Slavery and Emancipation in the Movies
Since 1915, slavery -- and the struggle against it -- has been at the heart of some of filmdom’s greatest productions that often snare Oscar gold, created by top talents ranging from showmen to artistes to blockbuster filmmakers to the Hollywood Ten. The buying and selling of human flesh, and the resistance to it, has appeared onscreen in various forms, but motion picture human bondage appears primarily in five film genres, always reflecting their own times.
Ancient Epoch Epics
Ancient history has provided fertile ground for moviedom’s depictions of slavery. Cecil B. DeMille directed the biblical epic “The Ten Commandments” as a 1923 black and white silent film, then as the beloved 1956 VistaVision remake, starring Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as pharaoh. Forced, unpaid labor is often slavery’s raison d’etre; the Exodus saga of enchained Hebrews “way down in Egypt’s land” building Rameses’ pyramids is the quintessential tale of brutal bondage. With its special effects parting of the Red Sea, “The Ten Commandments” is the archetypal liberation story, resonating in segregated 1950s America, as Rosa Parks literally refused to take a backseat to “whitey” and Martin Luther King led the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Talk about “let my people go!”
Heston returned, chains and all, as another enslaved Jew in 1959’s remake of a different silent classic, “Ben-Hur,” co-written by Gore Vidal. Its memorable galley-slave and chariot sequences, with Heston drag racing Stephen Boyd’s centurion, scored the future NRA prez an Academy Award. “Ben-Hur” won 11 of those coveted golden statuettes, including Best Picture and Best Director (William Wyler). Like “Commandments,” it could be interpreted as commenting on the state of Israel’s birth. “Ben Hur” was remade as a TV mini-series in 2010.
With valiant gladiators fighting to the death for the amusement of Rome’s patricians and plebians, the Roman Empire is the setting for numerous slave productions. There have been eight versions of “Quo Vadis?” since 1902; the most popular is Mervyn LeRoy’s 1951 epic with Peter Ustinov as Emperor Nero – not to be outdone by Malcolm McDowell in 1979’s “Caligula,” based on Vidal’s novel. In 2000 Oscar gave thumbs up to Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” as Best Picture, and Russell Crowe as Best Actor for his Maximus.
But the best silver screen sandal, sword, and toga epic is Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 “Spartacus.” The narrator opens saying: “Even at the zenith of her pride and power, the Republic lay fatally stricken with a disease called human slavery. The age of the dictator was at hand...” Kirk Douglas stars as the gladiator who rallies the 120,000-man slave army that almost defeats Laurence Olivier’s legions, nearly toppling the Roman Empire around 71 B.C.
Woody Strode as African slave Draba is executed and hanged for refusing to kill Spartacus in the ring – referencing American race relations and lynching. Spartacus/ Douglas expresses the gospel according to the downtrodden: “When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it. That’s why we’ll win.”
After the slave rebellion has been vanquished, the Romans offer the captured insurgents a deal: hand over their leader and live, or face mass crucifixion. Douglas rises to turn himself in and spare his beaten men, but Antoninus (Tony Curtis) proclaims, “I’m Spartacus!” followed by the other rebels, who also declare they’re “Spartacus.”
Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, known for humanistic, anti-fascist scripts, was among Tinseltown’s highest paid screenwriters during Hollywood’s Golden Age, writing classics such as 1944’s “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.” Trumbo adapted “Spartacus” from the novel by his fellow blacklisted ex-Red, Howard Fast, who was persecuted by Sen. Joe McCarthy. In 1947, Trumbo became one of the Hollywood Ten, leftists refusing to inform on other progressives when summoned to Washington to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The studios blacklisted the “unfriendly” witnesses, who were cited for contempt of Congress and imprisoned.
After Trumbo was freed, he wrote scripts under pseudonyms, winning a 1957 Oscar under an assumed name. With “Spartacus,” Kirk Douglas played his greatest role –offscreen -- successfully insisting that Trumbo receive screen credit, helping to end Hollywood’s blacklist. The onscreen slaves’ refusal to inform on Spartacus is Trumbo’s statement against “naming names.” And like the other historical slave epics, “Spartacus” reflected the 1950s/60s Civil Rights movement, which artists like Trumbo supported.
