In 1997, following the great critical and commercial success of Schindler’s List (1993), Steven Spielberg released Amistad, a film dealing with a historical episode in 1839 in which a case dealing with the legal position of blacks enslaved by the Spanish reached the US Supreme Court, which freed the men and women concerned. For a range of reasons that will be discussed later, Spielberg’s film about the treatment of slaves was considerably less successful than his film about the Holocaust. But that he attempted to deal with the issue of black slavery at all was unusual in American cinema. For a variety of reasons connected with guilt, embarrassment, ignorance, apathy, and an accurate assessment of what most moviegoers would actually pay to see, white American filmmakers—that is to say the great majority of filmmakers in the United States—have traditionally fought shy of representing slavery on film in any meaningful sense.
During the first two decades of American film, there were a small number of early films that attempted to convey the brutality of slavery. The Slave Hunt, a Vitagraph production from 1907, showed a planter cruelly beating a slave woman with a whip. A young man, presumably her son, rescued her by killing the planter. He fled, pursued by bloodhounds, but was eventually caught and killed. According to the Variety critic, the film was “not at all refined or agreeable and leaves a bad taste.” The following year, The Slave’s Vengeance had a slave whipped at the stake on the orders of his master. In revenge, he kidnapped his owner’s young daughter and ran away. When he was caught, the little girl pleaded for his life. A reviewer praised this “pathetic finish” to what had otherwise been “a stirring if not happily chosen subject.”1
On the whole, however, filmmakers were far more likely to portrait slaves who conformed to traditional stereotypes derived from literature and/or the theater. One of the first of these was the noble, loyal, ultimately victimized “Uncle Tom” figure based on the novel first published by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852. Not only did this book enjoy extremely long-lived popularity as a literary work—as late as 1899, it was still the book most borrowed from the New York Public Library2—but it had also been turned into a play that, by the end of the nineteenth century, was being performed across America by nearly 500 specialist bands of “Tommer” companies. One 1902 reviewer estimated that, in that year alone, the play would be seen by one in every 35 Americans.3 Given the importance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in American popular culture, it is hardly surprising that it was quickly transferred to the screen. In 1903, Edwin S. Porter released a 14-shot film of Uncle Tom’s Cabin4 and this was followed by six further versions before the First World War. “Uncle Tom” in these films was usually played by a white man wearing minstrel make-up: the first black Uncle Tom was Sam Lucas in 1914.5
Before the First World War, other slave stereotypes—again borrowed from literature and the theater—had found their way into American films. Donald Bogle has typified these together as the faithful “tom,” the happy-go-lucky “coon,” the light-skinned tragic mulatto, and the loyal “mammy.”6 All fitted with the notion that slavery itself was a benign system of labor. In 1915, in The Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffith took this argument a stage further. The main sequence involving slavery itself occurs when Phil, the eldest son of the Northern Stoneman family, and Ben Cameron, the eldest Cameron son, together with his sisters Margaret and Flora, set off to visit the slave quarters. Black workers are shown picking cotton in the background and respectfully doffing their caps to the Camerons and their guests. This pastoral idyll is followed by a shot of the space in front of the slaves’ cabins. An intertitle emphasizes that the slaves are well-treated, speaking of “the two-hour interval given for dinner, out of their working day from six till six.” The (male) slaves are so little tired by their work in the fields, indeed, that they put on an impromptu dance show to entertain the Camerons and their Northern visitors. Finally, as the group of whites begin to leave, two old slaves approach Ben Cameron: he shakes hands with one and rests his other hand on the second man’s shoulder. Obviously, slaves are well-treated by white “massa” and his son, and respond with affection to such benign care. Once slavery has been abolished, however, these amicable relationships endure only between the whites and some blacks (the “faithful souls”). Another black stereotype emerges onto the screen: the once-contented slave (represented by Gus) whom freedom and the doctrine of social equality have transformed into an aggressive pursuer of white women. With the emergence of what Donald Bogle calls the “black buck,” the full range of African American stereotypes had now finally appeared on screen.7
In the first four decades of the twentieth century, there were very few attempts by Hollywood to suggest that slavery itself was not a benign and benevolent institution.8 This fitted well with the dominant school of historical writing associated in particular with Georgia-born and educated Ulrich B. Phillips9 and the popular kind of Southern literature represented by the “plantation school” of novelists, especially Thomas Nelson Page.10 These writers created a nostalgic picture of the “Old South” of slavery and great plantations. Gracious and cultivated, the white society of the antebellum South had been served (willingly) by black slaves who, as Bruce Chadwick notes, “were typically shown as helpful mammies, obliging butlers, smiling carriage-drivers, joyful cotton-pickers and tap-dancing entertainers.”11
This heavily romanticized view of slavery inscribed in literature and buttressed by history was destined to be spread even further by Hollywood during the late 1920s and 1930s. There were two main reasons for this. The first was the introduction of sound from 1927. This made it possible, for the first time, to incorporate some features of what was constructed—rightly or wrongly—as “black” music into film. Movies such as Hearts in Dixie and Hallelujah! (both released in 1929), although themselves actually set after the Civil War, seemed to suggest that blacks had carried on living freely on plantations even after emancipation. “Ringing with banjos and brimming with high-kicking, happy darky stereotypes,” remarks Jack T. Kirby, “the[se] films conveyed an interpretation of slavery basically the same as Thomas Nelson Page’s.”12 Other films in what might be called a “plantation musical” genre included Dixiana (1930), Mississippi (1935), Swanee River (1939), Way Down South (1939), Dixie (1943), and Song of the South (1946). Perhaps the most popular of all these motion pictures were the Shirley Temple “southerns,” such as The Little Colonel and The Littlest Rebel (both 1935).
