It was 47 years ago that the controversial movie “Slaves” premiered in Baltimore. When this movie came out, it was very controversial. It was rated X (or today’s NR) so no one under 18 was admitted. By today’s standards, this movie might be rated R or even PG13 with its brief nudity and Cassie and MacKay’s mildly violent sexual foreplay scenes. The movie poster was titillating if not shocking, and the film trailer was banned. It was one of the first Blaxploitation movies to be released. It was a popular release when it came out, playing in theater’s and drive-in’s. It was re-released at least two more times during the 1970’s in theaters again. It was filmed in the summer of 1968 near Shreveport, LA, on an actual plantation. The plantation itself, Buena Vista, is actually considered to be haunted by both Civil War soldiers and former slaves. Several of the people who acted as extras in the movie were descendants of the Buena Vista slaves themselves. During 1969, racial tension in America was at an all time peak. Slaves could be considered either a reflection of that, or a movie that wanted to capitalize on it. The premiere took place on May 6, 1969 in Baltimore. Both Dionne Warwick and Stephen Boyd attended. The fact that Baltimore is a predominantly Afro-American city made this a perfect place to premiere a movie about the struggles of slavery.
It is actually based almost exclusively on the famous Harriet Beecher Stowe novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin‘. Before the term ‘Uncle Tom’ became a derogatory word, Uncle Tom’s character in Beecher’s novel was actually portrayed as very heroic, but in a muted way. He stands by his Christian values against his cruel but superstitious slave-master, Simon Legree, and he helps Legree’s mistress, Cassy, escape. Later theatrical productions of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ created a caricature, which led to the African American viewpoint that an ‘Uncle Tom’ was a subservient person. The Slaves screenwriters was very clever to take Beecher’s incredible story and modernize it, leaving out all references to ‘Uncle Tom’. Ossie Davis plays ‘Uncle Tom’, but his character’s name is changed to Luke. Cassy, played by songstress Dionne Warwick, keeps the same name from the novel. Stephen Boyd plays the sadistic slave master, and his character’s name is changed to Nathan MacKay. But the story is virtually the last half of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, including some dialogue that is almost verbatim. This passage from ‘Uncle tom’s Cabin’ truly captures the relationship of Legree/Cassy or MacKay/Cassy, and is perfectly portrayed both Boyd and Warwick in the film.
The influence of Cassy over him was a strange and singular kind. He was her owner, her tyrant and tormentor. She was, as he knew, wholly, and without any possibility of help or redress, in his hands;and yet so it is, that the most brutal man cannot live in constant association with a strong female influence, and not be greatly controlled by it. When he first bought her, she was, as she said, a woman delicately bred; and then he crushed her, without scruple, beneath the foot of his brutality. But, as time, and debasing influences, and despair, hardened womanhood within her, and waked the fires of fiercer passions, she had become in a measure his mistress, and he alternately tyrannized over and dreaded her.
Reviews of the film when it came out were understandably mixed. It is a low-budget production, so some of the usual slickness that covers up flaws in any film was missing here. The dialogue is sometimes strangely quixotic. Some reviewers liked it, others loathed it. “Boyd’s role as MacKay is a curious blend of a philosopher with a sound outlook and an evil man who wields a big whip. At times he’s whimsical, reasonable and agrees that the slave trade is a wretched, inhuman business.” (Pittsburgh Press review, June 5 1969) Stephen flourishes in the role as this particular villain- he is virile, handsome, commanding, eloquent, and evil. In his ruffled white-shirt and debonair mustache, Boyd reminds me of a twisted version of Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler from Gone With The Wind. His disturbing philosophical diatribe about slavery is delivered brilliantly, and brings to mind DiCaprio’s speech in Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”.
I recommend to take another look at this film now, after 47 years, and appreciate it for the barriers it broke at the time it came out. It’s a fascinating look at the 1968-1969 time period even though it’s set in the 1800’s.