✍ Slaves on Screen. Film and Historical Vision 
por Teoría de la historia
It should come as no surprise that an historian as committed to popular culture in the 16th century as Natalie Zemon Davis should become interested in the defining popular cultural medium of our own era: film. As the example of her work as a consultant on The Return of Martin Guerre suggests, and as several articles written over the years have made clear, Davis would like historians to take film seriously—as an object of study, as a vehicle for historical narrative, and as the locus of one of the most important sites for the public debate of history. The publication of her first book about film, Slaves on Screen (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001) offers an occasion to revisit the increasingly charged field of film and history. This column offers two different perspectives on Davis’s book—one by Adam Rothman, a historian of slavery and the African American experience; the other by Ginette Vincendeau, a leading film studies scholar, whose own work has importantly emphasized the historical context of film culture. The reviews not only evaluate the strengths and limitations of this new and important book but through Rothman’s focus on accuracy and historiography and Vincendeau’s concerns about the cinematic context for the production of films about slavery, also highlight each scholar’s disciplinary point of view. Davis’s reply nicely restates the aims of her book and in the process argues again for a greater understanding between historians and filmmakers, which is an indisputable point. What the forum allows us to grasp, however, is that there is room still for more of a shared agenda between historians and film studies scholars. Until historians pay more careful attention to such issues as the history of film genre, notions of cinematography and mise-en-scène, we will not be equipped to analyze the historical films already made nor will we be in a position to advocate more sophisticated filmmaking on historical subjects. If we want to get into the business of “infotainment,” we may well need to start by embracing the value and power of entertainment.
[Vanessa SCHWARTZ. “Natalie Zemon Davis’s Slaves on Screen: A Review Forum”, in Perspectives on History, septiembre de 2001]
Slavery has often provided filmmakers with rich symbolism and drama. In The Phantom Menace, for instance, George Lucas originates the Star Wars epic in the slave quarters of Mos Espa on the planet of Tatooine, where young Anakin Skywalker (later to become Darth Vader) lives with his mother. But you don’t need to travel to a galaxy far, far away to encounter slaves on screen, as Natalie Zemon Davis’s fine new book demonstrates. In Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision, Davis examines five movies having to do with slavery and, in particular, slave resistance: Spartacus (1960), Burn! (1969), The Last Supper (1976), Amistad (1997), and Beloved (1998). Davis admires these movies’ historical consciousness, but criticizes them for needless departures from the historical record. None of these movies is a perfectly accurate depiction of historical events, but all have a verisimilitude, an appearance of truth, that distinguishes them from more purely romantic fantasies like Gladiator. Even Beloved, a movie that frequently reminds the audience of its fantastical qualities, derives much of its emotional force from the knowledge that something like it actually happened. It is this verisimilitude that warrants historians’ scrutiny. At their best, as in The Last Supper, movies can offer a richly imagined depiction of the complex social relations that gave rise to slave resistance and rebellion. But under the guise of historical authenticity, as in Amistad, movies can end up reinforcing stereotypical and simplistic understandings of the history of slavery. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s The Last Supper stands out as a model of the collaboration between scholarship and art. The Last Supper vividly depicts the clash of religious traditions—Christian and African—that gave spiritual meaning to the conflict between slave owners and slaves. With the assistance of Manuel Moreno Fraginals, an eminent historian of Cuban slavery, Gutiérrez Alea depicted the true and fascinating story of the Count de Casa Bayona, a devout sugar planter who recruits 12 of his slaves to participate in a re-creation of the Last Supper in honor of Holy Week, only to have the slaves lead a revolt against him, killing his overseer and burning down the sugar mill. Feeling betrayed, the irate count hunts down 11 of the rebels, has them executed and their heads mounted on stakes. Only Sebastián, the leader of the revolt, escapes. The movie’s departures from the historical record are minor and plausible, filling in the gaps in that record with vivid characterizations. Davis draws attention to Gutiérrez Alea’s nuanced portrayals of the various enslaved men around the Count’s supper table. Each man has a unique background and a different story to tell, illustrating the