The second reason for the salience of films dealing with great plantations was the impact of the economic depression beginning in 1929. Hard times and high levels of industrial unemployment made the stability and seemingly timeless rural way of life of the antebellum South seem especially appealing. “Audiences could marvel,” observed Edward D. C. Campbell, Jr., “at a culture so reliant on the land and the seasons rather than on the city and business trends.”13 As the 1930s went on, the plantations themselves became grander: Hollywood’s representation of the way of the life of the “Old South” became a complex negotiation between filmmakers’ desires and ambitions, previous productions, and what spectators now had been led to expect. The relatively small and intimate plantations in Carolina (1934) and So Red the Rose (1935) gave way to the far more impressive Halcyon of Jezebel (1938) and Tara/Twelve Oaks in Gone With the Wind (1939). Consistently, however, whether plantation musicals or plantation melodramas, these films depicted happy slaves loyally supporting their masters and mistresses. The one film of this kind that, at first glance, might seem to contradict this portrayal was So Red the Rose. Unusually, this showed plantation blacks—told that freedom is about to be achieved—stopping working for their master and his family and, encouraged by their leader, Cato (Clarence Muse), starting to seize the livestock of their owners. But this “slave revolt” is easily put down by the daughter of the plantation family (Margaret Sullavan) who confronts Cato and reduces him to silence by evoking memories of the strong interracial bonds that had (supposedly) existed under slavery. In the end, therefore, this brief moment of black agency fails to undermine the perception of slavery as intrinsically benign.
Films on slavery after the Second World War
A few of these plantation films had a long after-life. Disney’s Song of the South—described by Jack Kirby as “the ultimate expression of plantation harmony”—carried on being shown in some movie theaters until the mid-1970s.14 Gone With the Wind has periodically been rereleased and, after its first showing on US network television in 1976, became a staple of mass television entertainment.15 The Hollywood view of slavery as a benign system consequently continued to be the dominant one for a very long time. In the aftermath of the Second World War, however, two mainstream American movies displayed considerably more ambivalence over the institution of slavery. The Foxes of Harrow (1947), loosely based on the best-selling novel by black writer Frank Yerby (1946), undercut the perception of slavery as benign by showing a slave woman (an uncredited Suzette Harbin) who would prefer to die rather than have her child brought up in slavery. The Variety critic shrewdly observed that this sequence “is likely to run into difficulties in many Southern states.”16
Band of Angels (1957), the film version of Robert Penn Warren’s 1955 novel, had Hamish Bond (Clark Gable) as a former slave trader ashamed of his earlier occupation. The movie also included a beautiful, apparently white girl, Amantha Starr (Yvonne De Carlo), who returns from finishing school in Cincinnati, Ohio, to attend her father’s funeral. She quickly discovers both that he died heavily in debt and her mother was a slave. Sold off herself on the auction-block, she is bought by Bond. Hating her new master at first, she eventually escapes with him from approaching Union soldiers in the Civil War, and the film ends on a note of what Jack Kirby describes as “prospective miscegenation.”17 The movie also made it clear that Bond’s black overseer Rau-Ru (Sidney Poitier) deeply resented his own status as a slave, although he would later—having fought in the Union Army to free his own people—reach the conclusion that his sometime master had been relatively liberal and unprejudiced. As several reviewers noted, the film was reminiscent of Gable’s role as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, yet the institution of slavery in Band of Angels was perceptibly much harsher than in the earlier film. Band of Angels, noted the New York Times critic, featured “brutal slave-traders, . . . the heroine cowers on the slave-block piteously . . . and bloodhounds chase slaves across fields.”18
After 1957, however, as the civil rights movement gained momentum, few new films on the “Old South” and the institution of slavery with which it was associated were made. One that was, Slaves (1969), was written and directed by Herbert J. Biberman, a member of the “Hollywood Ten,” the group of Hollywood employees who had unsuccessfully confronted the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 and eventually gone to jail. In a radical rewrite of the “benign” view of slavery, this film showed it as a system of exploitation that eventually drove slaves themselves to revolt. The film focused on the story of a black Christian slave, Luke (Ossie Davis), who is sold by his Kentucky master to save his few remaining slaves. He passes into the hands of MacKay (Stephen Boyd), a brutal Mississippi planter. MacKay’s mistress is a black woman, Cassy (Dionne Warwick). Luke and Cassy plan to escape together, but the plan fails and Luke—rather than accept MacKay’s offer of freedom in exchange for betraying other blacks—dies fighting. The film was curiously balanced in places: the reviewer for Variety observed that “sympathetic slave owners are shown as well as hard driving profiteers . . . some white men cared for keeping [black] families together while others—usually because of economic gain—chose to break the family unit and actually breed slaves.”19 Yet it ultimately showed the dark side of slavery, including the exploitation of black women by white masters, and seems to have had little appeal beyond big-city African American audiences.20
