I read with great interest Spike Lee's recent letter as well as Kevin Phillips' article concerning the film "The Patriot" (" 'Patriot's' Skirmish With Truth," July 7). I am in agreement with much of what he says, particularly as it relates to the contributions and presence of enslaved African Americans in South Carolina during the revolutionary period. Certainly more could have been done to represent the black majority that lived in the Low country. Certainly a more comprehensive story could have been told about slavery and its pervasive impact on every aspect of life during the period.
As consultants, the Smithsonian Institution contributed to "The Patriot" by examining Robert Rodat's script and ensuring that it depicted possibilities of life during the period of the American Revolution. My role as a historian was to look at the cultural aspects of the script and make comments and suggestions. Initially, I felt that the portrayal of African Americans in the movie lacked depth and that their absence was problematic.
At my suggestion, the decision was made to include a scene that focused on the Gullah community in South Carolina. Not only did the members of the Gullah community serve as spies and guides during the revolutionary period, but their isolation, fierce sense of independence and community-building helped them survive the horrors of slavery.
Adding the Gullah to the story provided a nontraditional perspective of black life during the third quarter of the 18th century. My hope was that it would help viewers of "The Patriot" understand how disparate cultures from West Africa sought to coalesce themselves into a cohesive community as a result of the strictures of the slavery system.
Slaves and free blacks were essential to the working of South Carolina society and economy as well as in the armies on both sides of the conflict. Finally, I was invited by the filmmakers to visit the set and--with other experts from the Gullah community--I suggested ways to make the scenes more accurate.
Neither the Gullah scene, the character of Occam, nor the presence of blacks in the battle scenes and elsewhere constitutes the kind of inclusion the topic of slavery deserves, and we certainly agree with Mr. Lee that the movie does not tell the comprehensive story that the African and African American experience of that period deserves.
But "The Patriot" was never intended to be about slavery. In fact, there was hesitation on the part of the producers about including the scenes that did portray blacks of the period, fearing that it would receive the kind of response Mr. Lee has expressed.
Rather than totally ignoring their existence, the filmmakers felt it was important to acknowledge the existence of slaves and free blacks, risking the possibility that to do so in brief would create the kind of ire they now face.
To my knowledge, this is the first feature film that has included any mention of blacks in colonial South Carolina. Although it may not be as comprehensive as it could be, it is our hope that it opens the door to the possibility that historical feature films can be successful and acknowledge the paradox of American freedom and American slavery.