Fifty years ago in the later summer of 1968, a few months after the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee, a small film group gathered in Shreveport, Louisiana to start on what was considered at the time a civil rights project to portray slavery as it really was in the deepest part of the South.
It was August and the heat was sweltering. Two thousand locals in the Shreveport area – some of which were related to the actual slaves who had been part of the Witherspoon plantation more than 100 years ago – turned up to be cast as extra or actors.
The site chosen by the producers, the old Witherspoon Plantation 20 miles south of Shreveport just past a read sign which reads, “Kick a Poo,” seems to be an unlikely place to film it. (Sept 29, 1968, El Paso Times) According to the president of Theatre Guild Films, they were lured there by the Shreveport Chamber of Commerce who proudly explained that this was ‘the real South.”
The project was imagined by Walter Reade Jr., the President and Board Chairman of the New York Based Walter Reade Organization, a company which produced a few minor films projects, Reade’s biggest success was releasing and exploiting Night of the Living Dead (1968). So in 1968, after America was reeling from the impact if civil unrest and Dr. King’s assassination, Hollywood started to look towards film projects about these subjects. Malcolm X, Dr. King, John Brown and Che Guevara were among the candidates for movie projects. The year before a controversial yet popular book documenting the life of the slave rebellion of Nat Turner (“The Confessions of Nat Turner”) had been released and immediately became a best seller. Its film rights were picked up immediately by 20th Century Fox.
The era of the protest film and the militant human rights leader as a Hollywood hero is at hand….The interest in racial themes is so pervasive that the first film to be made by the prestigious Theatre Guild, as it enters motion picture production, will be “The Slaves,” a “frank non sentimental view of slavery in the South circa 1850.” The film, to be shot in color on a $750,000 budget this summer on location in Florida, stars Stephen Boyd as a plantation owner, Dionne Warwick as his Negro mistress, and Ossie Davis as a slave who organizes a break of freedom.
The script for “the Slaves” was co-authorized by John O. Killens, Alida Sherman and Hervert J. Biberman. Killens is a Negro novelist, author of “Youngblood” and “The Cotillion” as well as the screenplay for “Odds against Tomorrow.” Miss Sherman is director of psychological services in a New York hospital. Biberman says “The Slaves’ will expose the wounds that the system inflicted on black and white that are still not healed. (Florida Today, June 6, 1968)
The location of the movie ended up moving from Florida to Louisiana, which seems more appropriate somehow. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the author Harriet Beecher Stowe explains the fear slaves had of being sold ‘down-river, into the heart of the deep south, or the proverbial Heart of Darkness. Up in Kentucky, where Ossie David’s character Luke Stillwell (based on Uncle Tom) resides, the conditions of slavery are bad obviously, but not as severe as the conditions in Mississippi or Louisiana.
The Mississippi! How, as by an enchanted wand, have its scenes been changed since Chateaubrand write his prose-poetic description of it, as a river of mighty, unbroken solitudes, rolling amid undreamed wonders of vegetable and animal existence.
But as in an hour, this river of dreams and wild romance has emerged to a reality scarcely less visionary and splendid. What other river of the world bears on its bosom to the ocean the wealth and enterprise of such another country? – a country whose products embrace all between the tropics and the poles! Those turbid waters, hurrying, foaming, tearing along, an apt resemblance of that headlong tide of business which is poured along its wave by a race more vehement and energetic than any the old world ever saw. Ah! would that they did not also bear along a more fearful freight, – the tears of the oppressed, the sighs of the helpless, the bitter prayers of poor, ignorant hearts to an unknown God – unknown, unseen and silent, but who will yet “come out of his place to save all the poor of the earth!” (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 14.1-2)
Several of the actors involved in the project, most notably Ossie Davis, were involved in civil rights activism. Ossie had given the eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral in 1965. He was also an outspoken opponent of the Hollywood film version of William Styron‘s best selling novel “The Confessions of Nat Turner.” Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion in rural Virginia in 1834 had shocked the white South to its core. It had resulted in the death of at least 60 people including women and children. After the rebellion had been crushed the repercussions were harsh and brutal for the slaves in the area. Harriet Jacobs, who was a slave in North Carolina ( Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl), described some of the ramifications in her town. Nat Turner’s insurrection…threw our town into a great commotion..by sunrise, people were pouring in from every quarter within twenty miles of the town…Colored people and slaves who lived in remove parts of the town suffered in an especial manner…Everywhere men, women and children were whipped til the blood stood in puddles at their feet…The consternation was universal.
Immediately before the filming of “Slaves” in 1968, Ossie had this to say about a potential film version of the book:
I find this book false to black history and an insult by implication to black womanhood…Styron’s implications about black men and black rebellion is that what agitates the black man is not a search for freedom but a search for white women…For a black actor, a black man, to lend his craft, his body, and his soul to such a flagrant libel against one of our greatest heroes, would be to have one of use become an agent for the enemy against our own legitimate aspirations.
Of course I can understand a Negro actor’s temptation, when offered a big part in a big picture. And, actually, my own hands are not clean–I once played ‘Emperor Jones’ and hated every moment of it, but I did it for economic reasons. (August 6, 1968, Pensacola News)
Ossie Davis was much more enthusiastic about filming “Slaves.”
Because of the times we live in, I would rather my son grew up with a more valid idea of what slavery was like. A lot of Negroes don’t know that black people were treated like human machines. I want my son to know that when black men rebelled it was to escape oppression.” (Nov 3, 1968 New York Daily News)
Slavery was not moonlight and magnolias…I’m here with a mission. One of the great needs today in the black community is a positive male image. Luke is a slave, but more important, he’s a positive black male image.
This is something my son and all other black sons- as well as white sons- need to be exposed to. Strength, dignity and courage, or even simple humanity. I don’t know if that’s been shown before in a picture. Slaves have been shown as buffoons, simpletons or at best Uncle Toms whose main interest is the welfare of the white masters.
The lesson as I see it, is that we had better solve racial problems while talk, compromise and mutual adjustment are still possible, rather than wait until extremisms on both sides take over. (Sept 29, 1968, El Paso Times)