In Richard Lester’s 1966 comedy, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” Zero Mostel plays Pseudolus, whom Marcus Lycus (Phil Silvers) calls: “The lyingest, cheatingest, sloppiest slave in all Rome!” What makes Pseudolus such a conniver? When Hero (Michael Crawford) tells him, “People do not go around freeing slaves every day,” Pseudolus cracks: “Be the first. Start a fashion.” Pseudolus is motivated by his all-too-human desire to be free, master of his own destiny, something Mostel – a Jew blacklisted during the HUAC/McCarthy era – related to. (African American comedienne Whoopi Goldberg played Pseudolus in 1997’s Broadway revival.)
Film’s fascination with ancient slavery continues. The TV mini-series “Spartacus” aired in 2004, and an ongoing, blood-spattered separate sexy series, “Spartacus: War of the Damned,” appears on the Starz cable network. In Mel Gibson’s 2006 “Apocalypto,” enslaved Mayans are sacrificed by pagan priests. 2006’s “300” depicts the 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae, pitting Spartans against a Persian Army bent on enslaving Greek city-states. HBO’s 2005--2007 series “Rome” featured episodes directed by Michael Apted.
The African Slave Trade
Ironically, while Greeks and Romans spoke of democracy and republics for themselves, they also owned slaves. As did Americans, and the “peculiar institution” is portrayed in some of Tinseltown’s biggest boffo box office hits – although not always authentically. When a co-author of this article asked Chris Rock – who directed, co-wrote and starred in 2003’s “Head of State” as America’s first Black president -- how Hollywood depicted slaves, he replied: “Not really good.”
The comedian/filmmaker apparently meant D.W. Griffith’s 1915 “The Birth of a Nation” and 1939’s “Gone with the Wind.” Both blockbusters portrayed contented banjo strumming, watermelon chomping “darkies” enjoying antebellum plantation life until the Civil War upset the South’s “natural” order. During Reconstruction white knight/night riders (Klansmen in Griffith’s despicable epic) help restore white supremacy by returning newly freed, uppity Blacks to their “proper” place: The yoke of Jim Crow.
At a private screening of “I Think I Love My Wife,” Rock, whose humor lampoons racism, said the Black director of 1996’s “The Great White Hype,” Reginald Hudlin, “wanted to make a movie about the Middle Passage. White studio executives asked: ‘Why do the slaves want to be free? What’s their motivation?’ The film never got made,” Rock acidly observed. (Hudlin might have responded with a Lincoln quip: “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”)
At the screening Louis C.K., who co-wrote Rock’s 2007 marital comedy, added that Steven Spielberg’s 1997 “Amistad” was a movie dealing with the horrific transshipment of Blacks from Africa to America that did get made, but noted, “‘Amistad’ is about a white guy. Matthew McConaughey drank and went to court,” where he and Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams defended Africans led by Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), who’d commandeered a slave ship. The 1993 indie “Sankofa” also exposed the Middle Passage’s horrors.
Not all Tinseltown productions about America’s peculiar institution are peculiar. According to Rock, “Alex Haley’s ‘Roots’ is probably the best.” (Haley also co-authored Malcolm X’s autobiography.) During the broadcast of the 1977 mini-series, 66% of the nation’s TVs were tuned to the tale of Kunta Kinte’s kin and their journey towards jubilee, triggering a trend in genealogical research.
Hollywood’s John Brown, the most militant Caucasian abolitionist, is usually portrayed as a lunatic. In director John Cromwell’s 1940 “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” Raymond Massey played Honest Abe, while Cromwell himself appeared in an uncredited cameo as John Brown. (Cromwell went on to be blacklisted during the HUAC/McCarthy era; his son, James Cromwell, is now one of Hollywood’s most outspoken progressives.) Massey went from portraying the Great Emancipator to playing the abolitionist, depicting Brown as a madman in both 1940’s “Sante Fe Trail” and 1955’s “Seven Angry Men.” According to conventional (Confederate) wisdom, any white who took up arms to free Blacks must have been insane. But history arguably proved Brown to be 19th century America’s most logical white man, as it took the bloodiest war in U.S. history to abolish slavery. In 1964, when asked if whites could join the Organization of Afro-American Unity, Malcolm X paid tribute to the anti-slavery guerrilla, responding: “If John Brown were still alive, we might accept him.”