diversity within Afro-American slave communities. Amistad, on the other hand, distorts the history of slavery in intentional and unintentional ways. Amistad’s images of the Middle Passage are powerful and its portrayals of Cinque and the other captive Africans are nuanced. But the movie takes gratuitous liberties with the historical record. It invents one important character (Theodore Joadson), substantially alters another (Roger Baldwin), and distorts the contributions of a third (Lewis Tappan). It caricatures almost all the leading politicians who enter the story, especially John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren, whose careers with respect to slavery were vastly more complicated than Amistad indicates. Finally, the movie exaggerates the significance of the Supreme Court’s action in the Amistad case, which was decided on rather narrow, technical grounds and did not free any person legally held as a slave in the United States. Just as Schindler’s List plucked an exceptional story of goodness out of the brutal history of the Holocaust, Amistad depicts one of the rare antislavery victories in the dismal history of slavery in antebellum America. Spielberg would have had to make a rather different movie about Nat Turner’s insurrection or the slave revolt on board the Creole, an American vessel carrying American-born slaves from one port in the United States to another (see Eric Foner, “Hollywood Invades the Classroom,” the New York Times, December 20, 1997). For historians, the most interesting aspect of the book may be the way that the historiography of slavery has been consciously and unconsciously incorporated in film. The modern debate among historians over slavery began in the late 1950s with the publication of Stanley Elkins’s Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), which argued that both the plantation and the concentration camp reduced their victims to psychological dependence. Much of the historical scholarship that followed Elkins tried to show that enslaved people resisted slavery in myriad ways, and in resisting, carved out a space for themselves that enabled them to survive and endure its brutalizing pressures. This opposition between victimization and resistance has been important to the modern study of slavery and is central to all the movies Davis analyzes. But, as more than one generation of historians has demonstrated, stories of slave resistance and rebellion do not represent the sum total of the history of slavery. The daily round of work, family, and religion has yet to find its way into film. Not as dramatic or overtly heroic, the quotidian aspects of slave life remain the province of historians and the people who read their books.
[Adam ROTHMAN. “A Fine New Book”, in Perspectives on History, septiembre de 2001]
Natalie Zemon Davis is a distinguished professor of history with an interest in film, as demonstrated in her most famous book, The Return of Martin Guerre (1983). Slaves on Screen follows the program of its title in discussing the depiction of slaves in a small corpus of films from 1960 to 1999: from slaves in ancient Rome in Spartacus, to a variety of rebellions by slaves of African origins in Haiti (Burn!), Cuba (The Last Supper), and the United States (Amistad), as well as the question of slave history and memory in Beloved, Jonathan Demme’s film based on Toni Morrison’s novel. Undoubtedly the subject of Davis’s book, the largest part of which is devoted to the traumas and legacies of the barbarous “Middle Passage” on today’s African Americans, is topical and important. The book ends with a discussion of Amistad and Beloved, two films produced by three of the most influential people in today’s American cultural scene: Steven Spielberg (director of Amistad), Toni Morrison and Oprah Winfrey (one of the originators and star of the film version of Beloved). For this reason perhaps, but also because the earlier films are no longer widely seen, the reader’s interest increases as the book progresses. Davis’s prose is consistently clear and free of jargon and she conveys her historian’s erudition in an uncluttered and direct manner. This is a short, economical book (too short even; one might argue for a wider range of films and certainly for a filmography, a bibliography, and an index). Slaves on Screen speaks vividly, and at times emotionally, to all those with an interest in slavery and especially in the relationship between African Americans and their past. Whether it speaks as eloquently to those interested in film is a different matter. Slaves on Screen falls within two related fields in film studies. The main one is that of film and history, the other—especially in the case of Beloved—that of literary adaptation. In both cases, and especially when writers in these fields come not from film studies, but from history or literature, film often ends up as the subsidiary term to a higher instance, be it historical “truth” or literature. “Film and history” is a large field in which the work of Siegfried Kracauer, Dudley Andrew, Richard Allen and Douglas Gomery, Marc