“Slaves” is one of my favorite Stephen Boyd roles. He plays a thoroughly corrupt slave-owner names Nathan MacKay in the early 19th century at a plantation in Mississippi. There is absolutely nothing redeeming about this handsome villain! Stephen must have had a great time relishing in another bad guy role. Nathan MacKay reminds me a lot of Boyd’s other great villain, Messala, from “Ben-Hur”, even down to the whip he gets out to attack the hero at the climax of the movie, this time being his nemesis Luke Stillwill, played with incredible dignity by Ossie Davis.
At the time of making this film, Stephen said his only reason for doing the picture was not out of a social or moral obligation, but simply that he liked the role.
“Some people have the impression that people are in this picture because they want to say something. I don’t have a damn thing to say. MacKay says it, and what he says, God knows….Show me a business anywhere which is successful, and I will show you a man who could very easily be MacKay,” Boyd argues. “And that, to me, is really the point.”
Boyd had more to say after the movie had been released.
“You’ll search a long way before you find a more technically imperfect film, but that’s not what we were trying to do. We were trying to make the first true picture of slavery in America and we did…The black problem was still an untouchable on the screen prior to “Slaves” because the new films made that touched on the problem didn’t make money. But we’re breaking records everywhere we opened, and that’s where it counts…”
Indeed it did! But the reason “Slaves” was popular really boils down to a couple of things – sex and violence. It was exploitation, or blaxsploitation, in this case. I am sure the filmmakers had all the best, noble intentions for showing slavery for the horrid institution it was, but to sell a movie, you have to resort to other means.
The contrast is seen in the presentation of the “Slaves” LP cover compared to the movie poster. The LP cover shows the real ugliness and inhumanity of slavery with a picture of an anonymous black man’s foot chained by a horrid looking cuff on a wooden plank. If this had been the movie poster, only a few brave souls would have walked in the door to see this film!
In comparison, the half-size movie poster is lavish and sexy with beautiful artwork showing a burning plantation with a handful of some violent scenes, like the whippings and hangings, but softened by the handsome Boyd, dignified Davis and beautiful Warwick. These are all gorgeous people! The centerpiece is a defiant yet receptive Dionne Warwick being seduced by Stephen Boyd, who is just about to plant a kiss on her neck, clasping her naked shoulders. One look at this poster and audience feel immediate titillation and interest : interracial sex, violence, drama, Southern scenery and excess, a sort of diabolical “Gone with the Wind.” Even the tagline on the poster is alluring – “The tamings…the desires..the furies of the Old South as you have never seen it!” – “He bought her for $650. But she owned him!”
Speaking of breaking records, it looks like “Slaves” had a fairly lengthy shelf life. It was released in May of 1969, and continued to be played at drive-in movie theaters, paired with other exploitation flicks, as well as late-night, adult movie screens up through 1973, and then the midnight TV circuit into the late 70’s and 1980’s.
The entertaining review below is from the Schenectady Gazette from June 23, 1973.
“At State Has ‘Bad’ Boyd”
By Louise Boyka
“Slaves” when it came out several years ago was pretty much of a shocker. Even today Stephen Boyd and Dionne Warwick seem to be trying to shock us all. It’s at the State Theater with “Girls are for Loving.”
Anyway, Boyd has always been a favorite actor of mine and I thought anything he was in shouldn’t be all bad. Boyd plays a Southern plantation owner.
And he’s all bad.
Let’s see. The color is flossy. The plantation is stagey and immense. Massa is after his slaves all the time with cruelty and evil intentions. Little babies arrive without proper medical care and Massa is atrocious.
The plantation owners from far and wide hold a top-level meeting. It’s in Massa’s living room. Massa Boyd tells them of the rotten way he treats his slaves. He gives a rather interesting lecture on the African tribes with whom he did business. The African chiefs arranged with him to sell their own people. He describes his African art collection.
Dionne Warwick sings haunting blues throughout. She’s very alluring with Massa Boyd. Her own people are skeptical about her. The film, entitled “Slaves,” goes on in lurid fashion and Massa Boyd is bad. Very bad.
“She’s a slave who by day picks cotton and by night wallows lasciviously in the bed of her master. Between times she prances around the plantation in wildly colorful African garb and tribal makeup, a bourbon bottle under her arm and vengeance in her heart…Stephen Boyd is bland, but evil, as he approaches his mistress on his quest for what he calls “man-woman truth.” (Detroit Free Press, July 4, 1969)
To read some excellent true accounts of slavery in the Southern States, please refer to such classics as Harriett Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1952), and true life accounts by Harriet Jacobs in the riveting “Incidents in The Life of a Slave Girl” (1861), and Frederick Douglass’s classic account in “The Narrative of a Life” (1845).