Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 20, 2013

Screening Slavery

Filed under: Africa,Film,slavery — louisproyect @ 6:22 pm

We need more films like “Quilombo”–about slave revolts rather than slavery.

Counterpunch Weekend Edition December 20-22, 2013

Screening Slavery

In a podcast discussion between veteran film critic Armond White and two younger film journalists focused on their differences over “12 Years a Slave” (White, an African-American with a contrarian bent hated it), White argued in favor of benchmarks. How could the two other discussants rave about Steve McQueen’s film without knowing what preceded it? That was all the motivation I needed to see the two films White deemed superior to McQueen’s—“Beloved” and “Amistad”—as well as other films about slavery that I had not seen before, or in the case of Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Queimada” and Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Bailiff” films I had not seen in many years. This survey is not meant as a definitive guide to all films about the “peculiar institution” but only ones that are most familiar. Even if I characterize a film as poorly made, I still recommend a look at all of them since as a body of work they shed light on the complex interaction of art and politics, a topic presumably of some interest to CounterPunch readers.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/12/20/screening-slavery/


  1. “Sansho the Bailiff” is an amazing cinematic achievement as you say. If I remember correctly, Sansho looked like a bald, bearded white guy as my friend exclaimed as he was watching the film with me. I’ve always wondered if there was an anti-American, anti-capitalist subtext in that, along with the other striking qualities of this film.

    Watching “Burn!”, even in its truncated form for television, is one of my fondest memories of my early teen years. Because it had Brando, it was shown as an ABC Movie of the Week.

    Comment by Richard Estes — December 20, 2013 @ 7:52 pm

  2. muhammed ali starred in a tv movie about a black senator [?] during reconstruction

    Comment by jp — December 20, 2013 @ 9:23 pm

  3. Huge thanks for the tip. If I do a part 2, I will certainly include this.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 20, 2013 @ 9:29 pm

  4. Reblogged this on 21st Century Theater.

    Comment by 21st Century Poet — December 21, 2013 @ 2:25 am

  5. Interesting feedback from a Counterpunch reader:

    I just read through this article at Counterpunch.

    I wish the full version of “Queimada” were available in English. I first saw this film about 20 years ago, and it really set the hook in me. It’s also a good military history film, showing “hard” counterinsurgency methods in action.

    About “Quilombo”. First, thanks. I had never heard of this film until I read your piece.

    Second, you pose the question: “Your first reaction to “Quilombo” is to question whether such a scenario could apply to the United States since we never saw a Palmares, or did we?”.

    I first ran across mention of escaped slave communities in the Americas in Charles Mann’s “1493”. I don’t recall off hand whether he mentions Palmares by name, but he certainly validates it by type. These popped up *frequently*; some of them still exist as suburbs of modern Brazilian cities! He also discusses the geography of the phenomenon.

    Once these people had successfully escaped and had broken contact with their pursuers, the local geography, namely tropical rain forest, worked very strongly in their favor. This is literally trackless; if you do not actually live there, the chances you’re going to find a small-town sized community that’s even a few miles distant, within a administratively stipulated span of time (months) are too small to see, unless they actively want to be found. If they don’t, *navigation* becomes a very high bar indeed.

    If you actually find the place, you then face the chore of reducing it by military force. Thanks to the tropical diseases that were also imported during the colonization process, you’d really be better off of you *don’t* try to import European troops to do this; most of them will be dead with a year at most. Assuming they don’t mutiny when they learn their orders are taking them to the West Indies; that used to happen too. Along with officers simply resigning their commissions.

    Your local militias aren’t very skilled at infantry warfare? Tough luck, you’re still better off using them than you are sending to Portugal for help. Even if they don’t know which end of a musket to point where. Since they’ve lived in the colony from infancy, they’re probably somewhat resistant to malaria and immune to yellow fever (a virus, so if you survive one bout, you’re immune for life). Portuguese troops, on the other hand …. pretty much the only thing they’re ever going to conquer is their own graves. J.R. McNeill wrote whole book exploring this issue: “Mosquito Empires”. I heartily recommend it if you have not already read it.

    Bottom line: everywhere you look in Brazil and the Caribbean shore of South America, particularly along the northern coasts (infamous pestholes, the French revolutionaries called Guyana the “dry guillotine”) and the Amazon Basin, you see asymmetries, and quite a few of these favor the escaped slaves.