In 1957’s “Band of Angels,” upon the death of her debt-ridden father, Amantha Starr (Yvonne De Carlo) -- a plantation owner’s daughter raised as white -- discovers her mother was a slave. Amanda is sold at a New Orleans slave auction to Hamish Bond, played by an aging Clark Gable, reprising a role similar to “Gone with the Wind’s” Rhett Butler. “Band Of Angels” features African-American actor Sidney Poitier in an early important film role as Gable’s educated plantation slave, Rau-Ru, who runs away at the outbreak of the Civil War to join the Union Army a third of a century before Denzel Washington joined an all-Black regiment and won an Oscar in 1989’s “Glory.” A key reflective moment in a film full of Hollywood stereotypes and Old South romanticism has Gable stating that white injustice to black people will last a long time, but that justice will come, taking 100 years. Ironically, “Band Of Angels” was directed by Raoul Walsh, who 42 years earlier had played Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, in a key scene in “The Birth of a Nation.”
Blacklisted talents, long devoted to social justice and racial equality, returned to the screen with anti-slavery sagas. John Berry directed 1959’s “Tamango,” with Dorothy Dandridge, and the Hollywood Ten’s Herbert Biberman – who’d directed 1944’s anti-nazi “The Master Race” and 1954’s pro-labor, pro-Chicano, and pro-women’s rights film “Salt of the Earth.” Biberman helmed 1969’s “Slaves,” starring Ossie Davis. And Muhammad Ali played an ex-slave elected to the Senate in 1979’s made-for-TV-movie “Freedom Road,” based on Howard Fast’s novel.
Marlon Brando considered 1969’s “Burn!” -- about anti-colonial slave revolts on a Caribbean island -- his most interesting film. The Black Power movie was directed and written by Gillo Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas, who’d co-created 1965’s “Battle of Algiers,” a riveting account of Algeria’s independence movement.
In the Cuban director Rigoberto Lopez’s 2004 “Scent of an Oak” a German merchant (Jorge Perrugoria) falls in love with an ex-slave (Lia Chapman), and they establish a model of liberation at their coffee plantation, Angerona. But instead of inspiring Cuba’s plantation owners to pursue fair play, the slavers persecute the interracial couple instead.
In 2012 French TV director/co-writer Philippe Niang put on the stellar French mini-series “Toussaint L’Ouverture,” starring Haiti-born actor Jimmy Jean-Louis as the co-leader of 1791’s Haitian revolution. The action-packed film follows the title character’s evolution from slave to the “New Spartacus,” general and governor of the “world’s first Black republic,” as Haiti is called. In the process the cause takes its toll on Toussaint’s private life, especially on his wife Suzanne (Malian/Gambian actress Aïssa Maïga of 2006’s “Bamako”). Toussaint comes across at all times as a dignified, extraordinary individual – the real deal, who is at the same time made of flesh and blood: No statue is he. This made-for-TV-production looks great, with lush production values and superb period costumes, which enhance its ambiance of authenticity. The Caribbean sequences were lensed at Martinique. This is a production worthy of those brave Black Jacobins, who defeated Napoleon and terrified America’s slaveholders.
According to IMDB, Jeta Amata -- one of Nollywood’s top filmmakers -- directed “Emperor: The Story of Toussaint l’Ouverture,” set to be released in 2013, the 210th anniversary of the freedom fighter’s death.
Television’s top documentarian, Ken Burns, deals with issues stemming from American slavery and its aftermath in two nonfiction PBS mini-series, 1990’s “The Civil War” and 1999’s “Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony.” “The Emancipation Proclamation took the Civil War from being a battle over Union and the survival of the nation and took it to a higher plane,” Burns said in an interview with one of this article’s co-authors. “It was saying that we were going to live out the true meaning of our creed, which was that ‘all men are created equal.’ The guy who wrote that owned other human beings, and so set in motion events that would eventually lead to the greatest cataclysm in the history of our country, the Civil War, that killed nearly 750,000 people. It’s always a complicated thing; it’s not black or white. There were Union soldiers who laid down their arms and said they ‘would rather have moss grow on their backs than fight for the liberation of the Black man.’ They were there for Union at that time. For others, it was a great ennobling cause, and helped keep France and England from coming in on the side of the South.”
