a film as poorly made, I still recommend a look at all of them since as a body of work they shed light on the complex interaction of art and politics, a topic presumably of some interest to CounterPunch readers.

“Django Unchained”

Since I walked out of Tarantino’s film after twenty minutes at a press screening last year, I only decided to watch it in its entirety to complete this survey. As is the case with “12 Years a Slave”, which was voted best film of 2013 by my colleagues in New York Film Critics Online, Tarantino’s film was considered a Major Statement about slavery a year earlier.

As I sat through the first twenty minutes last year, I found myself growing increasingly uneasy with the frequency of the word “nigger”. Yes, I understood that the Old South was full of racists but I could not help but feel that it was just Tarantino up to his old tricks of using the word in a kind of “bad boy” gesture to ramp up his mostly young, white, and male audience especially when the word was used by white characters, including ones played by Tarantino himself. This year I could not help but be reminded of Miami Dolphins Richie Incognito’s bullying messages to teammate Jonathan Martin.

I say this as someone who has enjoyed Tarantino’s past work, with their trademark mash-up of pop culture and ultra-violence. This time around the jokes seemed stale and the violence gratuitous. For example, there’s a scene in which a posse of racists led by plantation owner Don Johnson advance on Django and his fellow bounty-hunter played by Christoph Waltz. The posse is wearing KKK-type hoods for reasons not exactly clear to me. Why would there be a need in a Slavocracy to conceal your identity when lynchings took place in broad daylight, often administered by the cops? Apparently the hoods were a comic prop for Jonah Hill, who in a cameo role complained about not being able to see properly through the eyeholes. This Mel Brooks type shtick went on for what seemed an eternity. If I had been one of Tarantino’s trusted advisers, I would have told him that it was bad enough to use such a lame joke and even worse to keep it going so long. But when you have generated millions of dollars for Harvey Weinstein, nobody is in such a position. What Tarantino wants, Tarantino gets.

Having sat through the entire film this go-round, I could devote thousands of words to what was wrong but will just offer just one brief observation. Samuel Jackson played a “house Negro”, who as Malcolm X used to put it “loved the master more than they loved themselves.” What Tarantino has done is transform this into “hating Black people more than he hates himself”. As Stephen, Leonard DiCaprio’s servant, Jackson demonstrates a sadistic pleasure in seeing “niggers” beaten and killed. Is there any evidence from the history of slave society that any Black servant ever descended into such a degraded and psychopathic state? Tarantino’s excuse, of course, is that he is not making history—only a movie. I could buy this if the movie was wittier and more quickly paced. At 165 minutes, it is sixty minutes too long. But as a Major Statement on slavery, it is not.

“12 Years a Slave”

Despite the perception that Steve McQueen was the first to make a film based on his “discovery” of a neglected memoir by the main character, there was an earlier version made by Gordon Parks for PBS American Playhouse in 1985 titled “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey” that can be seen on Amazon.com. Parks took greater liberties with Solomon Northup’s memoir than McQueen but essentially they tell the same story.

Parks is best known for “Shaft”, the 1971 “blaxploitation” classic. His version of Solomon Northup is somewhat evocative of the genre since his hero is heavily muscled and equal to any man, Black or white, in a fist fight. Adding his own concerns to the memoir, Parks depicts Northup as the object of resentment from other slaves for his literacy, vocabulary, and generally sounding like a white man. They want to drag him down to their level, something he resists.

McQueen takes similar liberties, transforming Harriet Shaw, the Black wife of a cruel plantation owner, into someone with snarling contempt for her own people in the absence of any such evidence in Northup’s memoir.

As is the case with “Django Unchained”, McQueen’s film is a vehicle for his preoccupations. With Tarantino, these primarily revolve around revenge, a theme common to so many of the Hong Kong gangster or samurai movies that he has absorbed. For McQueen, the chief interest is in depicting pain with some of the most dramatic scenes involving whippings and other forms of punishment.

I was expecting the worst after seeing McQueen’s “Hunger”, a film about the Provo IRA hunger strike led by Bobby Sands that was more about bedsores and beatings than politics. Thankfully, the latest film is a lot more restrained than I had expected but still mostly focused on the physical torments of being a slave. I found myself wondering if the casting of Sarah Paulson as the sadistic wife of a sadistic plantation owner was deliberate since she is part of the company of actors featured on “American Horror Story”, the AMC cable TV show that pushes the envelope in terms of graphic scenes of torture, dismemberment, etc. This season Paulson is playing a witch, as part of a series on Black witches taking revenge on their white witch enemies who had tormented them during slavery. I half expected Paulson’s character to stick a pin in a Solomon Northup voodoo doll.

