‘Slaves’ owes debt to “Uncle Tom”
by Marjory Adams, The Boston Globe, July 17 1969
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was a 19th century novel which has been said to be one of the great reasons for the Civil War and the fight in the North against slavery.
“Slaves,” the Theater Guild Film production at the Orpheum and numerous other New England theaters, borrows a lot from the Harriet Beecher Stowe work although the obvious intent seems to be that Negroes still have a long way to go even if they managed to achieve freedom from their chains.
None of the action takes place in the present, but there are numerous bits of dialogue which are placed there for irony – – the hope that in the North all children get equal education, for instance, and the belief that escaped slaves will get a chance at meeting economic competition on equal terms.
Some of the old “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” features are necessarily missing. There are no Topsy and Eva combination. Eliza doesn’t cross the ice with her baby. The wide-eyed kid brought over to freedom in “Slaves” is carried in a friendly white woman’s carriage, and helped by her brother from the North.
But (Luke Stillwell) has many of the Uncle Tom characteristics–he reads the Bible, he believes in honesty and truth, and he possesses an honor which causes his tragic death when he refuses to betray his fellow slaves for his freedom.
Stephen Boyd plays the cruel master but this has its updated side. Capt Nathan Mackay, a nouveau-rich ex-slaves dealer who wants to prove his superiority to the aristocratic Southern plantation owners with whom he now associates, collects primitive African art and buys royal jewels from France for his black mistress. Dionne Warwick portrays Cassie, who lives in sin with Mackay, and hates him bitterly to the point of trying to kill him.
I am not sure why Director Herbert J Biberman, who also wrote the script, wanted to have Cassie dress so much like an actress in one of today’s African musicals or a model depicting the African trend in Harper’s Bazaar. The effect is weird.
But Miss Warwick as an actress and a singer makes up for some of the artificiality in her part. She does stand out no matter what silly dialogue is given to her.
Davis plays his role efficiently, with no extraneous touches. Kya-Hill offers some comedy relief, but primarily his role is there to point out the suffering of Luke, a sacrifice to his people.
In deference to the 1969 desire for uninhibited sex, there is a scene in which Cassie contemptuously lures her master on to raping her, and she spits scornfully in his face as proof that she is stronger than he is. Nothing is proved however, by this interracial love-making. It has little to do with the plot which centers on the evils of slavery and the cruelty of dividing black families and selling slaves into torture and death.
Much of the film was made near Shreveport, La., and as films of this type go, was brought in at moderate expense of just less than $1,000,0000. However, the picture has no make-shift scenery, nor visible short-cut photography.
There are excellent people playing subordinate roles in the picture. Gale Sondergaard takes a small role as a Southern woman who loathes the slave system; Shepperd Strudwick is the weak but basically kind master who sells Luke down river and Barbara Ann Teer has a pathetic scene as the wife whose husband is taken from her.
More Reviews of “Slaves”
Note: There seems to be a distinct difference between reviews of “Slaves” written in the North or the South, as you can see below. Just another example of just how polarizing this movie was at the time!
“…uppity, sexy member of his household (Dionne Warwick), popularly known as “the master’s wench.” When Boyd isn’t busy with her in some ludicrous bedroom scenes, he is out tying his blacks to trees or setting them on fire, or pitting them against each other as gladiatorial entertainment, or just plain whupping them.” (Clifford Terry, Chicago Tribune July 1, 1969)
“To begin with Dionne Warwick is a great disappointment. She strolls around the cotton fields and plantation house like she’s just been told Diana Ross replaced her on the album charts.”
“Stephen Boyd’s wooden performance suffers so from a lack of acting that you suffer along with it. He has the Clark Gable look, dress and walk in the world of moonlight and magnolias, but he’s nowhere near as good as the worst Gable role.” (Dale Perry, Greenville News, South Carolina)
“SLAVES is a powerful, sincere, and angry indictment of the sale and bondage of black people in this country during the nineteenth century. It is a reworking of the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with somewhat modern insights into psychology, inter-racial conflict, and the ambiguities of character. The dialogue and violence and the passions are raw and searing.”
“The performances throughout are excellent, surprisingly so in the case of Stephen Boyd…” (Daily Mail, Hagerstown, Maryland, August 22, 1969)
“Not a single performance in the film can be called even adequate. Stephen Boyd turns in a totally wooden, unfeeling characterization of McKay, the cruel master. His facial expression (unchanging throughout the film) is a simpering sneer. Is he trying to portray disgust? Cruelty? Or only mindless idiocy, like the rest of the actors (sic) in this waste? In his scenes of violent anger and sadistic passion, you’d expect to find at least some hint of his madness, but all he ever shows is that silly, meaningless grin.”
