The Most Magnificent Drama in the Last Thousand Years of Human History: Notes on Cinematic Slavery

This essay is part of a symposium on Yogita Goyal’s Runaway Genres. All contributions to the symposium can be found here.

In Runaway Genres: The Global Afterlives of Slavery, Yogita Goyal traces the translation of sentimental narrative structures and tropes from nineteenth-century slave narratives to contemporary narrative accounts of human rights abuses and the global (re)production of race. “In exploring the contradictory uses of historical violence for contemporary politics,” she argues, “we need to not only return to the question of what slavery itself means but to also account for how and when the slave narrative became malleable as a global form, available for adaptation across time and space” (4). As she shows, the meanings of slavery are far from settled. Responses to the New York Times’ 1619 project, for example, also demonstrate slavery’s uncertain status in and for the contemporary. Some commentators have been critical of the project’s relatively narrow (but deep) focus on the United States and its civic myths. Others sought to defend those civic myths and therefore rejected editor Nikole Hannah-Jones’ argument that slavery rather than liberty—1619 rather than 1776—marks the beginning and unfinished business of the U.S. national project.

To account for how and why the slave narrative continues to be available for adaptation I offer a detour through a broader media history of slavery. A full media history might include the circulation of the so-called “coon songs,” the media transcription of slavery’s cultural forms (i.e., the recording of folksong, sermons, speeches, jokes, etc. of the descendants of the enslaved). Toward that project, I offer a brief account of the cinematic appropriation of slavery as a set of narratological and characterological conventions that fix the relationship between spectacle and spectator, past and present. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin may be the most adapted novel in cinema history; Roots, Alex Haley’s 1976 book and the 1977 miniseries, marks the beginning of Goyal’s study. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is constitutive to early cinema insofar as audience familiarity with the novel (or the “Tom shows”) allowed filmmakers to teach viewers a new visual language; Roots emphasizes the trope of the enslaved “preserving their humanity” implicit to many films that follow it. (We might contrast it with Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi’s problematic 1971 mockumentary Addio Zio Tom [Goodbye, Uncle Tom], which remains unique in its endeavor to represent all aspects of slave culture, which it explicitly links to contemporary urban uprisings.) The trope of preserved humanity—and more specifically the individualizing redemption narrative at the heart of cinematic slavery—is the logical outcome of the discourse surrounding Roots (among other factors). Contemporary critical analysis either focused on perceived historical inaccuracies or the series’ “fairness” in its representation of white people. The fear of “unfairness”—telling the story in a way that required deep political reckoning rather than promoting individual sympathy and national reconciliation—best explains the tendency of these films to deploy redemptive arcs that exculpate the system by focusing on white beneficence or righteous resistance. Against such a backdrop, the slave narrative’s complex examinations of human subjectivity and the corrupting effects of slavery as a set of interlocking and mutually informing civic and social institutions and conventions reduce to first-person agency. The redemption these films imagine is possible only through interracial cooperation between a singularly driven enslaved character and a sexless white patriarch. A partial list of such characters would include Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained, Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave, or almost all the non-enslaved men in Amistad, including, in a novel twist, those played by Morgan Freeman and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Some aspects of the visual repertoire recur across films, amounting to a quasi-grammatical code that makes the films legible and intelligible. Cypress and live oak trees, gently swaying cotton fields and black laborers in monochrome sack cloth bent and sweating in the sun. Black bodies, fetishized and fragmented through close up, abstracted in rows so they seem almost to blend with the fields they tend. Do they sing? Or is it the sound of the lash? Echoing Freud, somewhere a slave is being beaten: the body, fetishized by camera angle and editing, glistening with sweat and blood is a dark hued libidinal screen, object at once of sympathy and sadomasochistic desire. Interiority belongs only to the enslaver and white abolitionists. Her interiority suppressed, the ahistorical slave  (rather than enslaved African) can only appear as a libidinal field, radically but not absolutely other, upon which any fantasy or sentiment can be projected.  The slave can formulate and execute a plan to escape, she can feel pain or a desire to escape, but does not seem to know what that freedom is. Sentiment is a kind of compensatory structure that allows slavery and freedom to appear to us only at a safe distance, one where it has already been worked.

Although cinematic slavery presents itself as a genre of historical film—using an abundance of period detail, from dress to accent, to signify “pastness” and historical accuracy—these films are not about history at all. Begging the question of enslaved people’s humanity, these films usually fail to address slavery as a relationship of forced labor—that is, a relation of thoroughly modern and rationalized labor processes supported by political, legal, and civic forms and conventions that allowed enslavers to maximize surplus value. Their narratives of redemption uphold the basic goodness and desirability of institutionalized control over life, liberty, and property. By rarely depicting slavery as quotidian, by downplaying the shaping role slavery plays in civic life and institutions, these films treat it as an aberration resolvable by individual good will. In effect eschewing a thick sense of the historical, these films must merely work. But if contemporary fiction tends to deploy slavery analogically in order to create the conditions for cross-cultural solidarity, as Goyal demonstrates, what is the work of cinematic slavery?