A small number of other films later developed much further the highly sensational theme hinted at in Band of Angels: miscegenation.21 After The Birth of a Nation in 1915, and the controversy that greeted Griffith’s film, sexual relationships across race lines seemed, quite simply, too hot to handle. In 1927, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America adopted a set of guidelines for filmmakers known as the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls.” One of the themes that could not be exploited in films was miscegenation, specifically defined as “sex relationships between the white and black races.” The Production Code of 1930, commonly known as the Hays Code, repeated the ban in exactly the same terms and this remained “official” Hollywood policy until 1956. When the Production Code was revised in that year, the prohibition on miscegenation was finally dropped.22 Yet filmmakers did not rush to make films about a highly controversial type of relationship that was still illegal in some American states.23 (The restrained treatment of the subject in Band of Angels may have reflected this). 1967, however, saw the US Supreme Court—in Loving v. Virginia—finally ruling such laws unconstitutional. That same year saw the first black and white kiss in a mainstream Hollywood film for over half a century: Sidney Poitier and Katherine Houghton are seen embracing in the back seat of a taxi in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.24 This movie was set in contemporary times: it took several years for a number of filmmakers to exploit the salacious possibilities of interracial relationships against a backcloth of slavery.
In 1957, Kyle Onstott, a 70-year-old bachelor living in California, published a novel called Mandingo about a slave-breeding plantation in Alabama. Bizarrely, although Onstott was an experienced writer, all his work before this had been dedicated to the subject of dog-breeding. Five years later, he published a second novel, Drum, which was a sequel to the first.25 In the early 1970s, Onstott’s novels came to interest Italian film producer Dino de Laurentiis, then attempting with some success (Death Wish, 1974) to break into the American movie market. In 1975, Mandingo was released as a film. With its portrait of a sexually hyperactive black man (Mede, played by boxer Ken Norton), it blended with the popular “blaxploitation” genre of the time.26 New York Times critic Vincent Canby commented that the film had been “handsomely photographed in a number of impressively decaying old Southern houses.” The ads for the film, indeed, were reminiscent of those for Gone With the Wind “with the old plantation house in the background, the suggestion of crowds caught up in great events, flames, lovers pictured in tempestuous embrace.” The difference was that the Mandingo ads showed two pairs of interracial lovers. According to Canby it offered “steamily melodramatic nonsense” that conveyed no impression of “what life on the old plantation was really like” because of its “erotic interest in the techniques of humiliation, mostly with sex and violence.” Other reviewers were equally caustic: according to one, Mandingo was an “embarrassing and crude film” that wallowed “in every cliché” associated with “the slave-based . . . pre-Civil War South.”27
Clearly designed as an “exploitation” film (and given an “R” for restricted rating), Mandingo reached a large audience mainly for its prurience in dealing with the theme of miscegenation.28 Hammond Maxwell (Percy King), son of plantation owner Warren Maxwell (James Mason), prefers slave Ellen (Brenda Sykes) to his wife Blanche (Susan George). Blanche takes revenge by blackmailing slave Mede into an affair. When she gives birth to a mulatto baby, Hammond kills both his wife and Mede. In spite of its many faults, Mandingo did foreground the sexual politics of slavery, undercutting earlier perceptions of it as a benign institution. Robin Wood, indeed, would later (and controversially) describe Mandingo as “the greatest Hollywood film on race” for its highly critical view of white Southern patriarchy.29
A year later, the same team produced Drum, a sequel set on the same Louisiana plantation. The reviewer for Variety described it as “a grubby follow-up” to Mandingo, and speculated that part of the financial success of the latter had been due to “the fact that audiences considered it a comedy.”30 Drum had its baffling aspects as a sequel. Brenda Sykes reappeared in a different role and Ken Norton was mysteriously reincarnated as the character Drum. The film was just as brutal in representing slavery as its predecessor. “Not since Mandingo,” observed Vincent Canby, “have I seen a film so concerned with such methods of humiliation as beating, shooting and castration.” In the end, Canby dismissed it as “exploitation junk.” “Life on the old plantation was horrendous,” he frankly admitted, “ . . . but movies like this are less interested in information than titillation, which, in turn, reflects contemporary obsessions rather more than historical truths.”31
