“Slaves” is one of my all time favorite Stephen Boyd films, and it is incredible to think it has been 50 years since it was released in 1969! During the time is was coming out, “Ben-Hur” had just been re-released for its 10 year anniversary. The movie premiered in a perfect city – Baltimore – which hung on the edge of both North and South States and had a strong African-American population. Below are some of the pictures and fanfare of the premiere, which Stephen Boyd and Dionne Warwick both attended.
I wanted to share my experiences of visiting two Louisiana plantations recently, especially in lieu of the fact that this year marks 50 years since the release of “Slaves”, the controversial and under appreciated 1969 film about slavery. The film itself was made at the Buena Vista Plantation near Stonewall, LA., about 250 miles north of New Orleans near Shreveport. I hope to make a trip to that plantation later this year to document it for my blog.
In the meantime, however, I recently enjoyed a visit to New Orleans and had a great day trip from Grayline Tours which visited two plantation sights. Here’s what I saw.
On the way to Whitney, on “River Road”, we caught a glimpse of the Evergreen Plantation which was used for some scenes in Tarantino’s film “Django Unchained.”
I was very impressed with the narration and poignant documentary memorials at this site. When you arrive they give you a lanyard with a slave’s name and story on the back. You immediately feel connected to the scenes which are about to unfold. Unlike Buena Vista, Whitney Plantation, which is located on what the locals call “River Road” in the lower part of the state, was a sugar cane plantation. Buena Vista, which is located farther north, was a cotton plantation, as depicted in the movie “Slaves.”
At Whitney the sugar cane was harvested generally between October and January, but it was basically a year round ‘factory’, as our guide described it. The sugar cane was also processed on the plantation in a process called ‘The Jamaica Train”. Sugar cane was soaked, then pounded, then finally granulated into it’s final form. All of the working and cutting and harvesting of the sugar cane was done by slaves. The Whitney includes some of the original slave cabins, which housed anywhere form 14-25 people at a time. The slaves were allowed to raise chickens and grow other vegetables to feed themselves. It was a hard life and dangerous in so many ways – including not only overwork, but injury by all the dangerous tools used to harvest the sugar cane.
Besides some very touching statues of slave children, the Whitney includes some amazing memorial walls listing hundreds of peoples names – usually just first names, because that’s all we know about the people who lived here for generations in slavery. There are also brief stories engraved on these memorials as well of the heart-wrenching existence these people endured.
There is also a special monument to a slave uprising in the area, and also another section for the slave children, documenting some of their memories and also their names. There is also dreadful plantation bell which was rung through the day to keep all the slaves in time with their tasks or meals. People on our tour rang it in passing in memory of one of the slaves. Also at Whitney are some converted jail cells from New Orleans which were equal in size to the slave ‘pens’ which used to be located all around New Orleans, where the slave trade was constantly in motion. New Orleans was the capital of the slave trade. You can step into one of these pens and see the places were cuffs and chains were hooked.
Whitney was used as the location of the Academy Award winning film “12 Years a Slave”. It also has an oak tree path in the front of the house. We toured the first and second floor. It was rather modest and small to what you generally thing of a ‘plantation’ house.
My impression of Whitney is that this is a ‘must-see’ for anyone. Just like places like Auschwitz, which is also initially hard to visit, it is a place and an experience which really makes you appreciate and understand the harsh realities of what happened in the context of the time.
Onto the next plantation! Now I had seen Oak Alley many years ago, but they have done a better job now of displaying and explaining the slavery side of the plantation. Of course Oak Alley is known for it’s incredible big house, and the 300 year old oak trees which dominate the path towards the Mississippi. This plantation has been seen in many films, including “Interview with a Vampire.” The front of the house brings to mind the ‘moonlight and magnolias’ of the Old South in all its romance.
However, now the sight does show and document several of the slave stories from this plantation as well. There are several cabins which still stand, and the plaques explain the difference between the ‘house’ slaves and the ‘field hands’, which were the lowest of the slaves. It also tells specific stories of certain slaves, by name, and what happened to them on this plantation. On display are also chains and an especially grotesque-looking collar which would make it impossible for someone to try to escape.