“Prior to “Slaves,”, Dionne Warwick has never acted in a film. Her record is still clean. She’s gorgeous to look at. A fashion parade of virtually every conception of African style is afforded the singer, and she wears them well, but as for acting–not a scratch. One of Boy’d line’s in reference to Miss Warwick “You won’t believe this, but that handsome masque in the corner is alive,” is an adequate description of her whole performance. She is a masque, a manikin who matches her leading man in emotional void.”
“A tell-it-all-like-it-was documentary account would have been far preferable to this romanticized, inane, cliché-ridden melodrama.”
(Filmed here: “Slaves Called Inane, Cliché-Ridden”, October 17, 1969, The Shreveport Times)
Mr. Biberman (Slaves Director) : ” I was after something much more complex than nostalgic realism – I hope that’s made clear in the character of Nathan McKay (Stephen Boyd), who is a genuine admirer of the history and the art of the black man and who is capable of deep love for a black woman. But this admiration- and compassion – makes him in no sense any less a slave master: Even as he’s praising black people and all their accomplishments, he’s destroying them by virtue of his position. (Baltimore Sun, May 4, 1969)
“The slave master, one critic says, is a one-dimensional and shallow character. I assert that because of the portrayal, it is an accurate capsule of the corrupting influence of the unjust system. The slave master played by Stephen Boyd is unique in that he does not justify himself or slavery based on two great myths: (1) The black man is inherently childish and happily irresponsible; (2) White ascendancy is due to black innate superiority. The slave master knows some of the superior past culture of the blacks. (Black studies are as imperative for white as blacks.) He, therefore, acknowledges that he is master due to power to own and use blacks for his purpose. ” (Sidney Daniels, Letter to the Editor, “The Slaves”, The Evening Sun, Baltimore, June 2, 1969)
The Major of Baltimore after the premiere of “Slaves” in May 1969 (attended by none other than Miss Warwick and Mr. Boyd) : “…wondering aloud about how the city’s “young warriors” would react to some of the film’s sensational scenes. These included scenes in which a white plantation owner rapes a black woman doubling as his slave and his mistress, threatens the emasculation by flame of a slave refusing to disclose escape plans, fatally flogs a slave whose willpower and strength of character obviously exceed is own.” (The Evening Sun, Baltimore, May 8, 1969)
” “The Slaves”, a lurid movie now showing at a local theater, purports to depict ‘the slavery system as you have never seen it, the Story of Master and Slave – a man who played God and a woman who became mistress of his plantation.”
It was filmed last year in Louisiana with distinct lack of enthusiasm among many folks of our sister state who considered is a cheap quickie defaming the South.
The so- called “world premiere” drew about 1,000 persona, mostly colored, according to the news story in the Baltimore Sun which said the movie was ‘a decided disappointment, specifically in the obviousness, artificiality and lack of depth”.
Ossie Davis, colored male star of “The Slaves” has had at least twelve connections with Communist front organizations, according to informations from the files of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities sent to Congressman John R. Rarick of Louisiana.
Herbert Biberman, director of “The Slaves” movie, reportedly has been identified as a member of the Communist Party by 15 different witnesses in various public hearings before the Committee on Un-American Activities, red-front and revolutionist causes, the records indicate.
“The Slaves”, as advertised, is an “epic” of sex and violence centered around a lusty white master (Stephen Boyd) and his black slave mistress (Dionne Warwick). This is a favorite theme in the central vogue glamorizing mixed sex.
One Louisiana editor has written ” Let us guess two reasons why this motion picture was filmed. (1) To increase black hatred for Whitey and (2) To increase the white ‘guilt’ complex’ ”
(Aren’t those the Red Party objectives in America?) (Mississippi Notebook, by Tom Ethridge, Oct 28, 1969, Clarion- Ledger Mississippi)
“…I never dreamed that Ossie Davis –whose very presence ordinarily fills a screen with the undeniable reality of a warm, flesh-and-blood man–would be capable of a stilted performance. Yet, except for a moment near the end, he seems self-conscious and wooden. On the other hand, Mr. Boyd, conditioned perhaps by a long career of playing stinkers, manages to make the most of his role –which, partly because of the conception, partly because of the elan he manages to give it, is the most interesting one of the film.”
“And now, having enumerated all of the reasons why you should not see the film, I’m going to do a switch and recommend that you do. I make this recommendation because :
- As a work purporting to present an accurate picture of slavery, it automatically becomes part of the social fabric of our time and, as such, should be evaluated by each person individually.
- Despite its failure to achieve reality as art, the suffering it describes is real. It happened. People were humiliated, hanged and beaten to death. And, in Mr. Davis’s final scene, the weight of all this suffering bursts the film’s artificial framework and descends upon us with irresistible force.” (‘ Slaves’ – Admirable in Purpose, Disappointing As Work of Art’, The Baltimore Sun, May 7, 1969)