- Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision
Anyone expecting an addition to the genre of “ravenous historian preys on feckless filmmaker” is in for quite a surprise. In her new book Natalie Zemon Davis offers a collection of original and generative essays that explore the potential of film to expand what she calls “historical vision.” Rather than viewing filmmakers as poachers who feed off the products of historians, Davis casts them as co-workers engaged in a serious form of historical inquiry
Davis’s credentials as social historian of medieval Europe, author of The Return of Martin Guerre, and consultant on the corresponding Le retour de Martin Guerre give her keen insight into the potential of different media for narrating the past. Written histories can choose to accentuate or mute issues of setting, color, accent, and movement. Film can’t. Sets need to be built, costumes need to be sewn, actors have to deliver lines. Thousands of decisions big and small loom large anytime a film engages the past. Davis urges us to move beyond asking [End Page 218] whether a film is “true” or “false” based on its proximity to the written record. It’s not that the question has lost meaning in a postmodern age but that it’s the wrong question to ask. More productive is asking what kind of historical inquiry the film constitutes, and how a given film expands our vision of past and leads to new questions.
The book is compactly organized into five chapters, an introduction that frames the terms of the argument and a conclusion that closes it. The three chapters in between explore five films about slavery: Sparticus (1960), Burn! (1969), The Last Supper (1976), Amistad (1997), and Beloved (1998). (Sprinkled throughout are movie stills of uneven quality, hard to understand when nearly every PC comes bundled with PhotoShop or equivalent.) For each of the five films, the author presents an overview describing the film’s creation (e.g., Kirk Douglas read Howard Fast’s Sparticus and became convinced of its potential as a movie), followed by a straightforward description of the story line. Only then does Davis turn to the film’s successes and failures in expanding historical vision.
While the book focuses on different treatments of slavery, it would be a mistake to see it primarily as an extended essay on issues of representation. The argument is broader, for just as Herodotus and Thucydides spurred a revolution in the writing of history as it moved from poetry to prose, so modern filmmakers have sparked a revolution no less significant. For most people, film and video, not books and articles, are the primary shapers of historical memory. Given changes in how we come to know the past, merely tweaking the categories for evaluating written history won’t do. Instead, Davis argues, we need to engage film as a “thought experiment” that confronts all of our senses—whether it is our sense of sound listening to Thracian slaves speaking in American accents in Sparticus or African slaves speaking in the original Mendian in Amistad, or our sense of sight in exploring the meaning of white in Pontecorvo’s Burn!, where the color inverts purity by coming to stand for the crushed bones of African slaves.
In combining historical and literary insights, Davis never abandons her critical eye. Her vision is particularly acute in pointing out missed opportunities, such as Kubrick’s in failing to explore aspects of Dionysian slave religion. However, the issue goes well beyond the filmmaker’s fidelity to the documentary record. One of the films that fares best in her estimation, Pontecorvo’s Burn!, takes place on the imaginary island of Queimada and combines events that occurred in Brazil, Cuba, Saint-Domingue, Jamaica, and elsewhere. Even Kubrick’s Sparticus gets high marks when departing from the scant record of the slave leader and granting him and wife Varinia a son—a birth that while appealing to universalist sentiments attests to commemorative inscriptions left by Roman slaves. It’s not brittle facticity that Davis...