For a more serious look at the history and reality of slavery, it was necessary in the 1970s to look to television more than the cinema. In January 1977, American Broadcasting Company (ABC) broadcast an adaptation of Alex Haley’s epic novel Roots, an account of a black family’s struggle to survive over several generations. Shown over eight nights, it attracted a total audience of 130 million.32 The mini-series recounted the fictionalized history of Haley’s own family from their African roots to freedom in America. It incorporated some “traditional” Hollywood elements: the slave-ship captain (Ed Asner), overcome with guilt, in some ways resembled Hamish Bond and the sexual abuse of black women under slavery was shown in a “downright salacious” manner that to a degree echoed Mandingo and Drum. On the other hand, it also showed in some detail the experience of the middle passage (the transport of countless Africans by sea to the Americas) and, for the first time, a shipboard slave rebellion. It broke with the clichéd image of the “Old South” of great plantations by viewing slavery against the backcloth of an ordinary North Carolina farm.33 Indeed, as Bruce Chadwick points out, it fatally undercut many of the myths that had previously surrounded slavery: slaves in Roots did nothing “to help their owners keep them enslaved. They did not cakewalk and tap-dance to ‘Dixie.’ They were not all Mammies and Sambos.”34
Executives for the ABC network were highly aware that they were making a program about blacks for what was predominantly a white television audience. Initially, they took refuge in “whitening” Haley’s narrative: the script by William Blinn introduced many new, albeit often minor, Caucasian characters “to give the miniseries a whiter look.” In advertising and promoting the series, ABC foregrounded as many whites as possible. It also distributed many study guides to teachers and students across the United States emphasizing that Haley’s story was essentially “history.”35 No doubt these tactics succeeded—to a point. What accounted for the astonishing success of Roots in attracting a huge audience, however, probably in the end had more to do with its intrinsic optimism (family members do love each other and believe that they will one day be free), the underlying theme of racial integration (the redneck white and the black man in the end become partners), and—rather paradoxically—the idea that it was a universal human story of survival and liberation rather than simply a study in black-white relations.
Coverage of slavery in mainstream Hollywood films, at least until the end of the Second World War, had treated it as a benign and benevolent institution. The idea that slaves were happy with their status was conveyed by many films, including the two great Civil War epics, The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind. Hollywood formulas encouraged this traditional view of slavery: the plantation musicals and melodramas of the late 1920s and 1930s focused on happy-go-lucky “faithful souls.” After 1945, however, there began to be hints—as in The Foxes of Harrow and Band of Angels—that slavery itself had been a much darker and more oppressive system than Hollywood had previously recognized. By the 1960s and 1970s, the modern civil rights movement and growing black consciousness made it impossible to treat slavery in traditional ways on screen. It could either be shown as brutal (as in Slaves) or as a background for steamy tales of interracial lust (as in Mandingo and Drum). But for most white mainstream Hollywood filmmakers, slavery had by this time—as limits on the representation of sex and violence tumbled—become one of the last remaining taboos. It was much easier, as suggested by French film scholar Anne Crémieux, to comment indirectly on slavery in such science fiction films as Planet of the Apes (1968).36 Yet the success of Roots seemed to suggest that there might perhaps be a mass audience waiting for the right film to deal with the subject.
In the closing months of 1997, it appeared that that film was at last about to be released. Material started to arrive in the mail-boxes of educators across the United States that was expressly intended to “sell” a film by the new DreamWorks SKG studio. The publicity material was ostensibly directed toward high school and college students. It included suggested activities for such students that were supposed—as the blurb stated—to “encourage critical thinking about the value of history in light of the long-faded chapter restored to American history in the film Amistad.”37 On the one hand, therefore, there was a clear claim by the makers of Amistad that their film represented “history”—though a history that had up to this point been largely unknown. But the new movie was also subjected to an alternative and (from its makers’ point of view) infinitely less desirable form of prerelease publicity. In mid-October 1997, Barbara Chase-Riboud filed a $10 million claim against DreamWorks claiming that major parts of her 1989 novel Echo of Lions—itself loosely based on the Amistad incident—had been plagiarized by the studio. Her lawyer, Pierce O’Donnell, listed 13 distinct parallels between Chase-Riboud’s fiction and the script of Amistad. In response, lawyers acting on behalf of DreamWorks argued that the film itself was “entirely based on history” and that no one individual could copyright “mere fact.”38 Even before the film’s release in December 1997, therefore, Amistad was the focus of public and legal debate. Was it history or was it fiction? And if it was history, what kind of history was it?