While one cannot gainsay the importance of Solomon Northup’s memoir that was used by the abolitionist movement in the same way that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was, I have to wonder whether McQueen’s film was hampered by a story that was essentially one-dimensional. If you take the opportunity to read “12 Years a Slave” , you will be struck by the underdeveloped relationships between Northup and other characters. Both Parks and McQueen take liberties with the memoir to flesh out the film with such relationships but there is still something missing. In the memoir and in the films, there is never any sense of the emotional pain of being separated from your family—something that cuts far deeper than a whip. Northup comes across as someone completely outraged by the injustice of being kidnapped and sold into slavery and little else. Who can blame him? But much more is needed to create the kind of drama found in “Sansho the Bailiff” that is discussed later.

“Beloved”

Just 8 minutes short of three hours, this Jonathan Demme film based on a Toni Morrison novel is as overextended and self-indulgent as “Django Unchained” but much worse. It was produced by Oprah Winfrey and features her in the role of Sethe, a former slave living in the outskirts of Cincinnati. In the opening scene, household utensils are hurled about by poltergeists in a manner now familiar from films like…like “Poltergeist” actually.

Not long afterwards Paul D. (Danny Glover) shows up to save the day. As a former slave from the same plantation as Sethe, he is looking for work and to rekindle a relationship with her. It helps that he is able to quell the poltergeists, the answer to a haunted woman’s dreams.

But that’s not the end of Sethe’s woes. About an hour into the film, Sethe and Paul D. return home to discover a young woman has materialized on their front lawn out of nowhere. Essentially she takes over from the poltergeists creating a strange bond with Sethe based on a kind of craving for attention so extreme that Sethe’s teenaged daughter Denver is tempted to run away, just as her two younger brothers did after the poltergeist intervention of the opening scene.

Eventually we discover that Beloved, the name of the mysterious young woman, is a supernatural presence spawned by a tragic event that took place on the plantation Sethe fled. Although the screenwriter and the director did not intend it as such, I found Beloved so weird that it was hard for me to get deeper into the troubled relationship between Sethe and her new quasi-adopted daughter.

Perhaps that’s a function of a misbegotten adaptation of Morrison’s novel but just as likely it is my reaction to a heavy dose of magical realism that suffuses the novel and the film. As anybody who has read my critique of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” understands, magical realism makes me break out in hives even when it is the work of Nobelists like Toni Morrison or Gabriel García Márquez.

The overripe aesthetics, however, cannot compensate for what is essentially the same fare as “12 Years a Slave”, namely a horror show about beatings, degradation, and racism. Unlike “Django Unchained” and “12 Years a Slave”, “Beloved” was not hailed as a great film when it came out. Some critics viewed it as a sign of Jonathan Demme’s decline; others saw it as the result of Oprah Winfrey’s vanity. With such an enormous emotional and financial commitment to the film, Winfrey underwent a major bout of depression when it bombed at the box office and in the press. People like Jeff St. Clair, whose film savvy I hold in high regard, are fans of “Beloved”. That’s reason enough to give it a shot on Amazon.com. I can’t imagine myself watching it again, however.

“Amistad”

If you are looking for evidence that Stephen Spielberg is one of the few genuine auteurs on the scene today (a term coined by François Truffaut to describe how certain directors shape their films according to a unique creative vision), there’s no better place to look than this 1997 film based on an historical event, the slave revolt of 1839 that led to a historic trial with a happy ending.

The slaves function pretty much as ET did, strange creatures only wishing to go home while John Quincy Adams, the ex-president who argued their case before the Supreme Court, is a kind of prequel to Abraham Lincoln—an enlightened white politician who frees the slaves. What’s missing, however, is the viewpoint of the slaves. Unlike ET, they are capable of seeing the world just like us. But David Franzoni’s script treats them as exotic objects, all the more unknowable through their use of a native language that frequently goes un-subtitled. This is all the more egregious in the opening scene of the film when they commandeer the ship, murdering the entire crew except for the captain and his mate who are ordered to sail them back to Africa. In this scene, not a single word comes out of the slaves’ mouths except at the maximum volume and accompanied by grimacing of the sort seen on the faces of arch-villains in the silent movies of the 1920s. One imagines Spielberg directing his Black actors, “Louder…and arch your eyebrows higher”. I suspect that Paul Greenglass, the director of “Captain Phillips”, must have studied the film carefully in order to develop an approach to his Somali pirate characters.