Referring to “Not for Ourselves Alone,” Burns went on to say: “In the Suffrage movement though, those who had worked tirelessly for abolition and women’s rights thought that by the time Black men were extended the vote, they would extend the vote to everyone. Why just Black men? Why not [Black] women and women in general? And there was great division within these liberation movements, if you will, within the crusades for abolition when the women suddenly got angry that they hadn’t been rewarded for focusing on abolition by extending it. And they took it out on Black men. Frederick Douglass had to fight back a woman who had defended him, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the author of the amendment that would eventually become the right for women to come.”
In 2007, during the bicentennial of Britain’s abolition of slavery, two films – both named “Amazing Grace” and screened during Black History Month at L.A.’s Pan-African Film Festival – commemorated the evils of enslavement and the movement to abolish it. In Michael Apted’s UK version, Ioan Gruffudd, who plays Mr. Fantastic in “Fantastic Four,” portrays an even more phenomenal superhero, the real-life English politician William Wilberforce who spearheaded the struggle to ban Britain’s trafficking in human cargo. For decades, Wilberforce and his merry band of abolitionists used petitions, boycotts and demonstrations to convince Parliament to pass the 1807 law that finally ended the English Empire’s transshipment of human chattel.
Both “Amazing Grace” movies take their name from the Christian hymn, its music derived from African folksongs with lyrics by John Newton. The Nigerian version of “Amazing Grace,” directed by Jeta Amata, features a slave uprising and is a biopic about English slaver John Newton, who realized the errors of his ways, composed the hymn “Amazing Grace” and devoted the rest of his life to abolishing slavery. “I once was lost but now am found” – indeed! Newton became Wilberforce’s mentor; Albert Finney portrays Newton in Apted’s adaptation.
Now, two top anti-slavery major motion pictures have come in time for the Emancipation Proclamation’s 150th birthday. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” written by Tony Kushner, partially based on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals,” focuses on the final months of the 16th president’s life, as he struggles to pass the 13th Amendment. The backroom politicking, as the Great Emancipator (Daniel Day-Lewis in another Oscar caliber, bravura performance) alternately twists legislative arms and dangles carrots in the form of presidential perqs, while contending with a troubled wife (Sally Fields as Mary Todd Lincoln), is brilliantly conveyed. As 1863’s Emancipation Proclamation only abolished slavery in the Southern states that had seceded -- an area the Union did not actually control -- the abolition of slavery, once and for all time, required a constitutional guarantee. Lincoln deftly presides over Congress’ passage of Amendment XIII during the Civil War’s closing days in 1865, aided by the scene-stealing Tommy Lee Jones as the staunch abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who, discretely, has a Black lover.
Lincoln” is an idealistic liberal fantasy film. In a critical online editorial, Matt Rothschild, editor of The Progressive Magazine, asks: “Where, oh where, was Frederick Douglass?” noting that “Lincoln had an important friendship with the great black freedom fighter, an amazing figure unto himself, but there is no Frederick Douglass in this film—and, for that matter, no strong African American who is neither a soldier nor a house servant, with all of them positioned in subservience.” Blacks are welcomed into the House gallery during the vote on the amendment that would ensure their freedom from enslavement, but they are passive witnesses, instead of the active participants as seen in “Glory,” wherein armed African-Americans -- more than 200,000 -- fought for their own liberation.
Following a private screening of “Lincoln” at the Directors Guild of America’s Sunset Strip theatre J.J. Abrams interviewed Spielberg onstage, noting that the last Lincolnesque biopics starred Henry Fonda in John Ford’s 1939 “Young Mr. Lincoln” and Raymond Massey in the aforementioned “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” reprising the role in several 1950s TV appearances and a cameo in 1962’s “How the West Was Won.” Spielberg quipped that he “risked offending a statue,” and added: “There have been more books written about Lincoln than any other historical figure outside of the Bible.”
