Will Hollywood ever get slavery right?
The release of Steven Spielberg's film "Amistad" will provide audiences with the first significant opportunity in several years to answer the question of whether the film industry, long a purveyor of myths and misconceptions regarding the slave experience, is capable of making any progress in portraying the lives of 19th-century blacks with accuracy and complexity.
And, like the films about slavery that preceded it, "Amistad" will help Americans explore contemporary anxieties and desires about race.
In bringing slavery to the screen, Spielberg has a long, and largely ignominious, legacy to overcome.
Starting with Edwin S. Porter's adaptation of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in 1903 and coming to a virulent head 12 years later with the release of D. W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation," films made during the industry's infancy reflected the stereotypes abroad in the culture and scholarship of the time.
Slaves were portrayed (by white actors in blackface) as a generally happy, clowning lot who were fiercely loyal to their white masters and mistresses. After Reconstruction took hold, as "The Birth of a Nation" told us, they became rapacious savages given to drink and defiling white women.
As the sociologist Charles Woods noted in Gary Null's book "Black Hollywood," "All your stereotyped characters were present in 'The Birth of a Nation.' D. W. Griffith gave us the black buck, the mammy, the coon -- all the images were there." Those images would persist for generations to come.
"The Birth of a Nation," which was widely protested by black groups, including the newly formed NAACP, wasn't just the bilious expression of the prejudices of one writer or director: It directly fed white Americans' anxieties about integration, immigrants and a nascent women's movement that favored suffrage and reproductive freedom. The infamous scene of a white woman jumping to her death rather than submit to the lust of the emancipated slave Gus, played by the white actor Walter Long, could have been just as cautionary for "uppity" women as "uppity" blacks.
Just as the musicals and melodramas of the early 1900s perpetuated useful fictions for turning back a rapidly changing social order, the films of the 1930s reflected the needs of an audience trying to escape the depredations of drought, Depression and poverty.
"Jezebel," the Bette Davis melodrama set in 19th-century New Orleans, and "Gone With the Wind," released in 1939, may not have been as openly hostile as Griffith's ahistorical epic, but they also allowed filmgoers to escape into a comforting world of wealth, romance and black servants who were fiercely loyal and often "charmingly" simple. (The dual archetype was indelibly captured in "Gone With the Wind": Mammy sticks by Scarlett, and Prissy "don't know nuthin' 'bout birthin' babies.")
Another side of the coin was "The Littlest Rebel," starring Shirley Temple as a tiny Southern belle and Bill ("Bojangles") Robinson as her happy-go-lucky servant. Robinson not only doesn't support "the man up North who wants to free the slaves" but tap dances to help her raise money for the Confederacy. (A little-known film released in 1935 called "So Red the Rose" went so far as to suggest a slave uprising, but a black leader encouraging his brethren to revolt was swiftly squelched by the gentle, patronizing tones of his mistress, played by Margaret Sullavan.)
With the advent of World War II, any representation -- and implicit endorsement -- of slavery was seen as morally hypocritical in a country that was fighting a racist regime, and less than helpful to the government's campaign to get blacks to enlist. Black leaders were also pressuring Hollywood studios to liberalize their images of blacks. Thus slavery went relatively untouched after the war until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the civil rights movement and Black Power made it clear that Prissy and Mammy would no longer do.
(One exception was "Band of Angels," the 1957 adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's novel, wherein a rebellious slave played by Sidney Poitier repents at the last moment and forgives his former owner, played by Clark Gable. Another revolution deferred.)
The two best-known slave films from the 1970s, "Mandingo" and its sequel, "Drum," exploited the need to revise the white version of history. Finally, black audiences could experience the catharsis of seeing a slave rise up against the white power structure. But even these films exploited confrontation between the races and seemed simply to trade one stereotype for another. In the place of the childlike fool, we had the noble savage who threatened to sexually conquer the white master's women.
The themes -- that slaves were either passive clowns to be infantilized or insurrectionists to be feared for their physical and sexual power -- didn't seem to have moved much since "The Birth of a Nation." Regardless of which stereotype was operating, the message seemed clear: Blacks could be patronized, ignored or feared, but must never be empowered.
As the film historian William Van Deburg pointed out, "The slavery film is one of Hollywood's most reliable vehicles for the mass sedation of race-based anxiety."
Hollywood has largely ignored the subject of slavery in recent years ("Jefferson in Paris" and "The Journey of August King" being two quiet exceptions). That might be because of their lousy track record, but it also has to do with the 1977 television series, "Roots." Based on Alex Haley's account of his family from its beginnings in Africa through slavery to the present-day, the show held viewership records for years.
From that point on, antebellum America seemed to be the purview of prime time, in part because TV, especially cable channels, have been more willing to tackle controversial issues, and in part because they can stage period dramas more cheaply.
If it hadn't been for Spielberg, observes historian Thomas Cripps, "Who's going to do 'Amistad?' HBO." (In fact, HBO Pictures co-produced "Amistad" with DreamWorks Pictures.)
Probably only Spielberg had the power to bully "Amistad" to the big screen, without big stars (an unknown actor from Benin, Djimon Hounsou, plays the African leader Cinque) and for the relatively modest budget of $39 million.
Until she met with Spielberg, the film's producer, Debbie Allen, knocked on studio doors for a decade pitching the "Amistad" story. After optioning William Owens' historical account, "Black Mutiny," in 1984, Allen thought the rest would be easy. "I was Debbie Allen, honey, on 'Fame!' " she said.
