Slaves On Screen / Edition 1

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Overview

The written word and what the eye can see are brought together in this fascinating foray into the depiction of resistance to slavery through the modern medium of film. Davis, whose book The Return of Martin Guerre was written while she served as consultant to the French film of the same name, now tackles the large issue of how the moving picture industry has portrayed slaves in five major motion pictures spanning four generations. The potential of film to narrate the historical past in an effective and meaningful way, with insistence on loyalty to the evidence, is assessed in five films: Spartacus (1960), Burn! (1969), The Last Supper (1976), Amistad (1997), and Beloved (1998).

Davis shows how shifts in the viewpoints of screenwriters and directors parallel those of historians. Spartacus is polarized social history; the films on the Caribbean bring ceremony and carnival to bear on the origins of revolt; Amistad and Beloved draw upon the traumatic wounds in the memory of slavery and the resources for healing them. In each case Davis considers the intentions of filmmakers and evaluates the film and its techniques through historical evidence and interpretation. Family continuity emerges as a major element in the struggle against slavery.

Slaves on Screen is based in part on interviews with the Nobel prize–winning author of Beloved, Toni Morrison, and with Manuel Moreno Fraginals, the historical consultant for The Last Supper. Davis brings a new approach to historical film as a source of "thought experiments" about the past. While the five motion pictures are sometimes cinematic triumphs, with sound history inspiring the imagination, Davis is critical of fictive scenes and characters when they mislead viewers in important ways. Good history makes good films.

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist

Davis, a historian with a concentration on people outside traditional power centers, explores the treatment of slaves on film from a historical perspective...[and] sets up the complex interplay between historically supportable fiction and imagination...The historical alterations that take place, Davis advocates, should be acknowledged to film viewers so that they may distinguish between historical fact and fiction...Very informative.
— Vernon Ford

Washington Post
[Davis] addresses Hollywood's treatment of African-American history squarely, showing how the images have changed from Spartacus to Beloved.
Los Angeles Times Book Review

Her subject is always worth considering...[Davis] considers how slavery is portrayed and how its history is treated. She compares the writing of history (which has been around for 2,500 years) with feature filmmaking about history (which has been around for 100 years) and concludes, 'Historical films should let the past be the past.'"
— Susan Salter Reynolds

Phi Beta Kappa Journal

This book is filled with valuable lessons for students of both the past itself and the various media through which history can be told.
— John E. O'Connor