To read the actual accounts of slavery is really the only way to really understand what went on. Accounts vary from person to person. Many masters were brutal while others were more gentle. Some slaves immediately fled the plantations after the Civil War while others lingered behind or stayed, either because of circumstance (wage labor) or merely considered the plantation and the masters family their own home. So many women were raped or brutalized and so many families were torn asunder. Slavery did damage to not only slave but slave-owner as well as the unlimited power these men (and women) had over others truly turned many of them into sadistic brutes. So many stories to tell.
I highly recommend the below books, as well as Frederick Douglass’ personal narrative.
When I Was A Slave (from the Slave Narration Collection)
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (“Slaves” is a loose remake of this novel)
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (one of the more harrowing true life accounts you will ever read)
Celia, A Slave by Melton A McLaurin
I’ll end with a quote from Harriet Jacobs riveting personal account from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Harriet hide in a crawl space above her grandmothers house for 7 years before she made her escape to the North!
DURING the first years of my service in Dr. Flint’s family, I was accustomed to share some indulgences with the children of my mistress. Though this seemed to me no more than right, I was grateful for it, and tried to merit the kindness by the faithful discharge of my duties. But I now entered on my fifteenth year—a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl. My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. Young as I was, I could not remain ignorant of their import. I tried to treat them with indifference or contempt. The master’s age, my extreme youth, and the fear that his conduct would be reported to my grandmother, made him bear this treatment for many months. He was a crafty man, and resorted to many means to accomplish his purposes.
Sometimes he had stormy, terrific ways, that made his victims tremble; sometimes he assumed a gentleness that he thought must surely subdue. Of the two, I preferred his stormy moods, although they left me trembling. He tried his utmost to corrupt the pure principles my grandmother had instilled. He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of. I turned from him with disgust and hatred. But he was my master. I was compelled to live under the same roof with him—where I saw a man forty years my senior daily violating the most sacred commandments of nature. He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things. My soul revolted against the mean tyranny. But where could I turn for protection?
No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress. In either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men. The mistress, who ought to protect the helpless victim, has no other feelings towards her but those of jealousy and rage. The degradation, the wrongs, the vices, that grow out of slavery, are more than I can describe. They are greater than you would willingly believe. Surely, if you credited one half the truths that are told you concerning the helpless millions suffering in this cruel bondage, you at the north would not help to tighten the yoke. You surely would refuse to do for the master, on your own soil, the mean and cruel work which trained bloodhounds and the lowest class of whites do for him at the south.
Every where the years bring to all enough of sin and sorrow; but in slavery the very dawn of life is darkened by these shadows. Even the little child, who is accustomed to wait on her mistress and her children, will learn, before she is twelve years old, why it is that her mistress hates such and such a one among the slaves. Perhaps the child’s own mother is among those hated ones. She listens to violent outbreaks of jealous passion, and cannot help understanding what is the cause. She will become prematurely knowing in evil things. Soon she will learn to tremble when she hears her master’s footfall. She will be compelled to realize that she is no longer a child. If God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration in the white woman only hastens the degradation of the female slave. I know that some are too much brutalized by slavery to feel the humiliation of their position; but many slaves feel it most acutely, and shrink from the memory of it. I cannot tell how much I suffered in the presence of these wrongs, nor how I am still pained by the retrospect.
My master met me at every turn, reminding me that I belonged to him, and swearing by heaven and earth that he would compel me to submit to him. If I went out for a breath of fresh air, after a day of unwearied toil, his footsteps dogged me. If I knelt by my mother’s grave, his dark shadow fell on me even there. The light heart which nature had given me became heavy with sad forebodings. The other slaves in my master’s house noticed the change. Many of them pitied me; but none dared to ask the cause. They had no need to inquire. They knew too well the guilty practices under that roof; and they were aware that to speak of them was an offense that never went unpunished.
A PERILOUS PASSAGE IN THE SLAVE GIRL’S LIFE.
……I have told you that Dr. Flint’s persecutions and his wife’s jealousy had given rise to some gossip in the neighborhood. Among others, it chanced that a white unmarried gentleman had obtained some knowledge of the circumstances in which I was placed. He knew my grandmother, and often spoke to me in the street. He became interested for me, and asked questions about my master, which I answered in part. He expressed a great deal of sympathy, and a wish to aid me. He constantly sought opportunities to see me, and wrote to me frequently. I was a poor slave girl, only fifteen years old.