Ferro, Michèle Lagny and Pierre Sorlin (to name the most prominent) has shown, through the decades since Kracauer’s 1947 groundbreaking study From Caligari to Hitler, the multifarious understandings of the relationships between film and history, taking aesthetic, economic, sociological, ideological, or cultural approaches. As Marc Ferro put it, “every film has value as a document, whatever its seeming nature” (Cinema and History, 1988). One can see how the genre of “historical film” would be of particular interest to a historian, but as the work of Ferro and more recently Lagny (De l’histoire du cinéma, 1992) show, the historian needs to be alert to the textual and contextual specificities of film, whether fiction, documentary, home movie, or whatever, and in particular to other films produced at the same time as the object of study. More recently still, an excellent study by Sylvie Lindeperg on the representation of World War II, the German occupation, and the Resistance in French films (the 1997 publication, Les écrans de l’ombre, La Seconde Guerre mondiale dans le cinéma français, 1944–1969) demonstrates how the basic historical events of the period were instantly mythologized and restaged differently in all sorts of texts and in waves of films to suit diverse ideological contexts over the decades, on an analogy with Georges Duby’s analysis of the representation of the 1214 battle of Bouvines in an array of written texts. The representation of slavery, from the racist early 1960s at the time of Spartacus (and of course from the earliest days of the cinema), to the more enlightened, and more politically correct 1990s, would, if such an approach were used, no doubt reveal an interesting and complex trajectory. Davis’s method in contrast consists in comparing each film in turn with the “real” events and, unsurprisingly, the film’s shortcomings are exposed: simplifications, omissions, inventions, in short, betrayals. If I put “real” in inverted commas here, it is not because I don’t believe in reality—and indeed Davis expertly marshals the empirical evidence for the events depicted in the films—but because the sources of such data (including literature) are assumed in this book to be self-evidently correct and transparently readable, rather than texts that are constructed and subject to a host of constraints, biases and manipulations, just like films in fact. When it comes to the comparison between book and film, a similar hierarchy is at work: “In the movement from the miraculous prose of Toni Morrison to the screen, the story of Beloved has lost some of its breadth, complexity, and imaginative range.” (p. 108). Although in this instance, Davis goes on to say that the book’s “central messages have been sustained,” her position is within the classic paradigm of “fidelity” that has plagued studies of literary adaptations (see Brian McFarlane, From Novel to Film: An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation, 1996). It is not that Davis is not interested in films. There is valuable information on the production context and, as I said, she does praise the films at various points. But production context here means the decisions made by the people involved (drawn mainly from interviews) and not the wider context of generic trends and industrial strategies—for instance the production of particular genres in relation to technology (such as wide screen in Spartacus), stardom (for example, Brando in Burn!), and so on. Davis’s analysis also remains on the level of explicit content and narrative (each chapter contains lengthy plot commentaries) rather than symbolism and, crucially, cinematography and mise-en-scène. There is little detailed textual analysis and, more surprising, no interest in the reception of the film, whether by critics or audiences. There is an assumption throughout that the historian-analyst can, by measuring the film against the standard of “truth”, account for a unique and final meaning of the film—no reading against the grain here, no polysemy, no ambiguity; whereas, to take an example in a related topic, Jacqueline Bobo’s work (Black Women as Cultural Readers, 1995) on the reception of Spielberg’s The Color Purple by black women spectators showed precisely such complexity, turning on their head the standard readings of the film at the time. Davis, on the other hand, assumes that the audience (of Amistad) needs guidance and “should be let in on the game and not be given the false impression of a ‘true story'” (p. 131). There is thus an oddly didactic slant to Davis’s approach and she does not hesitate either to apportion blame and guidance to filmmakers on how to produce more accurate films. For instance, in reference again to Amistad, Davis declares, “There could have been other solutions ‘here the camera would offer'” (p. 92). Maybe this is interesting speculation to Davis, but what use is it to the viewer of the existing film? Davis concludes her book with the stern advice that “Historical films should let the past be the past.” Agreed, but then historians should also let films be films.
