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Is the Pain Too Much to Watch?

As 'Amistad' showed, evoking the slavery era can keep viewers away. But new projects on film, TV and even Broadway are banking that will change.

October 18, 1998|Greg Braxton | Greg Braxton is a Times staff writer

The anguished scream pierced through the auditorium at the Magic Johnson Theatres in Baldwin Hills like a white-hot sword during a first-weekend showing last December of the slavery drama "Amistad."

With cries of "Oh, my God! Oh, my God!," an African American woman in her 50s rushed out of the packed theater in the middle of the film about a group of African slaves in 1839 who became the focus of a courtroom battle after staging a bloody mutiny against their captors.

In the lobby, the woman, still trembling and crying, explained that she found the brutal depiction of the torture and cruelty of the slaves too unnerving, and that she identified too closely with the incident. She was referring to a section of the film that focused on the Middle Passage, the journey made from Africa to the Caribbean by newly sold slaves. The scene showed bloody beatings and other atrocities in a graphic manner previously unseen in a mainstream Hollywood film.

"I just felt like I was on the ship, and it was too much. I just really couldn't take it anymore," the woman said.

Her feelings echoed those of numerous African Americans toward "Amistad." Although blacks accounted for much of the audience for the DreamWorks film, many others stayed away despite its star pedigree of director Steven Spielberg and producer Debbie Allen, who worked for nearly two decades to bring to the big screen a largely buried true story of black hardship, survival and courage.

In restaurants, offices and gathering places, while some blacks praised "Amistad," others said that undergoing the ordeal of watching a 2 1/2-hour movie showing the horrors of the slavery of their ancestors ranked at the bottom of their what-are-we-going-to-do-this-weekend? list.

Some whites also had trouble with "Amistad."

"Some of my white colleagues told me that 'Amistad' made them uncomfortable, that it made them feel guilty," recalled Sandra Evers-Manley, president of the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center, an organization dedicated to honoring the entertainment legacy of African Americans.

Despite a respectable start, "Amistad" fell short of other serious-minded Spielberg blockbusters such as "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan." Although the movie earned its share of critical accolades and awards, it is regarded by industry insiders as somewhat of a box-office disappointment.

Now, nearly a year after the premiere of "Amistad"--and almost 22 years after the epic slavery drama "Roots" gripped the nation--a flurry of new film, stage and television projects has begun to reawaken powerful feelings of anger, guilt and pain about the era of slavery.

The two most highly anticipated arrivals--the just-opened "Beloved" from Touchstone Pictures, starring Oprah Winfrey as a former slave, and "Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery," an exhaustive documentary about the history of slavery that debuts Monday on PBS--are coming on the scene along with a Broadway-bound musical with singing slaves, a low-budget film about another slave ship mutiny, a sitcom about a black butler and advisor to President Abraham Lincoln, and a combination book and audiotape collection featuring famous actors reenacting the accounts of slaves and eyewitnesses to slavery.

"Slavery is really in vogue now," quipped morning radio personality Tom Joyner, whose syndicated show has become a barometer of popular black culture.

The arrival of the projects almost on top of one another is coincidental but not entirely surprising, said "Roots" producer Stan Margulies.

"There is always a fascination with evil," he said. "It's one of the reasons that Hitler and Nazi Germany became the subject of so many movies. There is something within us that is fascinated with true evil."

But the onslaught of projects has reopened the delicate question of how black and white audiences will respond to realistic depictions of the slavery era, and whether slavery's complex nature and painful but undeniable significance in the growth of America can be sensitively and comprehensively handled--especially in popular entertainment but also in documentaries that point out how aspects of the era are still alive in today's world.

"Black people just don't want to see that, even though we should, and white people don't want to see it, even though they should," said Joyner, who is heard locally on KACE-FM (103.9). "Black people feel in many ways like they're still in slavery. So when we go to the movies, we want to escape. Slavery is the last thing we want to see."

Some observers in Hollywood point out that the wounds of the period are still deep, raw and unhealed, and that creative examinations of slavery still have the capacity to inflame bitterness and emotions that could lead to despair and conflict.

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