Revising movie history Film: 'Amistad' breaks with Hollywood stereotypes in its account of what happened to a boatload of Africans bound for slavery.

November 30, 1997|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

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.

Escape

"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.

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