Natalie Zemon Davis's Slaves on Screen: A Review Forum

Vanessa Schwartz, September 2001

It should come as no surprise that an historian as committed to popular culture in the 16th century as Natalie Zemon Davis should become interested in the defining popular cultural medium of our own era: film. As the example of her work as a consultant on The Return of Martin Guerre suggests, and as several articles written over the years have made clear, Davis would like historians to take film seriously—as an object of study, as a vehicle for historical narrative, and as the locus of one of the most important sites for the public debate of history. The publication of her first book about film, Slaves on Screen (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001) offers an occasion to revisit the increasingly charged field of film and history. This column offers two different perspectives on Davis's book—one by Adam Rothman, a historian of slavery and the African American experience; the other by Ginette Vincendeau, a leading film studies scholar, whose own work has importantly emphasized the historical context of film culture. The reviews not only evaluate the strengths and limitations of this new and important book but through Rothman's focus on accuracy and historiography and Vincendeau's concerns about the cinematic context for the production of films about slavery, also highlight each scholar's disciplinary point of view. Davis's reply nicely restates the aims of her book and in the process argues again for a greater understanding between historians and filmmakers, which is an indisputable point. What the forum allows us to grasp, however, is that there is room still for more of a shared agenda between historians and film studies scholars. Until historians pay more careful attention to such issues as the history of film genre, notions of cinematography and mise-en-scène, we will not be equipped to analyze the historical films already made nor will we be in a position to advocate more sophisticated filmmaking on historical subjects. If we want to get into the business of "infotainment," we may well need to start by embracing the value and power of entertainment.