In Natalie Zemon Davis’s Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision, Davis accurately depicts and deciphers the ability of films to say something meaningful about slavery and in doing so, she is able to find optimism in what the movies say about slavery.
In the 1960’s action drama Spartacus, shocked the nation with the intense portrayal of slaves and revolt. Throughout the movie Davis argues that slaves are portrayed positively in certain sequences. The goal of Spartacus was to create of movie unlike any of its kind. Plutarch writes, “he not only possessed great courage and bodily strength, but was more intelligent and nobler than his fate as a slave would allow.”1 Davis interprets this as a positive statement reinforcing her claim about the movie Spartacus saying something meaningful about slavery. Spartacus is a more likeable character and advanced character. Unlike his fellow Roman counterparts and with the combination of this, makes it easier for the audience to relate to but to also root for. Another example that Davis acknowledges is Spartacus’s lover bore a son and well the son was meant as a “symbol of hope” it also hinted on something else. As Davis writes, “By Roman law, slaves had no right to marry, and a slave woman’s child belonged to her master, not her.”2 Thou in film the baby is consistently by its mothers side when in reality it would have been the masters baby and it most cases he would auction the baby off. “In the film, then, the presence of children snuggling close to their parents at Spartacus’s camp is not a mere sentimental touch but the representation of a form of slave resistance”3 By doing this the film makers were giving a positive view of slavery.
The next movie we will analyze is the movie The Last Supper. The movie is centered around the idea of slaves participating in a mimic of the Last Supper. Davis writes, “The Last Supper goes beyond the gladiator fights of Spartacus and the juxtaposition of ideas and festive ceremonial in Burn! to the transformation of thoughts and feelings in the very course of the ceremonial experience.”4 During the Last Supper the priest washes the feet of the slaves signifying a “inversion” of the culture, white men serving blacks. Arguably this could possibly signify what the filmmakers thought would happen in the future. At the end of the movie, the leader of the slave revolt, Sebastian, ends up escaping and runs into the jungle as a free man. Davis writes, “In addiction, Sebastian’s invincibility reflects the African-American folktale tradition of metamorphosis. No one can catch me, no one can kill me.” The presumption is Sebastian live free the rest of his life and this ending is momentous in reinforcing Davis’s point of this movie saying something positive about slavery.
The third movie we will discuss is the Beloved, which is based off a novel originally written by Toni Morrison. In the movie the main focal point is directed toward the perspective of an African American woman and her