Although I've known it since childhood, there are times when I still find it difficult to accept that my native country, a country that prides itself on having been founded on principles of freedom, once approved of the buying and selling of human beings as personal property. Even more amazing is the fact that in my lifetime there were people still alive who had experienced chattel slavery firsthand. We're not talking about ancient history here.
Movies, in their role as cultural mirror, have a responsibility to remind us of those chapters of our national history that we'd rather forget as well as celebrating those we cherish. That's what director Steven Spielberg has done with "Amistad," his fictionalized account of a revolt on board a slave ship bound for America. Although portrayals of black slaves can be found in many films down through the years, Spielberg's disturbing portrait of the appalling treatment of slaves actually falls into the minority. Most movies featuring black slave roles have historically portrayed them as happy darkies, contented with their lot and devoted to their white masters. Only a few have built their dramatic narrative around the suggestion that plantation life might have been less than salutary for the slaves who made it possible. For a sampling of the films that took that comparatively rare perspective, look for these titles on video.
"Way Down South" (1939). In many respects, this interesting little film fits the standard pattern, portraying slaves who are the beneficiaries of humane treatment by a fundamentally decent master. When the good master dies, his son (played by Bobby Breen) seeks to help them as his father would have wished. Unfortunately, the beloved slaves have fallen into the clutches of a hateful slave driver in the Simon Legree tradition. One of the stars of the film, black character actor Clarence Muse, co-wrote the screenplay with poet Langston Hughes. The spirituals sung in the film were also written by Muse and Hughes.
"Tamango" (1959). Like "Amistad," this film is based around rebellion on board a slave ship. The title character is the mutinous slave who seeks to incite the insurrection, but the most controversial character in the story is actually the ship captain (Curt Jurgens), who becomes infatuated with a slave girl (Dorothy Dandridge) and takes her as his lover. This was at a time when even to hint at miscegenation in a movie was considered scandalous. The movie was made overseas and received only a very limited release due to its controversial subject matter.
"The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" (1974). Based on the novel by Ernest Gaines, this remarkable TV-movie traces the life of a fictional black woman who, having lived to the age of 110, serves as a living link between antebellum slavery and the civil rights movement. Because we are shown the entire panorama of her eventful life, only the early scenes depict life as a slave, but they are strong enough and honest enough to live in the memory. Cicely Tyson, in the title role, gives a virtuoso performance in what is still one of the best made for television movies ever.
"Roots" (1977). Naturally, we can't forget one of network television's most acclaimed miniseries. Alex Haley's novel based on his research into his own family tree was adapted with refreshing honesty, portraying its characters as human beings rather than as stereotypes or token symbols. It made a star of LeVar Burton as the young African Kunta Kinte, who is brought to America in chains. Although it wasn't the first screen portrayal of the horrors of slave life, it was the first to be seen so widely by so many people at the same time. With the full arsenal of a major television network's promotions department behind it, "Roots" became the predominant subject of water cooler conversation for the whole length of its run. Its contribution to public consciousness of what plantation life must have been like for black slaves can only be guessed at, but it was undoubtedly considerable. In a very real sense, "Roots" can be said to have laid the groundwork for "Amistad." If we're lucky, every subsequent generation will find on its screens a similar reminder of the grim truth of slavery. With the former slaves themselves now all dead and buried, from here out our cinematic cultural mirror must bear the burden alone.