Movie Review: Slaves (1969)

slaves

With something like 12 Years a Slave recently nominated for an Oscar, I felt this was a highly appropriate film to review.

Very succinctly titled, Slaves is an incredibly strange movie that is neither here nor there in terms of entertainment value or anything else, but is still worthy of a watch. This film is set during the antebellum period in American history, around 1850, and tells a rather tired and ordinary story that we have seen, with slight variations, in every slave movie ever made. That said, there are some interesting characteristics here, including a sometimes exquisite script and some really brilliant moments. But unfortunately, the dialogue is restrained to nothing more than characters talking at each other, not to each other, and features so many endless speeches, monologues, and soliloquies that it makes Gods and Generals seem like a silent movie.

There really is not much to say for the story, which centers around Ossie Davis’ character of Luke. In the beginning, he is owned by a kind master who is just about to set him free so he will have a chance to earn money to buy his wife from him, but things go awry as the owner is in debt, and Luke ends up being sold to a cruel master in Louisiana. The man causing this trouble is a slave trader (or “breeder”, as he calls himself), played by David Huddleston, who does a good job in being so nonchalant when talking about the slaves as pieces of property. Slaves actually does a good job in portraying the duality of slave-masters, as there were many who treated their slaves as family, but others who were remarkably cruel. Stephen Boyd, of Ben-Hur fame, and far-removed from it, is now the new master whom Luke must deal with. This is a man who we learn by the end of the movie does not buy slaves because they are black and he is white, but only because he can. He is a single man (whose mistress is one of his slaves, a very 1960’s looking Dionne Warwick) who fills his house and his lands with them just so he can use it as a status symbol. While he is very cruel to them indeed, the characters are so bereft of emotion that we neither feel hatred for the master or sympathy for the slaves. For a movie that is about one of the darkest times in American history, it strikes me as rather bland, and has a very theater-like feel—perhaps this would have worked better on the stage; the dialogue certainly suggests so.

There is little convincing acting here. At the beginning, I thought Boyd was going to carry us with a tour-de-force performance, but by the midway point it seemed that he was only acting for the paycheck. He was not terrible, no, but as a slave master I felt that the audience should have felt more hatred for him than what was allowed for us. Warwick’s character as his “wench” is nothing short of terrible (there is a reason this was her only acting role). Davis is another actor who I have always admired, and was expecting much more out of, but he comes across as wooden and stiff. Part of the problem is I think the director wanted his role to be too much—a cross between Uncle Tom and Moses. Not being able to pull it off, Davis kind of receded into a bible-quoting robot. Even in his more sincere scenes, we still do not empathize…we just want him to shut the hell up.

All is not lost with Slaves, though, and there still is some pretty valuable content. There are more than a couple strange scenes and the soundtrack, a type of pop/gospel-sounding mess, is like nails on a chalkboard when you consider the depressing content of the film, but you can still find some brilliance within the script. There is a scene where Boyd is hosting a party for all slave-owners in the nearby area and gives them a lecture on the glory and history of the Atlantic slave trade, and also about his journeys to Africa. He notes how Africa was once a great civilization (much to the surprise of those listening), and the slave trade was stripping all of that apart. He talks of great tribal chiefs selling their own to stay wealthy, and how those same chiefs actually favored cruel masters over kind ones. It is a scary moment in this very word-heavy film, but it is effective in portraying the business side of slavery, and how the blacks truly were seen as property and animals, something hard to understand today. There is also a part of the story early on at a slave sale, which could serve good use in a classroom when teaching about this very grim subject.

All in all, this movie actually does get my recommendation. There are some worthy moments and some that will make you cringe, but if you are a teacher and need a quick portrayal of something, this really could help you out, if edited properly. For the history buffs out there, it will also be worth watching, even though I felt some of the clothing worn throughout was anachronistic. As for entertainment, yes, it can be quite bland at times and has an ending that one would expect for a movie like this. If anything, this is just a different retelling of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, so the Lit Geeks can sit around and probably find cause to pick it apart. My final rating was debated for several minutes, and I will be kind and give it a 6 out of 10.

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