To answer, I’ll touch briefly on Stephen Spielberg’s 1997 film Amistad, whose tagline tells us that “there are moments where it [freedom] must be taken.” One can imagine a film where taking freedom would be an event, with the famous revolt being the centerpiece. This film dispenses with that revolt within the first reel, devoting the rest of its running time to a drama that plays out among imperial powers mostly represented by white men. Cinqué tells the story of his capture, the cruel conditions aboard the ship, and his ultimate revolt twice, once to Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) and then, through montage, in open court through a translator, Ens. Covey (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The incredulous Holabird (Pete Postlethwaite), who challenges Cinqué to explain slave traders’ irrational behavior, argues that Africans held slaves in Africa, and testifies that throwing slaves overboard, which Cinqué witnessed, amounted to the shipmates “burning down their own houses.” The British Capt. Fitzgerald (Peter Firth) corroborates Cinqué’s story for the court and spectators, providing factual evidence (through the ship’s manifest and historical precedent) and rationale (the slavers miscalculated their food supply-to-kidnapped person ratio, obliging them to throw “excess” blacks over). As he speaks, the camera eye drifts to the galley of black mutineers, enrobed in white. In contrast to the extreme close-ups that frame Fitzgerald’s testimony, this is a wide shot. Eventually, the camera rests on Cinqué, spot-lit and looking in the opposite direction from the others, his brow furrowed. Is he thinking? The film adopts his point of view with tight shots, amplified diegetic sound (e.g., the court artist’s pencil), and extra-diegetic “African” drumming creating a sense of growing mental dis-ease. Taking freedom here plays out like a seizure. Cinqué’s imputed gaze continues to scan the room, lighting on Fitzgerald’s epaulet, sweat on a chair, a U.S. Naval officer scratching his foot, Holabird’s shadow, Joadson (Morgan Freeman) absently tapping the ground with his cane.  The pace of the montage, along with Cinqué’s sweating and rasping breath, suggests a dissociative episode more than the epiphanic moment one might expect. Suddenly, Cinqué finds the words, in English, that stop the delirium of open-ended signification. From the corner, he shouts, “Give us (us) free!” Cinqué stands, his outstretched manacled hands assuming a posture familiar from abolitionist iconography, and continues his entreaty.  Ens. Covey (Ejiofor) looks on approvingly.  A guard reaches for his weapon.  There is a cut to the other blacks in the courtroom, looking on. The “African” drums give way to a vocal chorus intoning wordlessly. An American flag billows in the background.

Outside of that moment, the film insists on Cinqué’s inability to speak English. (Both the Nigerian-English Ejiofor and Beninese-French Hounsou learned the Mende language for the film.) Cinqué has taken “freedom,” but can’t control its meanings. “Give us (us) free!” is of a different ideological and material order than taking freedom. It might figure a concept of originary alienation (give us our freedom, not the freedom available through your courts), but the liberal freedom that serves as transcendental signified forecloses those alternatives, overcoding or suppressing other possible meanings. Far-reaching rebellion tends to be unrepresentable and unrepresented in cinematic slavery. The rebels may well have envisioned freedom beyond the most literal (“not enslaved”), but the insisted-upon liberal framework makes freedom coextensive, as Saidiya Hartman has argued, with spiritual debt and obligation. As is generally true for cinematic slavery, the moment of revolutionary violence is a moment of madness that negates black interiority. Rebels are capable, that is, of a fundamentally reactive, even conservative violence rather than a truly transformative collective action.

This is the work of cinematic slavery: it makes slavery into a problem between individual actors fighting over the sacrosanct ideals of the nation, embodied in rational abolition rather than revolution. Their subject is not slavery but abolition, not the enslaved but the reforming abolitionist. These films succeed insofar as they find new ways to tell the told rather than the untold story of chattel slavery. In this sense, they depict per/formative national traumas. I do not mean to claim any lack of sincerity among filmmakers and spectators, only to draw attention to the narrative range of permissible depictions and emotional responses. As ritual phrases like “I now pronounce you man and wife” rely on past utterances for their effectiveness, cinematic slavery’s way of aligning tropes and grammars allow for the present to appear to be the fulfillment or redemption of the past. Relying on a handful of signifiers and plot contrivances, upon which each cinematic retelling relies for coherence, slavery becomes the site of national re-creation. Thus, cinematic slavery is per/formative insofar as it purports to address a national “original sin” for which atonement, in the form of manumission, has already happened. Acts of legal or extra-legal manumission—or acts of revenge, such as burning down individual plantations—substitute for more thoroughgoing forms of abolition, which would require reconceiving legal and even ontological relationships among persons and between persons and objects. Celebrating manumission leaves unconsidered the legal and extra-legal means through which the underlying logic of slavery—the interchangeability of laboring bodies, processes of racialization, the legal and ideological supports of exploitation—persists, however changed, in the present. These films can champion one enslaved person’s (self-)manumission so long as there’s no need to consider her living beyond that moment, no need to reckon with her belonging to the nation that emerges. The manumitted enslaved person, Thomas Jefferson infamously argued, were to be removed “beyond the reach of mixture,” beyond the reach of social intercourse. If cinematic slavery easily imagines the fugitive, no film fully imagines the black citizen. That step would require thinking slavery historically. To the degree that cinematic slavery endeavors to “preserve the humanity” of enslaved people it reifies the category of the slave as humanity’s other.

The limits of this national framing, which rub in complex ways against the tendency to cast actors of African parentage in lead roles, are complex. It’s worth asking what happens to the Caribbean, South America, and the African continent when films concerned with the Middle Passage primarily concern the United States and northern Europe. What would happen to the civic myths cinematic slavery upholds if spectators were required to think those through a broader and ongoing imperial history that makes the persistence of the slave narrative in international literature a kind of return of the repressed?

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