The story of the making of the film effectively began in 1978, when African American dancer and choreographer Debbie Allen came across a book on the Amistad mutiny at the Howard University Bookstore. Although that book itself, William Owen’s Black Mutiny (1953), was a novel, it dealt with a real historical incident: the revolt of black Africans being carried into slavery on a Spanish boat, the Amistad, in 1839. Having slaughtered all but two of the crew, they tried to sail the boat back to Africa but were outwitted by the two surviving crew sailors and ended up off the coast of Connecticut where they were stopped and taken into harbor by an American naval vessel. There then followed three separate trials, in each of which the final verdict was that the blacks involved were not slaves but free Africans who had been illegally seized. The man who argued the last case, which resulted in their being freed and offered the chance of returning to Africa by the US Supreme Court, was former President John Quincy Adams. By all accounts, Debbie Allen responded to the book in an intensely emotional way. She decided that it was “a true story that the world needed to hear” and in 1984 optioned the rights to the Owen novel. Thereafter, for a decade, Allen became absorbed in a fruitless quest to have her idea produced as a movie.39
There were numerous reasons for her failure. Allen herself starred as Lydia Grant in the successful television series Fame (1982-7), but she lacked experience and credentials as a producer. Despite the runaway success of the mini-series Roots on television,40 it was not obvious that a movie dealing with the black experience was a commercially viable proposition. Even African American directors fought shy of the project. “Look at Glory,” observed Keenen Ivory Wyatts of the 1989 film about blacks in the Union army. “It barely made its money back. As a black director, you can’t afford that.”41 Although Allen’s initial attempts to make the film would parallel the early films directed by Spike Lee with the specific intention of packaging black experience to appeal to crossover audiences, Lee’s movies were set either in the contemporary period or, like Malcolm X (1992), in the recent American experience. And Malcolm X, whatever its faults as a movie, was at least dealing with a major character in American history rather than with an almost unknown episode in the distant past.
Allen’s luck apparently changed, however, in 1994 when she saw Schindler’s List and concluded that Steven Spielberg was the man to make the film. Finally, after pursuing various DreamWorks executives, she had a long meeting with Spielberg and seems to have persuaded him of the viability of the whole project. (African American reviewer Thomas Pinnock, who attacked the eventual film as a “Hollywood enterprise” putting “Black people in the background of their own history,” dismissed Allen’s original fervent pitch to Spielberg as “a modern day parody of ‘chucking and dancing for the massa boss.'”)42 Both Allen and Spielberg, however, had clear reasons for wanting to make the film. The black instigator of the mutiny, Cinque, seemed to encapsulate for Allen the history of African Americans. “When I look at him,” she explained, “I think about my grandfather, the men of my family—Five generations back, my family disappears into the plantation. Cinque embodies the spirit of millions of Africans who were stolen...”43 While Allen may not have been aware of it, moreover, her take on Cinque followed trends in the historical interpretation of slavery in the last quarter of the twentieth century, with scholars such as Ira Berlin emphasizing the fact that slaves played an active part in molding their world and that they resisted slavery itself in a large variety of ways.44 For Allen, depicting Cinque as a defiant and ultimately successful leader of a black refusal to accept slave status was a powerful means of destroying the older view of blacks as sambo figures who acquiesced in their own enslavement.45 Spielberg, too, had personal reasons for his interest in the Amistad story. He had already made one commercially successful film set in the past (Schindler’s List) and was planning to make another (Saving Private Ryan) when he approved the notion of a film about the Amistad mutiny. He and his wife, moreover, had recently adopted two African American children—his decision to give the green light to Allen’s project almost certainly had personal as well as commercial implications. Spielberg himself would later claim that, while listening to Allen’s initial pitch, he had been struck by the thought “that this would be something I would be pretty proud to make, simply to say to my son, ‘Look this is about you.’”46
Both Allen and Spielberg, therefore, set off making their movie—Spielberg as director and Allen as co-producer—with high ambitions. Spielberg, indeed, stated that he wanted his Amistad film to accomplish “for the American experience of slavery what Schindler’s List did for the Holocaust.”47 As a result, African American expectations of the film were initially high. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who served as a consultant on the project, declared enthusiastically that “It’s rare when you see black people participate in violence to defend themselves, be vindicated by the American legal system, and be recognized as the true patriots they are, like Patrick Henry.”48 Certainly, by presenting the story predominantly from the African perspective, Amistad involved a major shift in Hollywood moviemaking.49 It also featured African actors—most notably, of course, Djimon Hounsou from Benin as Cinque—in major roles50 and had them speak an accurate version of the Mende language in what is now Sierra Leone (the area from which the Amistad captives came).51 The film as a whole can be seen as an attempt to revise the codes surrounding the notion of black armed revolt as represented in American cinema. With the creation of a fictional, native-born American black Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), it also attracted attention to the role played by free blacks in the abolitionist movement.52
The Joadson role, however, also demonstrated from the beginning the weaknesses of the film. There are, at times, good reasons for introducing fictional characters into broadly historical films. Representations of this kind can be used, as Robert A. Rosenstone has argued, to present a metaphoric or symbolic historical truth.53 Indeed, it is necessary almost always to engage in a good deal of invention—of scenes, dialogue, and characters—when bringing “history” to the screen.54 But Joadson is an anachronism—indeed, almost as glaring an anachronism as the bicycle the Africans from the Amistad see being ridden after they first land in Connecticut looking for water. He promotes the illusion that there were many rich blacks in the United States in 1839.55 He also seems to move with complete freedom in white society, including a highly unlikely meeting with ex-President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) at the Adams family home in Massachusetts.