David Brion Davis
This book will give us a wholly new view of how slavery has been perceived and understood by a broad public audience.
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
An engrossing and illuminating account of the ways in which films show our understanding of slavery. Natalie Davis once again illustrates, with sensitivity and craft, the sheer pleasure of history in its innumerable forms.
Eric Foner
A superlative job. Davis demonstrates how contemporary events (the civil rights movement, a growing awareness of the Holocaust, for example) impinged upon Hollywood's portrayal of slavery, and she deftly analyzes the advantages and pitfalls of film as history. There is no book quite like it.
Robert A. Rosenstone
A major historian convincingly shows how cinema has an important contribution to make to our understanding of the past.
Mark C. Carnes
Davis persuasively demonstrates how each film is a profound and complex collaboration. The fusion of detailed movie explication with detailed historical narration makes Davis's judgments deep and subtle. Readers learn about slavery and also about how filmmakers interpret the past. Davis also propounds guidelines for thinking about how filmmakers should do what they do, and how historians should react. She pleads for filmmakers to regard the past more seriously, and she urges them to have faith that audiences will be transfixed by this vivid rendering.
Booklist - Vernon Ford
Davis, a historian with a concentration on people outside traditional power centers, explores the treatment of slaves on film from a historical perspective...[and] sets up the complex interplay between historically supportable fiction and imagination...The historical alterations that take place, Davis advocates, should be acknowledged to film viewers so that they may distinguish between historical fact and fiction...Very informative.
Los Angeles Times Book Review - Susan Salter Reynolds
Her subject is always worth considering...[Davis] considers how slavery is portrayed and how its history is treated. She compares the writing of history (which has been around for 2,500 years) with feature filmmaking about history (which has been around for 100 years) and concludes, 'Historical films should let the past be the past.'"
Phi Beta Kappa Journal - John E. O'Connor
This book is filled with valuable lessons for students of both the past itself and the various media through which history can be told.
Washington Post
[Davis] addresses Hollywood's treatment of African-American history squarely, showing how the images have changed from Spartacus to Beloved.
Susan Salter Reynolds
Her subject is always worth considering...[Davis] considers how slavery is portrayed and how its history is treated. She compares the writing of history (which has been around for 2,500 years with feature filmmaking about history (which has been around for 100 years and concludes, 'Historical films should let the past be the past.'
Los Angeles Times Book Review
John E. O'Connor
This book is filled with valuable lessons for students of both the past itself and the various media through which history can be told.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A history professor at Princeton University, Natalie Zemon Davis (The Return of Martin Guerre; Women on the Margins) is also a seasoned critic of historical film. With Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision, she discusses how movies represent history differently than books do. Can narrative films achieve the accuracy and authenticity that writers can? "Can there be lively cinematic equivalents to what prose histories try to accomplish in prefaces, bibliographies, and notes and through their modifying and qualifying words `perhaps,' `maybe,' and `we are uncertain about'?" In order to answer these questions, Davis looks at a handful of films that have attempted to capture themes of slavery, struggle and rebellion (Spartacus, Burn!, The Last Supper, Amistad and Beloved) and analyzes the devices they've used to convey history, as they understand and wish to express it. It is her hope that "with patience, imagination, and experimentation, historical narration through film could become both more dramatic and more faithful to the sources from the past." (Harvard Univ., $22.95 176p ISBN 0-674-00444-2; Sept.) Given that Shakespeare is one of the world's most famous interpreters of history, it seems fitting that the 14 academics whose essays form Shakespeare, Film, Fin de Si cle believe that the recent surge of Shakespearean films (Shakespeare in Love, Hamlet, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet) reflects modern man's association of millennium-sized issues with the Bard himself. Edited by Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray (respectively, a reader and a lecturer in English at Queen's University of Belfast), the volume tackles such topics as advancing technology, families at risk and cultural intolerance. Included among the provocative pieces is a gem of an interview with Kenneth Branagh. (St. Martin's, $42 272p ISBN 0-312-23148-2; Aug.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
KLIATT
History professor emeritus from Princeton, Natalie Davis studies five films, Spartacus (1960), Burn! (1969), The Last Supper (1976), Amistad (1997), and Beloved (1998), for their fidelity to historical fact even as they attempt to present a dramatic story to American audiences of three different decades. In treating each film, Zemon presents the historical data that forms the backdrop for the movie and then compares it, point by point, to the material presented (or omitted) in the completed film. Davis's prose is smooth and accessible, as is her presentation of her material. While having seen each film first would enrich an appreciation of her position that "Historical films should let the past be the past," the reader can understand Davis's treatment before having studied any of the movies. High school students, even junior high school classes with careful guidance, could gain not only a deepened appreciation of history as portrayed in film, but also a heightened sense of inquiry from reading Davis in conjunction with seeing even one or two of the films treated in this work. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Harvard Univ. Press, 164p. illus. notes., Moore
Library Journal
Davis (history, emeritus, Princeton Univ.) branches off from her central studies on 17th-century French and women's history to assess the historical truths of five films on slavery: Spartacus, Burn!, The Last Supper, Amistad, and Beloved. Here, slavery itself serves as a springboard for a larger consideration: respect for the historical record vs. a need for dramatic effect. Davis argues convincingly for the historical film as a source of "thought experiments" about the past rather than pure presentation of fact. Although brief, this monograph is a fitting companion volume to the library of film history works, including Robert A. Rosenstone's Visions of the Past (Harvard Univ., 1995) and Robert B. Toplin's History by Hollywood (Univ. of Illinois, 1996). Recommended for all film studies collections.--Anthony J. Adam, Prairie View A&M Univ. Lib., TX Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674008212
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/30/2002
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 178
  • Product dimensions: 0.38 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 8.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Natalie Zemon Davis is Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, Emerita, Princeton University.
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Table of Contents

Preface

1. Film as Historical Narrative

2. Resistance and Survival: Spartacus

3. Ceremony and Revolt: Burn! and The Last Supper

4. Witnesses of Trauma: Amistad and Beloved

5. Telling the Truth

Notes

Illustration Credits

Acknowledgments

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