[Ginette VINCENDEAU. “Let Films Be Films”, in Perspectives on History, septiembre de 2001]
This forum appears to reignite a turf war to which Slaves on Screen was intended to bring a truce. But I see it as a welcome opportunity for reflection. My fellow historian, Andrew Rothman, and I see eye to eye on several criteria for assessing how well a given film has lived up to its potential for telling about the past effectively. His pithy view of the overall imbalance in Amistad improves on my argument: the film foregrounds the trial and the lawyers’ victory rather than the Middle Passage, the uprising, and their recall in the memory of the Africans (to him and me both, the strongest parts of the film). Indeed, when producer Deborah Allen first read of the Amistad, she wanted to make a film about a successful revolt of African captives. Ginette Vincendeau gives a lively account of the shortcomings of Slaves on Screen as judged by her cinema studies concerns and a helpful list of authors and books that construct the history/film relation to her liking. I must, however, correct her misrepresentation of my picture of historical evidence as “transparent” and unproblematic in interpretation and of my method as a one-way critique by The Historian of the distortions of wayward film. Especially I must clarify the goal of the book—to show that film, with its own expanding techniques, aesthetics, and conventions, can tell important, insightful, and responsible stories about the past—a goal to which Vincendeau may be indifferent, but in any case does not report. From my opening challenge to Aristotle’s sharp contrast between history and poetry to my closing discussion of memories of slavery, I acknowledge and, indeed, welcome the role of imagination and comparative speculation in making sense of our evidence from the past. I point to gaps in that evidence—from the limited traces of Spartacus to the uncertainties in our information about infanticide among American slaves—and to controversies in interpretation that arise from many sources. For the historian writing in prose, I affirm our vocation: to be loyal to that evidence, with all its difficulties, as best we can in our historical reasoning and imagining; to let our readers know by various literary devices where that evidence comes from and where we are coming from in trying to understand it; and to give rhetorical markers to our speculation. For the serious maker of historical films, I urge that cinematic imagination and playfulness be guided by evidence, with all its difficulties, where it exists, and by the spirit of the evidence where there is nothing direct to draw upon for meaningful reenactment and complex reconstitution; and that he or she expand the cinematic means to say where a story comes from. The interests of mainstream cinema studies are historical, aesthetic, and theoretical. The aesthetic and theoretical studies strike off sparks that can illumine the many ways a historical film communicates its messages, but the books rarely focus on this—Philip Rosen’s Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001) is a significant innovation in this regard. The historical projects in cinema studies explore the history of filmmaking and/or how films are embedded in the period in which they are made, expressing and shaping its values, conflicts, sensibilities, and perceptions. Slaves on Screen makes only a modest, if any, fresh contribution to these mainstream concerns of cinema studies: perhaps the framing of Amistad and Beloved by the traumatic memory of Holocaust-type wounds might have some interest for the embedders; perhaps the concept of historical films as a collective “thought experiment” about the past for filmmakers, actors, and audiences might be suggestive for theoreticians. Essential and often pathbreaking though these mainstream studies are, little room has been left so far for a related but additional step: the independent evaluation of a historical film in terms of what it says about the past. Yes, Spartacus is informed by fear of repression and tyranny occasioned by the Red hunt and the Cold War and a “progressive” belief (to use our term from the 1950s) in the invincible commitment of the human spirit to liberty; yes, it is in dialogue with earlier “peplum” films—but can’t we also go on to think about where, whether, or how the film does a good job in telling us about slavery, gladiators, resistance, and Roman life in the first century BCE? Whether seeing it might set up an interesting dialogue with writings about slave revolts by Romans and by historians today? Slaves on Screen was written out of respect for the interests of four groups of people. First, some filmmakers really want to tell a story about the past. Since publishing the book, I’ve had further confirmation of this in Dalton Trumbo’s papers: screenwriter Trumbo was debating the historical meaning of Spartacus’s uprising with director Stanley Kubrick over weeks of filming. And last fall, Guy Deslauriers from Martinique told the audience for his Passage du Milieu at the International Toronto Film Festival that he made it, despite financial pressure, because it was a tale hidden from the descendants of those who had survived the trip. Slaves on Screen argues that to fulfill these historical hopes requires research and/or meaningful collaboration with people who study the past—and that the payoff for the film will be dramatic and visual as well. The second group of concern in Slaves on Screen are historians who are interested in evaluating film as a form of historical narrative. To them, I say along with Robert Rosenstone, Robert Toplin, Christian Delage