When the film was released, it rapidly became clear that Amistad was not going to become the African American Schindler’s List. Black audiences themselves appear to have reacted in a negative way to it. They seem to have disliked the attempt to make them confront their own past. “Only a masochist,” observed Warrington Hudlin, president of the Black Filmmakers foundation, “would want to spend two hours watching themselves be degraded and dehumanized.”56 In an early showing of the film, an African American woman became hysterical during the middle passage sequence and rushed out of the theater. “I felt like I was on the ship,” she later explained, “and it was too much. I just really couldn’t take it anymore.”57
The middle passage sequence in Amistad is actually, in filmic terms, a flashback showing how Cinque came to be captured and turned into a slave. Tecora, the boat shown, is the one that first carried him from Africa to Havana, Cuba, where he was sold and placed aboard the Amistad. It is probably the most honest—and the most brutal—treatment of the experience of Africans on a slave ship in the middle passage in American cinema. Far more even than Roots, it shows the terrible conditions on the slave-ships, the chaining and poor food, the vicious punishments of the slaves themselves, hints at the high mortality rate, and also at the exploitation of slave women by Spanish sailors (the shot of dancing to music). Most graphically of all, it shows the disposal of 50 slaves when the Spanish realize that they have insufficient provisions to feed everyone aboard.58
If African Americans disliked the film, what of the white response? The white characters in the film fall into one of three categories. They are simply ridiculous (like the Christians shown praying and singing) or unscrupulous and ineffective (like abolitionist Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgård) and, ultimately, President Martin van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne)) or they have their character molded and elevated through contact with Cinque. When we first meet Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), who defends the Amistad mutineers in the first trials, he is little more than an ambulance-chaser offering his services to make a profit out of others’ misfortune. John Quincy Adams, their eventual counsel before the Supreme Court, is first shown as sleeping during a debate in the House of Representatives. It is suggested that he is a frustrated and bitter old man, jealous of the reputation of his father, John Adams, second president of the United States. But both Baldwin and Adams are ennobled by the end of the film through Cinque’s influence.59
Amistad also seemed to be part of an effort on Spielberg’s part to extend the frontier of acceptable violence in the movies. One month after Amistad was completed, the director and much of the same team began shooting Saving Private Ryan. But the violence of Amistad had the potential to be even more controversial than the later film since it was in essence racial violence. In fact, the release of the film marked the return of an image largely abandoned since The Birth of a Nation: that of the black male beast. The violence with which the Africans kill all but two of the Spanish crew right at the start of the film is shockingly bloody. Then Cinque kills the ship’s captain with a sword, spearing him through the deck, and standing over him with obvious pleasure as he writhes in agony. The actual justification for the mutiny and its violence (the middle passage sequence) does not actually come until almost half-way through the film.
The straightforward binary position the film offers—blacks are good, whites are bad—may well have reduced the appeal of Spielberg’s movie to a predominantly white audience. But it was not the only problem the film faced in attracting a large audience. The film was biased in gender (as well as racial) terms. Although women appear in the film, it is not in any of the major roles. Moreover, as a writer for film magazine Sight and Sound pointed out, the film has no happy resolution: “the hard facts of history” preclude Spielberg’s “trademark scenes of reunion and reconciliation.”60 While the American legal system is vindicated by finally declaring the Amistad rebels free, they sail back to Africa and the slave fort from which they have sailed to the Americas is destroyed by the British navy, Cinque returns home to find that his wife and family have disappeared, and his homeland is being torn apart by civil war. Unlike the television series Roots, therefore, Amistad is not a hopeful tale, does not foreshadow the eventual integration of blacks with whites in American society, and makes no attempt to elevate the story into a universal one revolving around human liberation.