Spielberg stressed the film’s emphasis on accuracy, saying that “photos of historical figures” and places were used to ensure authenticity. However, unlike Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” Spielberg opted against depicting Lincoln’s assassination. “He earned not to have you witness that. It would be a cheap sensational moment,” Spielberg said regarding the movie which is largely devoid of the spectacle of battle prominently featured in some of his other films, including 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan” and 2012’s “War Horse.”
Characters don’t bleed in Quentin Tarantino movies -- blood spurts, splattered all over the place, and in “Django Unchained” Jamie Foxx’s eponymous ex-slave- turned-bounty hunter kills more “whiteys” than Denmark Vessey, Nat Turner, the Black Panthers and Black Liberation Army combined. Bullets fly fast and furious in Tarantino’s Spaghetti Western-meets-Blaxploitation film-meets-Wagnerian opera, along with what The Hollywood Reporter states is more than 100 utterances of the “N-word.” In this bloodfest, like Siegfried in Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, Django struggles to free his wife Brünnhilde (Kerry Washington), who is enslaved at the Mississippi plantation of Candyland by the wicked owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). His deviously devoted “house Negro” Stephen is portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, who appears made up to resemble that advertising icon, “Uncle Ben.”
In a post-screening conversation with fellow director Taylor Hackford on the DGA’s stage in Hollywood, Tarantino alluded to the mythic “Nibelungen,” observing, “the circle of hellfire around her [Washington’s Brünnhilde] is slavery.” Tarantino explained his über-violent story choices: “I can understand that people are uncomfortable with a slave narrative. It was the ugliest time.” The “Pulp Fiction” director described the plantation owners as “Southern aristocrats” who “lived the life of barons. An army of slaves were theirs; whites were paid slave wages to keep the slaves in line. You really were the king.” Tarantino called DiCaprio’s slave master “Caligula” and explained that the character has to come up with hobbies to keep life interesting. Mandingo fighting” is a blood sport the cruel Candie indulges in, ordering slaves to engage in mortal combat solely to amuse him.
Tarantino seems to agree with John Brown’s last written words “that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood.” A sequence featuring masked night riders mocks the Ku Klux Klan, the heroes of “The Birth of a Nation.”
“That was my ‘fuck you’ to D.W. Griffith,” Tarantino exulted, defiantly raising his middle finger. At the DGA screening, when the co-authors asked Foxx -- who’d won the Best Actor Oscar for portraying Ray Charles in 2004’s “Ray” and an ex-gang leader in the 2004 made-for-TV-movie “Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story” -- if he was thinking about the Emancipation Proclamation’s sesquicentennial while shooting “Django Unchained” Foxx replied: “I was thinking about everything.”
Forced Labor Camps
20th century-set slavery pictures moved from plantations to concentration camps, primarily during World War II. Secretly co-written by blacklistees Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is about Allied soldiers in a POW camp forced by Imperial Japanese soldiers to construct a railway bridge in an Asian jungle.
Hitler’s “Final Solution” spawned many Holocaust pictures, including adaptations of the Anne Frank saga about the teenaged Jewish diarist who went from hiding in a Dutch attic to Bergen-Belsen. Confronted by Nazism, the innocent girl, played by Millie Perkins in George Stevens’ 1959 “The Diary of Anne Frank,” poignantly muses: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are basically good at heart.”
Forced labor camps were powerfully portrayed in Italian cinema. Pontecorvo and Solinas’ 1959 “Kapo” features a concentration camp revolt.
In Lina Wertmuller’s 1975 “Seven Beauties,” Giancarlo Giannini’s Latin lover woos a repulsive Nazi camp commandant in order to survive.
In 1997’s Oscar-winning “Life is Beautiful,” actor/director Roberto Benigni spares his son from fascism’s horrors by convincing him the death camp they’re imprisoned in is just a big game.
Although most slavery pictures are dramas, the last two, interestingly, are comedies -- like Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 “The Great Dictator,” the 1960s TV series “Hogan’s Heroes,” Dani Levy’s 2007 “My Fuhrer,” plus Mel Brooks’ 1968 “The Producers” and the 2005 musical adaptation of the movie and play featuring the “Springtime for Hitler” dance extravaganza.
Spielberg directed the greatest concentration camp film ever, 1993’s Best Picture, “Schindler’s List,” starring Liam Neeson as a real-life righteous rescuer of Jews.
