The Pitfalls of Picturing Atlantic Slavery: Steven Spielberg's Amistad vs Guy Deslauriers's the Middle Passage

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The transatlantic slave trade was probably more present in the collective consciousness of Britons in 2007 than it had been at any time since the turbulences of abolition in the early nineteenth century. On 25 March 2007, Britain celebrated the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the trade within the British Empire: school syllabuses took on excerpts from the slave narratives of Ottobah Cuguano and Olaudah Equiano as compulsory reading; the English churches collaborated on a bicentennial (image) campaign called 'Set All Free'; lecture series and services were held in the former slaving ports of London, Bristol and Liverpool; special exhibitions were launched (at the National Portrait Gallery among many others) while Liverpool opened the first International Slavery Museum in August 2007; the BBC featured radio programs and film documentaries covering Atlantic slavery and its legacy; Tony Blair, just stopping short of an official apology, expressed 'how profoundly shameful the slave trade was'.1

In 2007, an that creatively engages with the slave trade had a particular currency. If proof were needed, the unlikely box office success of British film director Michael Apted's Amazing Grace should make for an illustrative example: strategically launched on Friday 23 March 2007 in British cinemas, it made more than $US4 million on the opening weekend alone. Yet the critical responses to Amazing Grace have also revealed some of the continuing difficulties of creatively engaging with Atlantic slavery. As the title indicates, Apted set out to tell the story behind the famous hymn composed by John Newton, a notorious slaver turned pious churchman. Amazing Grace, however, really tells the story of abolitionist William Wilberforce, who is the movie's undisputed protagonist and who is basically credited with more or less single-handedly achieving abolition through clever parliamentarian dodges. Apted consequently elicited a range of furious criticism even before the movie was officially released. While some complained about the marginalisation of fellow abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, others rejected a 'prettifying' Eurocentrism. Thus Lee Jasper, secretary of the British Assembly Against Racism, proclaimed: The film prettifies the tragedy, the horror and the brutality of the slave trade. It seeks to give the impression that one man freed millions of slaves and negates the contribution of the enslaved Africans to their own freedom to a bit part.'2

Jasper's argument encapsulates how politcally charged contemporary discourses around the memory of Atlantic slavery are, and points to a major ethical problem, namely the danger of belittling the immensity of historical suffering in filmic depctions. Amazing Grace, however, does not really provide much stuff for discussion here, as Apted shies away from actually picturing the sordid details of the slave trade in the first place-there are verbal reports and references to slave ships, yet there is no visual representation; in fact, there are hardly any black people in the film, one notable exception being Olaudah Equiano (played by Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour). British filmmakers have to this day, to my knowledge, avoided the political and ethical complexities of explicitly picturing Atlantic slavery, despite the fact that a number of Caribbean/British writers-most notably Caryl Phillips (Crossing the River, 1995), Fred D'Aguiar (Feeding the Ghosts, 1997) and David Dabydeen (A Harlot's Progress, 1999)-successfully took on the middle passage in their more recent fictional work. Cinema and TV schedulers, therefore, really depended on non-British films in the year of public commemoration, two of which I wish to discuss in this essay. First is Steven Spielberg's blockbusting Amistad (1997), the first movie ever to really depict life in the belly of a slave ship, albeit in an ethically and aesthetically dubious way; and second, Martinican filmmaker Guy Deslauriers's Passage du Milieu (1999), a film that is rarely mentioned in critical discourses although it has had a comparitively wide exposure since HBO produced an English translation (The Middle Passage) for the US TV market. …


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