Amistad was not a great commercial success61 and, eventually, Spielberg convinced himself that this had been because it was too didactic and “too much of a history lesson.”62 This may have been the case. On the other hand, there are very specific reasons why audiences disliked the film and—no doubt—passed on their word-of-mouth opinion to others. With Cinque, Spielberg and Allen offered moviegoers a kind of hero/villain. He is plainly a man with a commanding presence and forceful character. But he also represents the return of the dark, bestial other, haunting the imagination of whites with the constant specter of violence.63 “As slave epics go,” commented Christopher Hemblade in Empire, “and, let’s be honest, there ain’t much demand for them, this is about the most visceral and unclichéd version you could hope for.”64 Hemblade clearly missed the duality of the Cinque character, with the black beast as a cliché at least since The Birth of a Nation. But he also underlined the fact that, albeit for different reasons, black and white Americans responded negatively to the film. “Race screws up Americans,” observed Armond White, and—with Amistad—Allen and Spielberg tried to tell a story that most Americans—whether black or white—had no real desire to hear.65
Without Spielberg, indeed, Amistad would probably never have been made. Allen’s project had been “stonewalled” for more than a decade,66 reflecting Hollywood’s ambivalence over its theme. In the aftermath of the civil rights movement, it appeared that the traditional ways of handling slavery on screen had outlived their usefulness. The noble, victimized “Uncle Tom,” the simple-minded coon, the tragic mulatto, and the mammy were no longer acceptable as racial stereotypes. With the brief exception of the blaxploitation dramas of the 1970s revolving around miscegenation, the Southern plantation had fallen out of favor as a background and theme for filmmakers. Roots succeeded on television in 1977 because it subsumed the slavery experiences of African Americans in what Trevor McCrisken and Andrew Pepper term “the context of the ubiquitous rags-to-riches immigrant ‘success’ story.”67 Not only is Amistad different from earlier films about slavery (it is set geographically in the North), but—far from becoming part of American society—at the end of the film, the former captives return to face an uncertain future in Africa. In many ways, indeed, it is an African rather than an African American story. It had almost nothing to say that was of relevance to Americans, whether white or black, other than seemingly demonstrating that the judicial system designed by the Founding Fathers ultimately worked. Yet American slavery survived legally for 26 years after the Amistad decision, and it was destroyed in the end not in the courts but through civil war. In 1839, the Supreme Court freed—on a technicality—the African Amistad captives; 18 years later, the same court determined in the Dred Scott case that African American slaves were merely property, with no civil rights.
Tarantino’s Django Unchained
The commercial failure of Amistad helped discourage further attempts to represent slavery on the big screen. If Steven Spielberg could not succeed, then who could?68 In December 2012, Quentin Tarantino released Django Unchained, the story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who first secures his freedom with the help of German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) before the two set off on a long mission to free Django’s wife Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), who has been sold to Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a charming but highly unscrupulous plantation owner in Mississippi.
From the opening sequence of Tarantino’s film, showing a small group of shackled African Americans walking grimly to the accompaniment of jaunty, jangly, Western-style music, it is instantly clear that this is not going to be a serious analysis of slavery. The title of the film and the name of the main black character come not from black history or the history of the American South, but from Sergio Corbucci’s violent spaghetti Western Django (1966). Franco Nero, the star of Corbucci’s film, makes a cameo appearance in Django Unchained (Tarantino, in the opening credits, pays tribute to “the friendly participation of Franco Nero”). The original Django inspired a series of spaghetti Westerns with similar titles (Django Spara per Primo / He Who Shoots First, 1966; Sei Sei Vivo, Spara! / Django, Kill!, 1967; Django Sfida Sartana / Django against Sartana, 1970).
In addition to the original Django, two other films—both released in 1975—appear to have had a major influence on Django Unchained. One was the blaxploitation movie Boss Nigger (1975), with Fred Williamson as one of a pair of black bounty hunters who essentially take over for a time and run a white town.69 The second was Mandingo. Tarantino had been interested in Richard Fleischer’s film for years, commenting in an interview during the 1990s that it was one of only two instances “in the last twenty years [that] a major studio [Paramount] made a full-on, gigantic, big-budget exploitation film.”70 Mandingo launched the notion of bareknuckled blacks fighting each other to the death for whites’ profit (with Ken Norton as Mede killing his opponent by biting through his jugular). Django Unchained’s “mandingo fighting” and the killing of one fighter by another are clearly taken from the earlier film.
Django Unchained is a part spaghetti Western, part blaxploitation film, and part exploitation movie. Yet it incorporates elements from many other genres, making it a true pastiche. It is a black Western, in the tradition of Posse (1993), which also had blacks fighting an anachronistic Ku Klux Klan. It is a “Southern” or plantation film with a lineage going back at least as far as The Birth of a Nation. It is a revenge/rescue drama that echoes certain aspects of The Searchers (1956). It is a buddy movie (the sequence in which Schultz and Django are in a saloon with virtually the whole population of the town surrounding and aiming guns at them is reminiscent of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)). It is also the story of a quest, modeled in some respects—as Schultz makes plain to Django—on Siegfried, the third opera of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, itself the result of a blending of Norse mythology and old German legend.
The fact that nearly all the later sequences of the film take place on plantations is a tribute to the enduring cinematic power of the plantation myth. Familiar cultural stereotypes appear: the Southern lady, Calvin Candie’s sister Lara (Laura Cayouette), stands up for (white) Southern manners in the way Ellen O’Hara had once done (and while Ellen died of typhoid, Lara is literally blown away). Plantation owners “Big Daddy” and Candie himself are recognizable types, although they owe more to Warren and Hammond Maxwell than Dr. Cameron and Gerald O’Hara. Similarly, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) has evolved from the “faithful souls” of Griffith into an “Uncle Tom” figure of surpassing malevolence and power. In the real antebellum South, only 12 percent of slave-owners in 1860 owned 20 or more slaves, although more than half of all slaves lived on the plantations of such owners.71 Plantation life, the commonest experience for slaves, was proportionally much less common among white slave-owners. But the beauty of the plantation setting (part of the film was shot at the Evergreen Plantation in Louisiana) still seduces filmmakers like Tarantino. The brutal manner in which Tarantino depicts plantation slavery, however, is much closer to how it was conceived in the lurid fantasies of many abolitionists (few of whom had visited the South) than it may have been to antebellum reality.