So much attention from a superior person was, of course, flattering; for human nature is the same in all. I also felt grateful for his sympathy, and encouraged by his kind words. It seemed to me a great thing to have such a friend. By degrees, a more tender feeling crept into my heart. He was an educated and eloquent gentleman; too eloquent, alas, for the poor slave girl who trusted in him. Of course I saw whither all this was tending. I knew the impassable gulf between us; but to be an object of interest to a man who is not married, and who is not her master, is agreeable to the pride and feelings of a slave, if her miserable situation has left her any pride or sentiment. It seems less degrading to give one’s self, than to submit to compulsion. There is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you, except that which he gains by kindness and attachment. A master may treat you as rudely as he pleases, and you dare not speak; moreover, the wrong does not seem so great with an unmarried man, as with one who has a wife to be made unhappy. There may be sophistry in all this; but the condition of a slave confuses all principles of morality, and, in fact, renders the practice of them impossible….
THE NEW TIE TO LIFE.
…I had not seen Dr. Flint for five days. I had never seen him since I made the avowal to him. He talked of the disgrace I had brought on myself; how I had sinned against my master, and mortified my old grandmother. He intimated that if I had accepted his proposals, he, as a physician, could have saved me from exposure. He even condescended to pity me. Could he have offered wormwood more bitter? He, whose persecutions had been the cause of my sin!
“Linda,” said he, “though you have been criminal towards me, I feel for you, and I can pardon you if you obey my wishes. Tell me whether the fellow you wanted to marry is the father of your child. If you deceive me, you shall feel the fires of hell.”
I did not feel as proud as I had done. My strongest weapon with him was gone. I was lowered in my own estimation, and had resolved to bear his abuse in silence. But when he spoke contemptuously of the lover who had always treated me honorably; when I remembered that but for him I might have been a virtuous, free, and happy wife, I lost my patience. “I have sinned against God and myself,” I replied; “but not against you.”
He clinched his teeth, and muttered, “Curse you!” He came towards me, with ill-suppressed rage, and exclaimed, “You obstinate girl! I could grind your bones to powder! You have thrown yourself away on some worthless rascal. You are weak-minded, and have been easily persuaded by those who don’t care a straw for you. The future will settle accounts between us. You are blinded now; but hereafter you will be convinced that your master was your best friend. My lenity towards you is a proof of it. I might have punished you in many ways. I might have had you whipped till you fell dead under the lash. But I wanted you to live; I would have bettered your condition. Others cannot do it. You are my slave. Your mistress, disgusted by your conduct, forbids you to return to the house; therefore I leave you here for the present; but I shall see you often. I will call tomorrow.”
He came with frowning brows, that showed a dissatisfied state of mind. After asking about my health, he inquired whether my board was paid, and who visited me. He then went on to say that he had neglected his duty; that as a physician there were certain things that he ought to have explained to me. Then followed talk such as would have made the most shameless blush. He ordered me to stand up before him. I obeyed. “I command you,” said he, “to tell me whether the father of your child is white or black.” I hesitated. “Answer me this instant!” he exclaimed. I did answer. He sprang upon me like a wolf, and grabbed my arm as if he would have broken it. “Do you love him?” said he, in a hissing tone.
“I am thankful that I do not despise him,” I replied.
He raised his hand to strike me; but it fell again. I don’t know what arrested the blow. He sat down, with lips tightly compressed. At last he spoke. “I came here,” said he, “to make you a friendly proposition; but your ingratitude chafes me beyond endurance. You turn aside all my good intentions towards you. I don’t know what it is that keeps me from killing you.” Again he rose, as if he had a mind to strike me.
But he resumed. “On one condition I will forgive your insolence and crime. You must henceforth have no communication of any kind with the father of your child. You must not ask any thing from him, or receive any thing from him. I will take care of you and your child. You had better promise this at once, and not wait till you are deserted by him. This is the last act of mercy I shall show towards you.”
I said something about being unwilling to have my child supported by a man who had cursed it and me also. He rejoined, that a woman who had sunk to my level had no right to expect any thing else. He asked, for the last time, would I accept his kindness? I answered that I would not.
“Very well,” said he; “then take the consequences of your wayward course. Never look to me for help. You are my slave, and shall always be my slave. I will never sell you, that you may depend upon.” ….
“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)
The threat that terrifies more than whipping or torture of any kind is the threat of being sent down river – Harriet Beecher Stowe
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)
“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).