Instead, she met with a resistance almost as strong as that of Cinque himself.
"They wouldn't even try to disguise it," she said. "They'd just tell you, 'This is not really an important story, nobody's interested in some revolt on a slave ship.' "
Even given white filmmakers' spotty history in bringing the slave experience to the screen, Allen said she felt no trepidation in turning the Amistad story over to Spielberg.
"I felt ['Schindler's List']," she said of Spielberg's Oscar-winning account of the Jewish Holocaust. "That was my movie, too. That was about my people, too. This story doesn't belong to any [one person]. It belongs to the world, to the ancestors." (For his part, Spielberg has said that he made "Amistad" for his two adopted black children, "because it's a story they should know about, and my other children should know about it, too.")
Indeed, if ever there was a story having to do with slavery that could be embraced by black, white and all other Americans, "Amistad" is it.
In 1839, a Spanish slave ship called La Amistad was hauling 53 kidnapped Africans from Havana to another Cuban port. After managing to free himself, a man named Sengbe Pieh, a member of the Mende tribe whom the Spaniards called "Cinque," led an uprising that left all but two of the ship's crew, and a young cabin boy, dead. The Africans directed the two men to take them back home, but the seamen instead steered La Amistad up the American coast. The ship was found off the Connecticut coast, and the Africans were imprisoned in New Haven.
What ensued was an international incident with Spain, President Martin Van Buren succumbing to Southern pressures to try the men for murder and former president John Quincy Adams ultimately arguing their case before the Supreme Court.
Although the Africans were defended by two white abolitionists in real life, Spielberg has taken the liberty of creating a composite character, a black abolitionist played by Morgan Freeman. He also portrayed one of the lawyers, real estate attorney Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), as interested in the case merely as a property issue, when in actuality Baldwin had become an abolitionist by the time the Amistad case came to pass.
Even though the lower court found in the Africans' favor, Van Buren, under political pressure in an election season, appealed; they finally won their liberty after an impassioned, two-day speech by Adams, which has also been fictionalized in the film.
Even with these historical inconsistencies, Spielberg has gone further than most filmmakers in presenting the abducted Africans of the Amistad as multidimensional characters, as well as acknowledging this country's often contradictory attitude toward race.
For one thing, "Amistad" doesn't take slavery as its narrative given. Instead, the men, women and children of the Amistad are shown to have histories that started long before they were abducted into slavery. On that count, too, "Amistad" brings to light an often obscured factor in slavery's paradoxical legacy: The film doesn't blink while showing African slave traders selling their own neighbors and countrymen (although the end credits, while noting that Cinque returned to find his country mired in civil war, did not mention that he himself has been said by some historians to have become a slave trader).
In another first, "Amistad" spends time on the middle passage, the torturous boat journey in which an estimated two million Africans, on their way to being sold as slaves in Europe, South America, the Caribbean and the United States, were killed.
In what might be Spielberg's most noticeable departure from Hollywood's past, he also depicts a black uprising, without it being quelled by a paternalistic master or mistress, and without succumbing to stereotypes that play into white fears of black power.
From the first moment, the audience sympathizes with Cinque's efforts to get free of his chains. For the rest of the film, we relate to the valiant efforts of the black Africans and their American defenders to communicate and overcome oppressive forces together.
Like "The Birth of a Nation," "Gone With the Wind" and "Mandingo," "Amistad" herein reflects as much about contemporary society as it does about history. "It's equal participation" of the races, says Mark A. Reid, who teaches film and African-American literature at the University of Florida at Gainesville. "It's a lot of different voices, which reflects how we're living today."
In Hollywood's usual formulation, Reid adds, "The characters are black, they're fairly dangerous, and they're formulated in a way that only a white person, who happens to be a male, can be [their] savior. That's how Hollywood usually casts this particular type of story."
The relatively happy ending of the Amistad tale and Spielberg's innate idealistic humanism couldn't be a better match, according to Cripps, a former University Distinguished Professor of History at Morgan State University and the author of "Hollywood's High Noon: Moviemaking & Society Before Television." Cripps points out that most of the themes and elements of "Amistad" coincide with attitudes about race that are currently reflected in polls, which indicate that whites have liberal attitudes about blacks even as they move farther into segregated suburbs.
"We're living in a fiscally conservative time: 'I've got mine, now I'm going to keep it,' " he explains. "Whereas racial politics remains at sort of left-center: 'I can say I'm racially liberal because I live so far out it doesn't matter.'
"I think Steven Spielberg's internalized sentimental politics and the sentimental politics of Americans who respond to polls is as one," Cripps says, "and therefore there's no risk here."
The Amistad story, Cripps adds, "is so perfect as a vehicle. It has the foreign heavies, it has the virtuous New Englanders, and by elision and exclusion it leaves the white South out of it. What better formula? If I were to make it perfect, I'd have a black American on board the ship."
Still, for all its sentiment and no-lose politics, there's no denying that Spielberg has contributed a film to the slavery "canon" of which Hollywood can finally be proud. More important, his brand identity has ensured that this movie will be seen by blacks and whites, with luck together. And with luck, it will get us talking long after the lights have come up.
Spielberg is our best epic poet of the innocence we've lost and so desperately want back. Now our consummate mythmaker has given us a chapter of our shared history that we can own together proudly. "Amistad" may occasionally sacrifice historical precision for that loftier agenda, but it has captured and reflected back what we so badly need to believe is possible.
Pub Date: 11/30/97