and others: evaluate on the basis both of your historian’s insight and store of information and of as much knowledge of filmmaking and the filmmaker’s techniques and genres as you can get. Look for the telling detail and the broad cultural representations, not just for any correct or incorrect date or event; consider the value of composite figures and symbolic figures, which we historians sometimes use in our prose as well. And consider moving into film yourself, either through consulting or becoming a filmmaker. The third group whose interests Slaves on Screen hopes to serve are the spectators. All my own experience with audiences of the film Le Retour de Martin Guerre confirms the view that they are active respondents to film. People go to historical movies to have a good time, sure, but good history is not boring. Audiences leave the theater arguing about the status of what they’ve seen and what they’ve been promised: “did it really happen that way?” or “I know that’s the way it was [or wasn’t] between slave and master.” Popular investment in the past is everywhere evident, from the people seeking their families in the archives to the Civil War and other reenacters to those making claims based on ancient seizures of lands and persons or holy buildings and sites. Good historical film can encourage depth and perhaps some detachment in the understanding of the past, its strangeness and familiarities, even while it can delight its viewers. The fourth group for whom Slaves on Screen has concern are long-dead persons, who left inscriptions of their efforts at manumission; family tales of capture, owners, escapes, marriages and children; abolitionist pamphlets; and plantation accounts and diaries. However we decide to tell their story, we owe it to them to treat the traces they’ve left us with seriousness. They are not a mere commodity for our use in book sales and box office receipts. Ginette Vincendeau portrays the method of Slaves on Screen as a single-minded, one-way using of Hard Fact to grade films, usually downward. It is surely true that I seek evidence about slave resistance and slave culture from outside the five films themselves and outside of earlier films. It is used sometimes to point out the clichés and timidities in historical representation and alternatives to them (as in making Spartacus a 1950s common man, rather than, following Plutarch, a Thracian magician with a seer for a wife); sometimes to point out unnecessary oversimplifications; sometimes to point out misleading fabrications. At least as often, Slaves on Screen remarks on the strengths of the five films as historical narrative, including through their cinematic techniques (Kubrick’s long shots of the Roman legions; the crossing of musical themes in Pontecorvo’s Burn!). Sometimes evidence is cited to place the film in dialogue with other contemporary voices, adding resonance to our sense of the past: for instance, the West African singing and dancing “Why Slaves Cry” in The Last Supper next to similar tales of Hare and Hyena circulating in the Caribbean. Finally, the movement in Slaves on Screen is not only one-way—from outside historical evidence (or literary text) to film—but two-way. Indeed, the quotation about Toni Morrison’s prose, cited by Vincendeau, goes on not merely to say that the “central messages” of the story were “sustained” by the film but also that “in some ways they were enhanced” by the film. The enhancement stems from a cinematic choice: the casting of an actor with light skin in the role of Beloved. Throughout the book, I take a comparative look at the historical questions regarding slave resistance posed simultaneously, from the 1950s to the 1990s, in film and in historical writing. Along with fascinating similarities, there are also interpretive innovations in which filmmakers took the first step out of concerns central to cinema at the time. Thus, Spartacus portrays family and children among the slaves as a form of resistance before this was a subject in the historical literature. Burn! portrays carnival as a performance gliding into revolt when historians were just beginning to write about the connection between festivity and uprising. Among Ginette Vincendeau’s observations about the limitations of Slaves on Screen is one I take seriously: the book does relatively little with mise-en-scène, cinematography, and audience response. I concentrated in Slaves on Screen on what I had learned from my 18 months of work on the script and on location for Le Retour de Martin Guerre: matters of plot and exposition, characterization, expression, gesture, and spatial visualization. Much more could be done on the many ways that framing devices, camera movement, cutting, light, and color affect the historical account, as I suggest in the introduction. The reaction of readers, listeners, and spectators has always been a part of my study of early printed texts, sermons, proverbs, tales, and festivities, and a detailed look at audience response to the films analyzed in Slaves on Screen would expand its argument and perhaps turn it in new directions. I suspect we would be in for lots of surprises from good studies of audience response to historical films, and that they would give us a different picture from the stale recommendations that emerge out of studio previews and reports of box office receipts. In these enterprises, there is a real chance for collaboration between historians and scholars of cinema studies. Let’s open new paths to the past before political censors try to close them with their rulings.
[Natalie ZEMON DAVIS. “The Author’s Response”, in Perspectives on History, septiembre de 2001]