Friday, February 10, 2012

SLAVES by John O. Killens

Reviewed by Paul Talbot

The 1969 movie SLAVES (#53 on Temple of Schlock’s “Endangered List”) is yet another screen version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and was directed by Herbert J. Biberman (SALT OF THE EARTH) decades after he was branded as one of the “Hollywood Ten.” Using material from the last two-thirds of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic book, Biberman spent years working on a script with John O. Killens, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated black author whose books dealt with racism in America, and feminist writer Alida Sherman. SLAVES was shot in the summer of 1968 and starred Stephen Boyd, Dionne Warwick, and Ossie Davis. Killens turned the script into a novel (published by Pyramid Books) for the movie’s May 1969 release.

In the story, gentle slave Luke (based on Uncle Tom) is sold to the cotton-raising, slave-breeding sadist Nathan Mackay (i.e. Simon Legree). Although Mackay is vicious towards his slaves, he is fascinated by black history and collects rare African-made sculpture. On the plantation, Luke sees much physical, verbal, and sexual abuse, and ultimately inspires a slave uprising. The brief (142 pages) novel is tame and heavy-handed with corny, righteous dialogue like: “The enlightened master-servant relationship [is] based not on the chain and gun and whip, but on actual trust between the master and his trusted slave…Slavery is more degrading to the master than the slave.”

The book does succeed in being a rougher, franker rehash of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with harsh passages including: “The two whips were like angry snakes, as they bit into his black body, drawing red blood…His stomach was an earthquake and he vomited till there was nothing else to vomit and then he vomited blood.” At one point Mackay’s spoiled, rum-swilling slave concubine Cassy (“The Massa’s bitch”) repeatedly spits on her owner and verbally berates him: “Take me! You rotten no-good bastard! Take me if you’re man enough.” (Cassy is the only character name retained from Stowe's novel.) In another scene, rebellious slave Jericho is taken to “the burning tree where they string up the real bad darkies and burn their manhood from between their legs,” but all of the “shocking” material is handled briefly and nothing is memorable. A toothless old slave crone named Carriebella is the only mildly-interesting character.

There is much material obviously inspired by the then popular Mandingo/Falconhurst “slaver novels” including: an auction where a lecherous white man fondles teen slave girls’ breasts; brutal whippings; a hefty, older female slave who runs the plantation; voodoo practitioners; and a master-on-slave rape resulting in death during childbirth. The cover screams, "The Brutal Days and Depraved Nights of a Human Slave Camp!” and “Bolder than Mandingo!” but there’s no doubt that this dull, self-important paperback disappointed the Mandingo fans. Like the screen credits, the novelization title page pays no debt to Stowe’s novel. The book contains no stills (except for a Boyd/Warwick clinch on the front), but there is a cast and crew list.

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