Southern Movie 26: “Slaves” (1969)
The 1969 historical drama Slaves centers on the conflicts that arise when a deeply indebted master in Kentucky cannot live up to his promise to free one of his most loyal slaves, because the traveling slave trader who holds his debts wants to turn his plantation from a horse-breeding operation into a human-breeding operation. Set before the Civil War and starring Ossie Davis and singer Dionne Warwick, as well as Julius Harris – who would, soon after this, appear in films like Superfly!, Black Caesar, and Hell Up in Harlem – Slaves was one of the first films to carry forward a post-Civil Rights black social consciousness into an examination not of contemporary issues, but of African American history. (It preceded the TV mini-series Roots by eight years.)
Slaves opens with the year 1850 flashed upon the screen, and we meet our first villain, a callous slave trader who rides into a slave quarters to make some purchases. His inhumane explanation of his decision-making centers on only money, and he and the master settle on the sale of three pregnant women (“proven as breeders”) and three men (“bucks”). As the load of slaves is driven away, we find out his name from the sign on his wagon: Dan Holland Esq. followed by “Slave Trading A Specialty” and “Negroes Bought & Sold.”
Next, we see Luke (played by Ossie Davis) riding up on a horse, dressed in a fine black suit and embroidered cloak. He enters the bustling homestead and goes first to see his master Stillwell. Luke is returning from Stillwell’s errand to sell four horses, and he has gotten more money for them than he was instructed to get. While Stillwell is pleased, he is in the middle of a discussion with Dan Holland, and the conversation with Luke has to be cut short. Luke leaves, and on the way back to his house, scolds his son for a riding a colt that is too young. Once he has gotten home and spoken to his wife, we learn more about Luke: he is loving, honest, and kind man who intends to be free, save his money, and buy his wife and children.
The problem with Luke’s plan is Dan Holland, who proposes a partnership with Stillwell in lieu of debt payments. Holland has plans to turn the plantation into a breeding operation, where the land will be farmed to support the constantly reproducing slaves. However, Stillwell has a near-complete disdain for the idea, but Holland’s economic control over him will determine his choices. Stillwell has to go tell Luke and another man named Jericho that they have been given over to Holland, in Stillwell’s logic, to save the other slaves and the whole plantation from becoming a part of an inhumane scheme.
Luke rightly feels betrayed. He has been trusted by his master and promised freedom. He took the horses, sold them, and brought back the money like he was asked. He didn’t run away or steal the overage from the sale. But that doesn’t stop what will happen next. Despite their desire to run away, a group of armed men are outside to take Luke and Jericho into Holland’s possession.
After Luke and his wife have their heart-to-heart talk in the dark night before Luke will leave, Slaves moves into its second phase when Luke and Jericho are auctioned in New Orleans to a master named Captain MacKay, a somewhat dandified but strangely cruel master from Mississippi. While Luke’s life in the Upper South state of Kentucky was lived under the supposed protection of Stillwell, who claimed to be preparing his slaves for their eventual freedom, life with MacKay in the Deep South will be different.
Nathan MacKay, who claims at first to be the son of an abolitionist preacher in Boston who uses money from his father’s church to purchase slaves, has a warped sense of his mission in Mississippi. On the one hand, he is OK with Luke knowing how to read; on the other, he keeps a slave named Cassy (played by Dionne Warwick) as his lover, surrounding her with luxury and African art. The dark side of MacKay’s place consists of hard days picking cotton in the sun, cruelty that Luke has never experienced, Cassy’s constant drinking to numb her sense of this reality, and the purchase of a new slave, a sixteen-year-old girl named Julia who MacKay will also keep for himself. MacKay is no savior, as his father’s church would have him be, but he is also not a typical slave owner.
In Mississippi, Luke is through wearing fine clothes and working horses. He is now wearing rags and picking cotton in the Delta heat. And though Luke works hard and is helpful to others on his first day, he is tasked by MacKay to beat Cassy for no good reason— a task that Luke refuses on Biblical grounds, so he gets beaten himself. Yet, Luke’s spirit is not broken. That night, when a pregnant woman who collapsed in the fields that day goes into labor, Luke first goes to the master to get a doctor for her, then delivers the baby himself when the master refuses. MacKay comes to see the baby but leaves quickly and coldly without a remark, and the newborn is handed to Luke, who holds her in confusion as Cassy belts out a solemn blues for the dead mother in the full-moon light outside.
In the morning, as Luke buries the dead mother while the baby lies in the grass and others look on, Cassy comes outside and explains that she also once had a child, who would be ten years old now— but she drowned the baby in the swamp when it was born. She tells Luke that MacKay bought her when she was seventeen, but would not buy her husband along with her. So when their baby was born, Cassy killed her so the child wouldn’t grow up to be in the same situation. As the people depart, Luke names the baby after his wife: Ester.
After a strangely tense sexual scene with Cassy, MacKay is next seen entertaining a group of local aristocrats who are debating methods of handling slaves. MacKay quickly wrests the group with anecdotes from his time as a slave trader, which explains the African art in his home. Here again, as Nathan MacKay speaks his bizarre truths with Luke there to hear it all, and we learn more about MacKay’s twisted understanding of slavery: at once, an enlightened understanding of Africa’s great culture, but also a belief that brutality is necessary, while acknowledging that the American society and economy are not prepared for emancipation.
