Film and Media

The Author's Response

Natalie Zemon Davis, September 2001

This forum appears to reignite a turf war to which Slaves on Screen was intended to bring a truce. But I see it as a welcome opportunity for reflection. My fellow historian, Andrew Rothman, and I see eye to eye on several criteria for assessing how well a given film has lived up to its potential for telling about the past effectively. His pithy view of the overall imbalance in Amistad improves on my argument: the film foregrounds the trial and the lawyers' victory rather than the Middle Passage, the uprising, and their recall in the memory of the Africans (to him and me both, the strongest parts of the film). Indeed, when producer Deborah Allen first read of the Amistad, she wanted to make a film about a successful revolt of African captives.

Ginette Vincendeau gives a lively account of the shortcomings of Slaves on Screen as judged by her cinema studies concerns and a helpful list of authors and books that construct the history/film relation to her liking. I must, however, correct her misrepresentation of my picture of historical evidence as "transparent" and unproblematic in interpretation and of my method as a one-way critique by The Historian of the distortions of wayward film. Especially I must clarify the goal of the book—to show that film, with its own expanding techniques, aesthetics, and conventions, can tell important, insightful, and responsible stories about the past—a goal to which Vincendeau may be indifferent, but in any case does not report.

From my opening challenge to Aristotle's sharp contrast between history and poetry to my closing discussion of memories of slavery, I acknowledge and, indeed, welcome the role of imagination and comparative speculation in making sense of our evidence from the past. I point to gaps in that evidence—from the limited traces of Spartacus to the uncertainties in our information about infanticide among American slaves—and to controversies in interpretation that arise from many sources. For the historian writing in prose, I affirm our vocation: to be loyal to that evidence, with all its difficulties, as best we can in our historical reasoning and imagining; to let our readers know by various literary devices where that evidence comes from and where we are coming from in trying to understand it; and to give rhetorical markers to our speculation. For the serious maker of historical films, I urge that cinematic imagination and playfulness be guided by evidence, with all its difficulties, where it exists, and by the spirit of the evidence where there is nothing direct to draw upon for meaningful reenactment and complex reconstitution; and that he or she expand the cinematic means to say where a story comes from.

The interests of mainstream cinema studies are historical, aesthetic, and theoretical. The aesthetic and theoretical studies strike off sparks that can illumine the many ways a historical film communicates its messages, but the books rarely focus on this—Philip Rosen's Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001) is a significant innovation in this regard. The historical projects in cinema studies explore the history of filmmaking and/or how films are embedded in the period in which they are made, expressing and shaping its values, conflicts, sensibilities, and perceptions.

Slaves on Screen makes only a modest, if any, fresh contribution to these mainstream concerns of cinema studies: perhaps the framing of Amistad and Beloved by the traumatic memory of Holocaust-type wounds might have some interest for the embedders; perhaps the concept of historical films as a collective "thought experiment" about the past for filmmakers, actors, and audiences might be suggestive for theoreticians.

Essential and often pathbreaking though these mainstream studies are, little room has been left so far for a related but additional step: the independent evaluation of a historical film in terms of what it says about the past. Yes, Spartacus is informed by fear of repression and tyranny occasioned by the Red hunt and the Cold War and a "progressive" belief (to use our term from the 1950s) in the invincible commitment of the human spirit to liberty; yes, it is in dialogue with earlier "peplum" films—but can't we also go on to think about where, whether, or how the film does a good job in telling us about slavery, gladiators, resistance, and Roman life in the first century BCE? Whether seeing it might set up an interesting dialogue with writings about slave revolts by Romans and by historians today?

Slaves on Screen was written out of respect for the interests of four groups of people. First, some filmmakers really want to tell a story about the past. Since publishing the book, I've had further confirmation of this in Dalton Trumbo's papers: screenwriter Trumbo was debating the historical meaning of Spartacus's uprising with director Stanley Kubrick over weeks of filming. And last fall, Guy Deslauriers from Martinique told the audience for his Passage du Milieu at the International Toronto Film Festival that he made it, despite financial pressure, because it was a tale hidden from the descendants of those who had survived the trip. Slaves on Screen argues that to fulfill these historical hopes requires research and/or meaningful collaboration with people who study the past—and that the payoff for the film will be dramatic and visual as well. The second group of concern in Slaves on Screen are historians who are interested in evaluating film as a form of historical narrative. To them, I say along with Robert Rosenstone, Robert Toplin, Christian Delage and others: evaluate on the basis both of your historian's insight and store of information and of as much knowledge of filmmaking and the filmmaker's techniques and genres as you can get. Look for the telling detail and the broad cultural representations, not just for any correct or incorrect date or event; consider the value of composite figures and symbolic figures, which we historians sometimes use in our prose as well. And consider moving into film yourself, either through consulting or becoming a filmmaker.