“Amistad” is basically courtroom drama with Matthew McConaughey as the defense attorney (upon appeal, John Quincy Adams played by Anthony Hopkins takes over.) He argues on strictly legalistic grounds that the slaves were taken from Sierra Leone, a colony of Great Britain that had declared slavery illegal. It has all the dramatic intensity of the debate in the House of Representatives that occupied the final hour of “Lincoln”. If that is your cup of tea, the film is worth watching.

“Sansho the Bailiff”

Despite the fact that this film took place under feudalism, the major characters were slaves rather than peasants paying tribute of the sort dramatized in “The Seven Samurai” and other classics. Furthermore, even if they were Japanese, they had much in common with Solomon Northup insofar as they were free people kidnapped and sold into slavery.

The film was made by Kenji Mizoguchi in 1954 and is regarded as one of the greatest ever made in Japan. I would include it in my list of the ten greatest ever made.

After a feudal governor is banished to a far-off province because of his too generous treatment of the serfs, his wife Tamaki, his young son Zushio, and Zushio’s younger sister Anju proceed on foot to the distant home of a family relative. On their way, they are delivered by a supposedly well-meaning older woman into the arms of slavers who sell the two children to Sansho the Bailiff and the mother to a remote brothel on an island. They were victims just as was Solomon Northup who went to Washington, DC to play his fiddle for good wages at a circus but ended up on the auction block.

Unlike “12 Years a Slave”, the relationships between brother and sister are extremely well-developed. That, of course, is the license afforded by fiction. You are not bounded by the need to be accurate. Imagination rules. There’s a scene that mirrors the one in McQueen’s film in which Northup is forced to whip Patsey for a trivial offense. In “Sansho the Bailiff”, Zushio is ordered to brand the forehead of a seventy-year old slave who tried to run away. Unlike Northup, he has become so hardened by the punishment meted out to him by Sansho’s thugs that he follows this order unflinchingly. Afterwards Anju cries out to him that he has forsaken the values that their father taught them: “Without mercy, man is not a human being.”

Throughout their ordeal, brother and sister never forget their mother. They (and we) pine for their reunion. Eventually Zushio escapes Sansho’s compound, and makes his way to a feudal lord who felt remorse over his father’s treatment, so much so that he promotes him governor over Sansho as repentance. Zushio’s first act is to free all the slaves, even if this means violating feudal laws and resigning from his post.

Apart from the human drama, Mizoguchi was a great visual poet who made the Japanese countryside his greatest protagonist alongside the enslaved children and their long-lost mother. Although I am not that impressed with Anthony Lane’s film reviews in the New Yorker magazine, I am happy to repeat his words about “Sansho the Bailiff” as reported in Wikipedia: “I have seen Sansho only once, a decade ago, emerging from the cinema a broken man but calm in my conviction that I had never seen anything better; I have not dared watch it again, reluctant to ruin the spell, but also because the human heart was not designed to weather such an ordeal.”

“Queimada”

That’s the title of the 1969 Italian film directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, best known for “Battle of Algiers”, that can now be seen for free on Youtube. The English version is titled “Burn!” and though unfortunately missing about 20 minutes from the uncut version still fairly serviceable.

There is probably no other film that conveys the complexity of the colonial revolution than “Queimada”, which means burned in Italian. This is the name of a fictional Caribbean island that bears a striking resemblance to Cuba and Haiti even if it is ruled by Portuguese rather than the Spanish or French. It got its name from the peasant revolts that frequently led to sugar crops being burned.

