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Slavery Revisited

October 25, 1998

Slavery is not entertaining, but then again, every movie isn't meant to entertain ("How Entertaining Is Slavery?" by Greg Braxton, Oct. 18). We all need to realize that movies teach, inform and disturb. It's an art form and art is supposed to wake us up, maybe show us something that we didn't know before we came in contact with it.

Braxton tells the story of the African American woman who ran out of the theater during "Amistad." The Middle Passage scenes of slaves being whipped, starved, abused and murdered on a slave ship are horrifying. It was probably the most disturbing, unsettling thing I'd seen on screen since "Night and Fog," a French documentary on the death camps of Nazi Germany. Last night I went to see "Beloved" and it too is a harsh portrayal of what it had to be like to survive as a black person 100 years ago. Actually, there are parts of the country now, Jackson, Miss., for instance, where a black person's existence hasn't been elevated much higher than Sethe's in "Beloved."

I'm the descendant of slaves. My family, at least on one side, has been in this country for almost 300 years. I'm proud of the fact that at least two of my ancestors survived the nightmare of the Middle Passage. But I am most proud of the storytellers, the artists, the filmmakers and the actors who tell the truth about slavery so that we can all see it, understand it and acknowledge it.

DOUG SPEARMAN

Los Angeles

*

In his article on the resurgence of slavery as a media topic, Braxton touches on significant truths about Hollywood and slavery. Producers pursuing film projects on slavery find themselves having to appeal to mainstream (i.e., white) audiences by telling their stories from white points of view and/or ennobling a handful of white characters who may or may not have helped slaves in a historical context. Certainly "Amistad" is an example of this, focusing on white characters at the expense of black characters. True, "Amistad" would have been far more brutal the other way around. But then, what was slavery if it wasn't brutal?

For those in America with the stomach for the truth about slave-ship insurrections, I would suggest the 1957 Dorothy Dandridge film "Tamango." Filmed by then-blacklisted director John Berry, it tells the story of an Amistad-type mutiny aboard a Dutch slave ship. Told from the slaves' point of view, its brutality is unmatched even by today's film standards and in 1950s America was virtually unpalatable to white audiences.

I cannot say I disagree with that segment of African Americans who feel if our history cannot be filmed with honesty, then perhaps it should not be filmed at all.

ROLAND S. JEFFERSON

Los Angeles

*

I saw "Beloved" yesterday and plan to see it again. Last night I saw Part 1 of "Africans in America." I didn't feel overdosed or depressed, but enlightened.

Black people have complained since the dawn of movie making about inaccurate representation, such as Stepin Fetchit, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson and others who opened doors. Now, instead of Mantan Moreland and Butterfly McQueen, the choice is quality, accuracy and truth.

Those who don't plan to avail themselves of this opportunity should be ashamed to look each other in the eye.

ESTRELDA THOMAS

Fontana

*

We cannot ignore the reality that some of our ancestors suffered while others practiced abominable acts; but we can take lessons from that history to make this world a better place.

Regarding the difficulties of portraying slavery in movies and documentaries, I believe a phrase from Maya Angelou's poem, written for President Clinton's 1992 inauguration, is worth remembering:

"History, despite its wrenching pain / Cannot be unlived, and if faced / With courage, need not be lived again."

KATHLEEN SHELDON

Santa Monica

*

Braxton quotes PBS vice president Donald Thoms as saying that "Africans in America" is "a piece of history, and it will be seen as being fair and accurate," educating and enlightening rather than inflaming emotions. If only that were so.

No program on slavery will be fair and accurate unless it indicts the primary ideological justification for placing over 10 million Africans and their descendants in bondage: Christianity. "It was a strange religion, this Christianity," John Hope Franklin wrote, "which taught equality and brotherhood and at the same time introduced on a large scale the practice of tearing people from their homes and transporting them to a distant land to become slaves." In the 16th century the pope authorized the opening of the Lisbon slave market; and for three centuries Christian slaveholders cited countless biblical passages that they insisted validated the "peculiar institution." God approved slavery.

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