At this point, we see the nature of the story changing. In the dark that evening, after hearing MacKay call him a “machine,” Luke explains to Jericho over a stolen bottle of whiskey that he has changed, that his Christian patience will do him no good, while MacKay has two male slaves fight each other in his parlor for their master’s entertainment. As the view switches back and forth, Luke and Jericho plan to flee. They include Cassy, Julia, the newborn, and Luke’s wife Ester in their plans. Meanwhile, MacKay gets more and more drunk, so much so that he cannot walk up his own stairs, and as he lies on the floor, passed out, Cassy attempts to kill him with a butcher knife— but stops short from Luke’s intervention.
Together, the slaves make a plan to escape. They decide to wait until a day when MacKay will be visiting at an adjacent plantation. Cassy will use her privilege to forge them papers, and Luke arranges for the misdirection. Jericho will set the cotton barn on fire to draw the patrollers there, after knocking the bottoms out of the water buckets, and the women will leave their shoes at the edge of the swamp. Luke tells his compatriots, “The Bible says there’s a time for everything, and this is our time.”
However, their plan quickly goes awry. Sensing that Luke is up to something, MacKay changes his mind and decides to go visiting another day, and two of the local aristocrats who had come to his get-together the previous Sunday stop by to drop off a thank-you gift. As the escape plan is set into motion, Cassy and sixteen-year-old Julia are spotted leaving their shoes by the swamp. The patrollers are set to swarming. MacKay returns then takes Luke and Jericho to check out the report of the shoes.
As the movie comes to a close, MacKay’s overseers and neighbors have come to assist with the suspected escape plan, and Jericho is caught trying to sneak away. As the crowd moves across the yard to watch Jericho be strung upside down in a tree, MacKay explains to Luke how he has an army ready to defend his systemic injustices and his interests. Once again, we see the juxtaposition of unlike elements: Jericho is being manhandled and tortured as he defiantly proclaims that he hates everybody including his master, and at the same time, MacKay lectures Luke calmly and civilly before taking him in the house to offer him freedom and money to give up Cassy’s whereabouts.
Luke refuses, and here his character changes from a man who always tries to make it work into a man who will stand up against what he knows is wrong.
So MacKay decides that he must make an example of Luke, and as he is whipping Luke severely, Luke tries to fight back and is shot down. As he is dying, Luke’s last words are:
We gon’ bust this bondage if it take a hundred years. We gon’ protect one another. We gon’ love one another. We gon’ take care one another . . . Our God is a freedom God!
As Luke lays dead in the yard, MacKay continues whipping his lifeless corpse, as the other slaves weep. The final shot in that scene is a juxtaposition of Ester’s pleading, “I can’t stand it no more,” with the sounds of the whip.
Slaves closes with a series of stark turnarounds, as the other slaves are incited to rebellion by Luke’s actions. An elder female slave is seen torching the cotton barn as Jericho had planned to do, and after seeing the whipping, the female guest who tattled on Cassy and Julia for leaving their shoes now offers to help them escape. Her cousin is from Rhode Island, and he will take them North. In the end, MacKay loses his $1000 slave, his concubine, and his cotton barn, but with a smug expression, he tells his slave-owning neighbors, “Everything is in hand, gentlemen, nothing has changed. Nothing has happened. There are always plenty of n——s in the world.”
While Slaves presents some serious ideas to consider and lives to ponder, the movie itself is seriously flawed. Notwithstanding some bad acting, the storytelling is really uneven. For example, Dan Holland plays a major role in the first part of the story but completely disappears, as does Stillwell. Ester only returns in a flashback at the end, and though Luke puts emphasis on also saving his children, they don’t seem significant to him as he dies. The film basically has a backstory that’s too long and a main story that’s not long enough.
But perhaps the movie’s biggest flaw is: though Luke is the focus, MacKay is the most compelling character in the story. Luke’s struggle to maintain his humanity is the central theme, certainly, but Ossie Davis’ stone-faced portrayal of this calm, measured man makes his character more dull than anything else. Even when he loses it, telling Jericho that he is ready to run, he is still calm. Even when he fights for his life against MacKay, he doesn’t look like he is trying very hard. And when that dull character is put alongside MacKay, our attention is drawn to the bizarre man who speaks eloquently, thinks strangely, and behaves badly. We don’t like MacKay – that’s not it – but he does hold our attention in ways that Luke doesn’t.
In general, I’d say that my assessment is fair since the movie’s page on the IMDb, Turner Classic Movies, and BFI websites are all conspicuous for that lack of content. A 2016 article on Indiewire also confirms what I saw: “It’s been forgotten for over 40 years (except by yours truly, of course) and for good reason: it’s really bad.” If there is a reason to watch Slaves, it would be to hear a few sharp and insightful monologues in the film, written by director Herbert Biberman, a staunch Hollywood left-winger who had been blacklisted. Other than those flashes in the pan, there’s not much there.