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[personal profile] fjm
As by the time I joined LJ I was no longer teaching American history, most of you probably don't know that I taught African American history (17th through the end of the 20th century) for almost a decade. My specialist period was 1880 to 1950 (the civil rights era everyone has forgotten) but I studied US and Carribbean slavery as an undergrad and taught it also.



It is a very good film: well structured, well cast, well shot, well scripted. All the tension is there even though you know how it ends. All the right high (low?) moments are touched on.

And yet: although my friend was moved I was mostly not, because the entire thing feels very by the book. Some of this is not the film's fault. We have no reason at all to doubt Northrup's narrative, but most scholars (black and white) accept that these narratives were designed for a purpose and that in their structure they became a genre in themselves. There were "immoralities" particularly calculated to hit hard to Northern Americans (women watching violence perpetrated for example, whippings conducted naked) and these are always a feature of these narratives.

What isn't in the most of the narratives, but we know from other sources (often plantation documents) are the day to day little brutalities of slavery: the pressures, the little bribes, the little punishments, the shortage of food, the demeaning clothing (boys were kept in dresses until they were ten, when white boys were given trousers at five or seven), the long days, the attempts to create a culture together--sometimes undermined, but perhaps more demeaningly encouraged; the constant little necessary collaborations. I think the movie made an honest attempt at some of this, but could have gone further.

One real issue tho that Hollywood hasn't tackled, is how to make people look hungry. I had the same problem with this movie as I did with Pan's Labyrinth: everyone just looked too well fed. My suggestions would be a) to cast people at least ten years older than the parts they are playing and b) don't feed them until you are done shooting. That way you stand a chance of giving the impression of people desperately, teeth achingly exhausted* from picking cotton from dawn until dusk, and rising the next day to do it again.


*It struck me as I wrote that, that the dental care was obviously very good in the Old South.

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