The third group whose interests Slaves on Screen hopes to serve are the spectators. All my own experience with audiences of the film Le Retour de Martin Guerre confirms the view that they are active respondents to film. People go to historical movies to have a good time, sure, but good history is not boring. Audiences leave the theater arguing about the status of what they've seen and what they've been promised: "did it really happen that way?" or "I know that's the way it was [or wasn't] between slave and master." Popular investment in the past is everywhere evident, from the people seeking their families in the archives to the Civil War and other reenacters to those making claims based on ancient seizures of lands and persons or holy buildings and sites. Good historical film can encourage depth and perhaps some detachment in the understanding of the past, its strangeness and familiarities, even while it can delight its viewers.

The fourth group for whom Slaves on Screen has concern are long-dead persons, who left inscriptions of their efforts at manumission; family tales of capture, owners, escapes, marriages and children; abolitionist pamphlets; and plantation accounts and diaries. However we decide to tell their story, we owe it to them to treat the traces they've left us with seriousness. They are not a mere commodity for our use in book sales and box office receipts.

Ginette Vincendeau portrays the method of Slaves on Screen as a single-minded, one-way using of Hard Fact to grade films, usually downward. It is surely true that I seek evidence about slave resistance and slave culture from outside the five films themselves and outside of earlier films. It is used sometimes to point out the clichés and timidities in historical representation and alternatives to them (as in making Spartacus a 1950s common man, rather than, following Plutarch, a Thracian magician with a seer for a wife); sometimes to point out unnecessary oversimplifications; sometimes to point out misleading fabrications. At least as often, Slaves on Screen remarks on the strengths of the five films as historical narrative, including through their cinematic techniques (Kubrick's long shots of the Roman legions; the crossing of musical themes in Pontecorvo's Burn!). Sometimes evidence is cited to place the film in dialogue with other contemporary voices, adding resonance to our sense of the past: for instance, the West African singing and dancing "Why Slaves Cry" in The Last Supper next to similar tales of Hare and Hyena circulating in the Caribbean.

Finally, the movement in Slaves on Screen is not only one-way—from outside historical evidence (or literary text) to film—but two-way. Indeed, the quotation about Toni Morrison's prose, cited by Vincendeau, goes on not merely to say that the "central messages" of the story were "sustained" by the film but also that "in some ways they were enhanced" by the film. The enhancement stems from a cinematic choice: the casting of an actor with light skin in the role of Beloved. Throughout the book, I take a comparative look at the historical questions regarding slave resistance posed simultaneously, from the 1950s to the 1990s, in film and in historical writing. Along with fascinating similarities, there are also interpretive innovations in which filmmakers took the first step out of concerns central to cinema at the time. Thus, Spartacus portrays family and children among the slaves as a form of resistance before this was a subject in the historical literature. Burn! portrays carnival as a performance gliding into revolt when historians were just beginning to write about the connection between festivity and uprising.

Among Ginette Vincendeau's observations about the limitations of Slaves on Screen is one I take seriously: the book does relatively little with mise-en-scène, cinematography, and audience response. I concentrated in Slaves on Screen on what I had learned from my 18 months of work on the script and on location for Le Retour de Martin Guerre: matters of plot and exposition, characterization, expression, gesture, and spatial visualization. Much more could be done on the many ways that framing devices, camera movement, cutting, light, and color affect the historical account, as I suggest in the introduction. The reaction of readers, listeners, and spectators has always been a part of my study of early printed texts, sermons, proverbs, tales, and festivities, and a detailed look at audience response to the films analyzed in Slaves on Screen would expand its argument and perhaps turn it in new directions. I suspect we would be in for lots of surprises from good studies of audience response to historical films, and that they would give us a different picture from the stale recommendations that emerge out of studio previews and reports of box office receipts.

In these enterprises, there is a real chance for collaboration between historians and scholars of cinema studies. Let's open new paths to the past before political censors try to close them with their rulings.

—Natalie Zemon Davis is Henry Charles Lea Professor emeritus at Princeton University and is currently associated with the University of Toronto. Her most recent publication, apart from Slaves on Screen, is The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000).