While most forced labor camp pictures deal with fascism, 1970’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was based on Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel about Stalin’s gulag archipelago.
1984’s “The Killing Fields” exposes Pol Pot’s death camps in Cambodia and is directed by Roland Joffe (who also made 1986’s “The Mission,” about slavery in 18th century South America). Just as Greeks and Americans spoke of democracy but owned slaves, Stalinists have sometimes turned a blind eye to police state practices carried out in the name of Marx and Lenin.
Oskar Schindler, who heroically saved hundreds of Jews, was an Aryan and Nazi Party member, but there’s also a Tinseltown trend of portraying the oppressed themselves, standing up for their rights and fighting back.
Daniel Craig portrayed rea-life Jewish resistance leader Tuvia Bielski who was licensed to kill Nazis in 2008’s “Defiance,” set in Belarus during WWII.
Tarantino’s 2009 gory “Inglourious Basterds” depicts American and European Jews fighting fascism in Nazi-occupied France. Interestingly, like Tarantino, “Defiance” director Ed Zwick also helmed a picture wherein the downtrodden arise to fight for freedom -- “Glory,” about the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the Civil War’s first African-American fighting units.
Sci Fi Slavery
Science fiction spawned futuristic pictures of human bondage. In the satirical “Planet of the Apes” the human Charlton Heston is captured by highly evolved apes and imprisoned in a Homo Sapien zoo. The 1968 film is a clever commentary on race, class and Darwin co-written by blacklistee Michael Wilson. The original was so successful that it evolved into a series of sequels, a 1974 TV series, a 2001 remake and 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” proving that Hollywood knows a good -- and profitable -- thing when it sees it.
In 1948 George Orwell wrote “1984,” a dystopian novel about totalitarian thought police watching people through TVs. (What would Orwell think of today’s surveillance society? If the PATRIOT Act isn’t snooping on you, YouTube, cell phones, stoplight-cams are.) Orwell’s chilling Big Brother fable was adapted in 1956 and 1984, starring Edmond O’Brien, then John Hurt, as Winston Smith, rebelling against the doubletalking regime that declares: “Freedom is slavery.” In 2006, activist/actor Tim Robbins directed a stage version of “1984,” reflecting torture and Gestapo-like tactics at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, CIA secret prisons, etc. Futuristic national security states are also depicted in 2006’s “V for Vendetta” and “Children of Men.”
It’s hard to believe but a century and a half after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, forms of enslavement continues -- at home and abroad.
In 2010’s “Casino Jack” Kevin Spacey and Spencer Garrett depict über-Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Majority Whip Tom “The Hammer” DeLay. Among other things, George Hickenlooper’s film reveals their slave labor racket in sweatshops at the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory with its coveted “made in U.S.A.” labels, which have ensured garments preferential trade treatment.
Academy Award winner Mira Sorvino is a United Nations goodwill ambassador who focuses on and lobbies against contemporary forced labor and sex trafficking. Putting her money where her mouth is, Sorvino plays an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in the 2005 Lifetime miniseries “Human Trafficking.” Sorvino returns to the theme in 2012’s Thailand-shot “Trade of Innocents,” co-starring with Dermot Mulroney as a couple thwarting sex trafficking in Southeast Asia. In Dec. 6, 2012 Sorvino told the National Conference of State Legislatures’ annual forum at Washington: “On the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we must adopt a uniform, zero-tolerance policy toward modern-day slavery.”
In 2010’s “The Whistleblower,” Rachel Weisz depicts Kathryn Bolkovac, a real-life Nebraska police investigator who worked as a U.N. International Police Force monitor in war torn Bosnia. British actress/activist Vanessa Redgrave co-stars as Madeleine Rees, the gender expert and Head of Office in Bosnia and Herzegovina of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. In this hard-hitting film Redgrave and Weisz’s characters expose a sex trafficking and prostitution ring which U.N. employees are implicated in.
In the 2012 LAPD thriller “End of Watch” Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena portray young officers who stumble upon a human trafficking ring of undocumented workers from South of the border.
21st Century Slavery
Why has there been a silver screen slave procession that continues to our day?
