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Slavery in Film
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Slavery in Film - 7/18 & 7/25


Since the days of silent film, movies have been influential in the public's awareness on the history of slavery and perceptions of what it might have been like for one human being to own another. With two nights of programming, TCM offers a variety of interpretations on the subject, from a limited viewpoint, as reflected in movies during the period 1927-1975.

TCM host Ben Mankiewicz will be joined by film historian Donald Bogle in introducing these films and providing context to the manner of how each chose to portray slavery. Bogle is an instructor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and the University of Pennsylvania. He has written six books concerning African Americans in film and television, ranging from Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in Films (1973) to Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters (2011). Here are the films in our retrospective:

Uncle Tom's Cabin (1927) was the final silent movie version of the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel, which became the most filmed story of the silent era with at least nine adaptations beginning in 1903. In this version, directed by Harry A. Pollard for Universal Pictures, all of the slaves with the exception of Uncle Tom (played by James B. Lowe) are portrayed by white actors - either in blackface or with the explanation that the characters came from mixed marriages.

The Littlest Rebel (1935) is a Shirley Temple vehicle in which she plays a six-year-old on a Southern plantation, with a father (John Boles) who is called away to serve in the Confederate Army. Bill Robinson, in the second of four teamings with Temple, plays a slave called Uncle Billy. David Butler directed for 20th Century Fox.

Gone With the Wind (1939), David O. Selznick's landmark Civil War epic based on the Margaret Mitchell novel, offers iconic star performances along with memorable work by Hattie McDaniel (Mammy), Butterfly McQueen (Prissy), Oscar Polk (Pork) and Everett Brown (Big Sam) in the roles of slaves. McDaniel made history by becoming the first African-American woman to win an OscarĀ® for her performance (as Best Supporting Actress).

The Foxes of Harrow (1947), a romantic adventure set in pre-Civil War New Orleans, is based on the book of that name by Frank Yerby. The novel became the first by an African-American author to sell a million copies and to have a screen adaptation by a major Hollywood studio (20th Century Fox). Under the direction of John M. Stahl, Rex Harrison and Maureen O'Hara star as a plantation owner and his willful wife, with Suzette Harbin as a slave named Belle who struggles against her lot in life. Ironically, many of the African-American characters in the book were eliminated or had their roles truncated in the movie.

Band of Angels (1957) focuses on interracial romance, a theme that was unusual in films of its decade due racism and anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited interracial marriage. Based on the novel by Robert Penn Warren and set before and during the Civil War, the movie stars Clark Gable as a Louisiana plantation owner and Yvonne De Carlo as the mixed-race slave with whom he falls in love after buying her at auction. Raoul Walsh directed and Sidney Poitier costars as a young slave for whom Gable harbors paternal feelings.

Tamango (1958) is a French/Italian film about a slave rebellion on a ship headed to Cuba from Africa. Curd Jurgens and Dorothy Dandridge star as the ship's captain and his slave, whom he has romantic feelings for. Alex Cressan rounds out the cast in his first and only role as the title character, a captured man and leader of the revolt. The blacklisted American director John Berry helmed the controversial film, which was banned in West African colonies and ran afoul of the Hays Code in the U.S. because of interracial love scenes.

Mandingo (1975), based on the novel by Kyle Onstott, is set in the pre-Civil War Deep South and focuses on a plantation family whose sexual lives are entangled with those of the slaves they own. James Mason stars as the patriarch, with Perry King as his son and Susan George as the son's bride. Ken Norton plays a West African slave brutally trained into becoming a prizefighter, while Brenda Sykes portrays a beautiful slave abused by her owners. Richard Fleischer directed for Paramount. The film became a box-office hit, although critical reaction over the years has been mixed.

by Roger Fristoe

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