Brutality was itself a frequent but unquantifiable aspect of plantation life. The plantation was an economic unit and owners developed their own techniques for managing their slave workforce as efficiently and profitably as possible. In most cases, observes Russell R. Menard, these involved a mixture “of incentives and physical punishments,” although there is no way of knowing in what proportion. Whipping was comparatively common. Of former slaves interviewed in the 1930s, half of those from the upper South and three-quarters of those from the lower South reported that they had been whipped.72 Yet, sadistic as some masters and overseers undoubtedly were, and with few laws to constrain them, to kill or injure a slave meant damaging one’s own property and “many planters preferred nonviolent over violent means to attain their ends.”73 Those planters do not include Big Daddy (Don Johnson) or Calvin Candie. On Big Daddy’s plantation in Tennessee, one of the Brittle brothers is about to use a bullwhip on a slave for breaking eggs. Django and his wife, Broomhilda, have been punished for running away from their original owner by flogging and branding. They have then been separated by being sold to different owners. On Candie’s Gothic plantation in Mississippi, with its sweetly deceptive name of “Candyland,” the brutalities include attack dogs killing a runaway slave, “mandingo” fighters wrestling with each other to the death, and the hot, airless box on the lawn in which a thirsty, naked Broomhilda is being punished for her latest escape attempt. Castration is obviously a common punishment: Stephen, Candie’s shrewd and loyal African American major-domo, knows exactly how long—seven minutes—it takes a castrated black man to bleed to death. But he prefers more imaginative punishments, such as condemning Django to work for the rest of his life down a mine.
The one major difference between Django Unchained and earlier exploitation films set on plantations is that sex is not an issue. Django is loyally uxorious and, throughout the film, is determined to find and rescue Broomhilda. Unlike Fred Washington in Boss Nigger, he does not chase white women. And unlike Ken Norton in Mandingo, he is not chased by a white woman. Miscegenation is present in the film—Candie has a lightskinned mulatto mistress, Sheba (Nichole Galicia) and, when Schultz and Django arrive at Candyland, seems to be offering Broomhilda to Schultz— but is not a major theme. Broomhilda herself, while flogged, branded, sold, and imprisoned in a punishment box, does not appear to have been sexually exploited.
In comparison to Amistad, which principally dealt with enslaved Africans in the North of the United States, Django Unchained focuses on African American slaves in the South. For a white director to do this has itself been a source of controversy, with black director Spike Lee (who refused to see it) describing Tarantino’s film as “disrespectful to my ancestors.”74 Django himself appears to progress “from beaten slave to cool gun-toting cowboy in fancy duds . . . He’s John Shaft on a horse, Superfly with a sixgun.”75 He is also coolly ironic (“Kill white folks and get paid for it, what’s not to like?” is his response to Schultz’s suggestion that he become a bounty hunter). Yet his instincts are not always hip: his blue “Little Lord Fauntleroy” valet outfit provokes incredulity from a female slave. Far more seriously, he plays second fiddle for much of the movie to Schultz. It is Schultz who liberates him from the Speck brothers, proposes that the two spend the winter bounty hunting together, and promises after this to help find and free Django’s wife. It is Schultz who teaches him how to use weapons and plans the strategy they hope to use in buying Broomhilda back from Calvin Candie. Finally, it is Schultz who kills Candie, triggering his own death after which Django finally becomes a lead character. In what up to this point has been (among many other things) a buddy movie, Django for the first two hours has been very much the junior partner.
Candie, speaking as a member of the minority of whites on large plantations, at one point asks a deceptively simple question: “why don’t they [the black slaves] kill us?” He uses pseudo-science (phrenology) to answer his own question: because the skulls of African Americans show them to be fundamentally passive.76 The film, at some moments, seems to justify Candie’s insane argument. Schultz, for example, having freed Django, has to explain to the other members of the black chain-gang just what the options facing them are with respect to the sole surviving Speck brother: they can either save him and carry him to the nearest town or kill him, bury the two brothers and escape. (Once a white man has spelt out their choices, they opt for the second alternative.) The film’s main attempts to undercut the notion of black passivity come from the characters of Stephen and Django. In the movie’s final stages, Stephen is revealed as the real power on Candie’s plantation and Django, by virtue of three massacres, secures freedom for himself and Broomhilda (though how will they subsequently escape Mississippi slave patrols?). The violence used by Django offers a kind of redemption from the evils of slavery: it is a fantasy of what might have happened rather than what did. With its traditional clichés and stereotypes of plantation life, and its cathartic if imaginary vengeance, Tarantino’s movie has little to do with the former realities of slavery.
Extract from chapter 2, American History in Hollywood Film by Melvyn Stokes (Bloomsbury, 2013).