Hollywood stresses the individual, and in slave pictures, the white characters. But imagine how much more dramatic “Gone with the Wind” would be if an urban militant like Spike Lee, instead of Southern belle Margaret Mitchell, wrote it and then directed it. Instead of focusing on Rhett and Scarlet’s sex life, Prissy and Mammy might lead a Nat Turner-like mass uprising and burn Tara to the ground. Now that’s entertainment!
If drama is conflict, the struggle to be free is the stuff high drama is made of. What could possibly be more gripping than the battle caused by involuntary submission to someone who owns and exploits other humans as pieces of property? Unfortunately, the yoke of human bondage has not been conquered by the milk of human kindness and remains among us today. Like the ghost in 1998’s “Beloved,” servitude’s legacy still haunts us. As the world’s oldest human rights organization, London-based Anti-Slavery International (ASI), points out: “It is something we think of as part of our history rather than our present. But the reality is slavery continues TODAY.”
200 years after Britain outlawed the slave trade, and 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the Confederacy, slavery makes headlines.
According to ASI, although outlawed by conventions such as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Women from eastern Europe are bonded into prostitution, children are trafficked between West African countries and men are forced to work as slaves on Brazilian agricultural estates. Contemporary slavery takes various forms and affects people of all ages, sex and race.”
On Nov. 24, 2012 112 unorganized low wage workers perished in a fire at a Bangladesh sweatshop due to the unsafe working conditions and negligence of the owner of the Tarzeen Fashions factory, which provided garments to Walmart, Sears and other Western companies. According to the New York Times, nine “midlevel managers and supervisors prevented employees from leaving their sewing machines even after a fire alarm sounded.” The tragedy was reminiscent of the deadliest workplace accident ever in New York, when largely due to locked doors 100-plus mostly female workers were unable to escape a blaze at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911, which was recounted in the 2011 documentary “Triangle Fire.”
“Amistad’s” Djimon Hounsou was Oscar-nominated for 2006’s “Blood Diamond,” which co-starred DiCaprio and is about child soldiers impressed into service during Sierra Leone’s civil war. Slavery persists from Sudan to Saipan, the U.S. territory where Asian women are forced into the sex industry and sweat shop labor, according to “Casino Jack,” as well as the Robert Greenwald-presented 2006 documentary “The Big Buy: Tom DeLay’s Stolen Congress.”
Another form of bonded labor is decried in two 2006 documentaries, Danny “News Dissector” Schechter’s “In Debt We Trust” and James Scurlock’s “Maxed Out,” revealing how credit cards and high interest rates turn millions of Americans into modern day indentured servants.
The U.S. military’s involuntary servitude through a backdoor draft and involuntary extension of a serviceman/woman’s tour of duty is exposed and challenged in anti-war documentaries such as Patricia Foulkrod’s 2006 “The Ground Truth” and Kimberly Peirce’s 2008 feature “Stop-Loss.”
Although the Transatlantic slave trade ended long ago, globalization engenders its own migrant labor, and the 21st century peonage of undocumented workers is exposed in Richard Linklater’s 2006 “Fast Food Nation.” 2006’s Best Picture Oscar winner, “Crash,” ends with a Huey Newton-quoting petty Black criminal stumbling upon a van-full of “illegal” Chinese aliens. But instead of profiteering from trafficking in human cargo, he has enough consciousness to emancipate them instead.
2012’s “Les Miserables” opens with a scene of convict labor performed by prisoners in shackles. The musical movie based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel closes with a vibrant tableaux that suggests heaven is when the enslaved of the Earth revolt and throw off the chains that bind them.
As we observe the 150th birthday of the Emancipation Proclamation it’s worth remembering that wherever there is slavery in any form, sooner or later resistance follows -- along with filmmakers who, to paraphrase Percy Bysshe Shelley, are humanity’s unacknowledged legislators.
Ed Rampell and Luis I. Reyes co-authored “Made in Paradise, Hollywood’s Films of Hawaii and the South Seas” and “Pearl Harbor in the Movies.” They are currently writing a new book on Hawaii films and TV programs since 1995. Reyes co-wrote “Hispanics in Hollywood, A celebration of 100 years in film and Television.” Rampell wrote “Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States,” and contributes regularly to The Progressive magazine.
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