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There’s No Comedy In Movies About Slavery... Or Is There?

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act October 17, 2011 at 6:52AM

Some random mid-day musings... just because... :)
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Some random mid-day musings... just because... :)

That French time-travel slavery comedy Case départ, which we profiled several months ago, was met with much derision; not only on this site, but other sites that picked up on the story.

Slavery as comedy???” was a common seemingly flabbergasted headline.

If I may throw Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Django Unchained into that conversation… it’s essentially a blaxploitation-inspired slave-revenge western, to sum it up in so many words; at least that’s my interpretation of it after reading the script for the film, which surfaced online earlier this year.

But it’s also a comedy – something that I’m not entirely certain many who haven’t read the script are aware of. In fact, I’d say one reason (not the only one) Tarantino settled on Jamie Foxx for the title role is because Foxx has proven that he can do both comedy and drama effectively. You could say the same for Tarantino’s first choice for the role – Will Smith. Recall Chris Tucker was said to be one of the actors in consideration. The common thread between these 3 cats is that they are also fairly well known for their comedic routines - whether or screen or on stage.

It’s certainly not what you’d call knee-slapping, laugh out loud humor (although if I recall correctly, there are a few moments like that scattered about); but it can also be classified as a comedy, along with all the other labels it’s been assigned. This isn’t Roots nor is it Amistad; it’s not even Mandingo nor Drum, although both are certainly influences.

Django is purely superficial entertainment; Of course I’ll still see it, if only to review here on S&A.

But I'd like to consider 2 more films that I think deserve mention in this conversation, and that I’d say are maybe even closer cousins to Django Unchained. We haven’t discussed either on this site yet, I don't believe: 1968’s The Scalphunters which starred Ossie Davis and Burt Lancaster, as well as 1971’s Skin Game, which starred Louis Gossett Jr. and James Garner.

I say these are maybe closer cousins to Django because both feature that age-old infamous black/white buddy pairing; and, like Django, the pairs are, broadly-speaking, men on a mission; one of the films is also classified as a western; And, lastly, both are indeed comedies first and foremost… films that take a far more flippant approach to slavery, even though slavery isn’t necessarily front and center in both; more-so in Skin Game than Scalp Hunters.

In the former, Gossett and Garner play hustlers during the 1800s, who travel from town to town in the south, pretending to be master and slave, with Garner claiming to be a down-on-his-luck slave owner who is selling his slave (played by Gossett). After each auction, Gossett’s character is sold, Garner collects the cash, eventually Gossett finds a way to escape his new owners, the pair meet up later and split the cash.

You could probably guess what eventually throws a wrench into their lucrative scheme.

If you really think about it, taking into account what we know of the period in which the film takes place and the situations it depicts, these 2 are playing quite a dangerous game, though you never really quite feel the gravity of their actions throughout the movie. They are eventually caught, and there is some retribution from those they swindled; but, again, it’s a comedy, so it tickles more than anything; even a sequence in which Gossett's character is treated for bloody wounds on his back, after he is lashed.

In The Scalphunters, a mountain man played by Lancaster and his “educated slave” track an outlaw band to retrieve stolen furs. The late Sidney Pollack directed this one, and it’s well put together as you’d imagine – portrayals of Native Americans and slavery aside… major asides, but this was also 1968.

Both slaves are so obviously well-educated; a point that is emphasized in each film. While Gossett’s slave was born a free man, Davis’ was previously owned by a family that stressed education – and apparently their slaves weren’t exempt.

Both were distinguished, but Davis’ slave was also what I'd call effete – more apt to use brains than brawn. It may sound like an odd comparison, but I kept thinking of C-3PO from the Star Wars movies in how he moved and spoke – slim, kind of stiff, likely to avoid any and all confrontation, and seemingly quite erudite; you’d likely laugh at him almost in the same way you laughed at C-3PO. Again, it’s a comedy!

But unlike Gossett, Davis’ character features less prominently. In Skin Game, I’d say there clearly was an attempt by the filmmakers to portray both men (Gossett and Garner) as equals, despite their faux master/slave relationship in the film. And unlike black/white buddy comedy/action flicks that came after it, Gossett’s character actually does get romantically entangled (as does Garner’s). Both men get the (their) girl in the end; in fact, somewhat like Django, what helps push Skin Game to its denouement is the pair’s decision to save the slave girl Gossett’s character falls for in the first half - played by the lovely Brenda Sykes - who also co-starred in both Mandingo and Drum, which I mentioned earlier in this post.

The fact that these 2 black actors (Gossett and Davis) belong to a short list of some of the most revered black actors in cinema history, led me to a present-day connection to another black actor who also is considered one of the best among his contemporaries, and who will also play a slave in an upcoming film (though it’s a drama, not a comedy); I’m referring to Chiwetel Ejiofor who will star in Brit director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s slave narrative, 12 Years A Slave, about a black man, educated, who was born free, but was later kidnapped by slave traders and bound into in a life of slavery for the following 12 years – hence the title.

Expect a far more somber tale than the frothy Skin Game, which also features a black man, educated, born free, but is later captured and sold into slavery (although really of his own doing, thanks to his con game).

Both Skin Game and The Scalphunters are on home video and worthy of a viewing – that is, if you’re not turned off by the idea of comedic depictions of slavery.

I’m working on getting further release info on Case départ. We’re also trying to get an interview with its 2 stars (Fabrice Eboué and Thomas N'Gijol), who also penned the screenplay.


This article is related to: Things That Make You Go Hmm...


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