Sir William Walker, played by Marlin Brando as if he was reprising his Fletcher Christian role, is a functionary of a British sugar company sent to Queimada to manipulate the slaves into overthrowing their masters. Unlike his American Filibuster namesake who went to Nicaragua to reinstate slavery, the British mercenary saw the benefits of abolishing slavery just as Great Britain did long before Lincoln. In a meeting with Portuguese plantation owners, Walker makes the case for free labor in distinctly non-abolitionist terms:

Gentlemen, let me ask you a question. Now, my metaphor may seem a trifle impertinent, but I think it’s very much to the point. Which do you prefer – or should I say, which do you find more convenient – a wife, or one of these mulatto girls? No, no, please don’t misunderstand: I am talking strictly in terms of economics. What is the cost of the product? What is the product yield? The product, in this case, being love – uh, purely physical love, since sentiments obviously play no part in economics.

Quite. Now, a wife must be provided with a home, with food, with dresses, with medical attention, etc, etc. You’re obliged to keep her a whole lifetime even when she’s grown old and perhaps a trifle unproductive. And then, of course, if you have the bad luck to survive her, you have to pay for the funeral!

It’s true, isn’t it? Gentlemen, I know it’s amusing, but those are the facts, aren’t they? Now with a prostitute, on the other hand, it’s quite a different matter, isn’t it? You see, there’s no need to lodge her or feed her, certainly no need to dress her or to bury her, thank God. She’s yours only when you need her, you pay her only for that service, and you pay her by the hour! Which, gentlemen, is more important – and more convenient: a slave or a paid worker?

This is mostly a film about the villainous but charismatic Sir William Walker but there is also a lot more of the viewpoint and agency of the slaves than in “Amistad”. That is to be expected when the screenwriter is somebody like Franco Solinas, who was a partisan during WWII and a long-time member of the CP. But one certainly would have not suspected that Solinas also wrote Spaghetti Westerns of the sort that inspired “Django Unchained”. In an eye-opening profile of “un-American Westerns” by J. Hoberman in the New York Review of Books, we learn that these were Spaghetti Westerns with a difference:

Déclassé, outlandish, and brutal, The Big Gundown has the standard Spaghetti Western virtues; its originality lay in making its true protagonist the fugitive. The irrepressible Cuchillo (played by Tomas Milian) turns out to be a disillusioned supporter of Benito Juarez with a class analysis (he is in fact an innocent witness to the crime). Van Cleef’s character realizes that he is the tool of ruthless plutocrats and capitalist running dogs. Thus, Solinas would use the Western as an arena in which to play out the struggle dramatized in The Battle of Algiers. “Political films are useful on the one hand if they contain a correct analysis of reality and on the other if they are made in such a way to have that analysis reach the largest possible audience,” he told an interviewer in 1967.

Too bad this angle was missing in “Django Unchained”. It would have made for a better film as well as better politically.

“Quilombo”

This amounts to saving the best for last. Like “Burn!”, this subtitled 1984 Brazilian film can be watched for free on Youtube. Quilombo is the word for escaped slave settlement. After seeing this joyous celebration of African freedom, I feel like presenting a petition to the Hollywood studios that they make movies about slave revolts or liberation struggles next year rather than another Major Statement about how terrible slavery was.
Based on historical events, the escape of slaves to the mountains of Palmares in 17th century Brazil, the film is a celebration of Afro-Brazilian culture with children using the capoeira against their would-be Portuguese captors. This high-kicking form of martial arts was disguised as a dance in order to prevent its practitioners being punished for developing combat skills.

The escaped slaves reconstitute themselves as African communities in the highlands and freely choose kings to lead them in struggle against a much better armed foe. The finale of the film depicts a battle in the Palmares that is as exciting as anything I have seen in a Japanese or American costume drama like “Braveheart” or “Seven Samurai”.

And throughout, there is the film score by Gilberto Gil that contains some of the greatest music he ever composed, including the song “Quilombo.”

Your first reaction to “Quilombo” is to question whether such a scenario could apply to the United States since we never saw a Palmares, or did we? While the immediate post-Civil War period under Reconstruction was not an attempt to recreate African life in the wilderness, the net effect was even more emancipating—to use the right word.

Hollywood has never made a single film about Black Power in the Deep South until 1873 when the Democrats and Republicans cut a deal to put the racists back into power in Dixie. Well, I take that back. There were a couple, now that I remember, one called “Gone with the Wind” and the other “Birth of a Nation”. Isn’t it about time that we had a movie with sympathetic major characters that are Black legislators in Mississippi or Alabama to atone for the racist crap of the past? Someone get Oprah Winfrey on the phone and line up a couple of million dollars or so. That’s all we need to make a great movie, since the reality it is based on is so inspiring.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.