    In North America, not so much. Tropical diseases, yes, particularly south of the Mason-Dixon line. But tropical rain forest, curst little. And, of course, the antebellum South developed effective *local* militaries. These included effective light cavalry after 1844. The effective military basis of repression was *local*, so the diseases acted on a more level immunological playing field. The resulting military balance was so grossly unfavorable to the slaves that they never really stood a reasonable chance.


    Comment by louisproyect — December 23, 2013 @ 1:00 pm

  6. Yes, Burn and Quilombo 2 great films.
    here’s another must-see : NIGHTJOHN, directed by Charles Burnett, and based on a novel by Gary Paulsen who says it is based on the true story of a man who escaped slavery and decided to return to the south, knowing he’d be enslaved again, in order to clandestinely teach reading and writing to those in bondage . All seen through the eyes of the slaves, main theme– knowledge is power.
    i’ve been using it in my high school classes for the last 15 yrs or so, one of the two most popular films l show; got a lesson plan/video guide for anyone interested.

    Comment by keith brooks — December 23, 2013 @ 5:06 pm

  7. Wow. “12 Years” gets a rotten tomato.. Really..?
    Ya know, I’ve always wondered who in the world could be responsible for the bizarre 3 to 1000 ratio of “thumbs-down” to “thumbs-up” ratings, respectively, that appear below a video of a sleeping kitten on YouTube.

    I guess we “need more” sleeping puppy videos “rather than” kittens videos..? Would that be “presumably of some interest?”

    In an obvious attempt to disguise a need to sharpie a mustache on anything that looks the least bit like the world might forget the plight of the (metaphorically) ugly, these self absorbed “contrarians” beg for attention by proclaiming that an infants used diaper smells bad, or that “there’s a ‘better movie’ to be seen”.

    Giving a movie a “rating” is not subject to the rules of the boardgame Othello. The movies that came before this one stand alone, as should “12 Years a Slave”.

    -sigh- Sadly, these protests to point out a pimple on the pinky of an otherwise flawless bikini model, are largely brought to our attention by the (metaphorically) severely-acne-afflicted few, who unwisely gave a “thumbs down” to a “Proactive™” advertisment on YouTube, instead of writing down the 800 number to call and order some.
    Or possibly, they refuse to order the “latest” acne medications, because the medications that preceded it were just “better” in their view..?

    In any case, a rotten tomato for “12 Years” is simply and sadly ridiculous.

    Forgive me, if this whole time, the rating was referring to the Blockbuster & Hit Motion Picture “Marmaduke”.


    Comment by Tony — January 7, 2014 @ 4:50 am

  8. Wow. “12 Years” gets a rotten tomato.. Really..?

    I am limited by Rotten Tomatoes guidelines that allow for no middle ground. As opposed to something like “A Wolf of Wall Street” that was completely rotten, “12 Years a Slave” was only half-rotten. If it was possible to use stars between 1 and 5, I would have given it 2. Or 2 1/2. In terms of conforming to the critical consensus, I would give JFK or Obama 1 star (or rotten) and Lenin 5 stars. I do hope you understand you have wandered into the ultimate contrarian’s den, someone who has no use for capitalism and within that system tinseltown and its wretched products.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 7, 2014 @ 5:16 am

  9. Listen, you troglodyte, you say that we need more films about slave revolts than slavery? How many films are there showing slavery, period? Django Unchained? (Hollywood-ized piece of pop culture bullshit) Before that, I can only remember Amistad being the only major studio-produced slave film and that was about 20 years ago. You can say what you said if we were inundated with slave films, but the fact that you are uncomfortable with the one serious film about slavery that shows it exactly for what it’s for, brutal whippings and rapes and all, indicates your level of emotional immaturity. Do you know why there aren’t more films about slave revolts? Because there WERE NO significant slaves revolution on American soil. The biggest one was the Nat Turner revolt, and that was just a few dozen slaves. 12 Years a Slave is closer to the reality that million of souls suffered from birth to death with no hope of every grasping freedom. IF YOU CAN’T DEAL WITH THAT TRUTH, THEN YOU HAVE TROUBLE WITH TRUTH, PERIOD.

    Comment by Daniel Coleman — March 5, 2014 @ 8:20 am

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