Thursday, May 29, 2008

Way Down South

In Way Down South (1939), directed by Bernard Vorhaus and written by African American actor Clarence Muse and writer Langston Hughes, we see an old Louisiana plantation that exemplifies all the romantic myths about the antebellum South: we see slaves working happily in the fields and around the plantation house. They sing and dance joyfully and gladly serve their white masters. In turn, their owners are kind and thoughtful to them. Despite the great expense, the plantation owner is planning to build new slave cabins, though he is warned of the expense by his financial advisor. His family prides itself on never having sold a slave. The plantation is a place of social and racial harmony. The white boy who is one of the central characters in the film has as best friends two slaves from the plantation.

When the old master Timothy Reid dies after being run over by a horse, however, things go wrong. His son is too young to run the plantation, so his father's financial advisor Martin Dill assumes control as executor, with assistance from foreman Charles Middleton. Dill immediately begins taking steps to bring efficiency to the plantation, but at the same time he appears to be draining money from the plantation for his own uses. He is not as kind to the slaves as their dead master was. The head house slave, Uncle Caton, played by Clarence Muse, explains that Dill "don't understand the South."

Dill decides to sell most of the slaves on the plantation, including Uncle Caton. Young Reid helps disguise Uncle Caton as an old woman and escapes with him to New Orleans, planning to buy him passage to the north on a riverboat. There is, of course, comedy in having a black man dress up in disguise as an elderly white women, although the film doesn't play this plot element for as much comedy as it might. There were historical incidents of slaves disguising themselves and escaping north. The most famous is that of William and Ellen Craft. Ellen, who was light-skinned, disguised herself as a white man, while her husband posed as her servant. They describe the incident in their narrative of their lives, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom.

Before Dill is able to sell the slaves, young Reid convinces a besotted New Orleans judge than Dill is stealing money from the estate and that his plan to sell the slaves is contrary to what his father would have wished.

The two main settings for the film are the plantation and the inn in New Orleans to which Reid escapes with Uncle Caton.

The film illustrates the mythic Southern ideal of the kind and paternalistic plantation owner who keeps good care of his slaves and treats them as family—though clearly in the film the slaves are shown as relatively simple and in need of protection. The intrusion of outsiders (Southerners always liked to complain about the intrusion of outsiders) causes problems. The extent to which the Hughes/Muse screenplay added these elements to the screenplay is unclear—I could find no evidence in Arnold Rampersand's Hughes biography that changes were made to the script against the authors' objections--apparently Muse, Hughes, and the producer Sol Lesser agreed to the antebellum context of the film. Ampersand suggests Hughes saw the film as a compromise and hoped he wouldn't be criticized too harshly for it. (He did receive considerable criticism). Hughes and Muse clearly had much to do with the portrayal of the slaves and of the film's specific emphasis on slavery. Slavery itself is not shown as a particular horror in the film. More than anything else being sold away from the place they have lived for their entire lives is what they fear and dread. Dill's plan to sell the slaves is the dramatic center of the film.

African Americans actors and the slaves they portray are prominent in the film. The film's argument against slavery (or at least against the selling of slaves) is especially strong for its times. Yet the slaves are portrayed as stereotypical—often clownish and bug-eyed, singing and dancing and jubilating. No African American in the film breaks out of a stereotypical role. They love and speak kindly of their dead master and his son. Although Uncle Caton is accustomed to speaking his mind to his owner, even disagreeing with him, the film makes clear that this is permissible only because the dead owner permitted and encouraged it. When Uncle Caton speaks his mind to the executor, Dill immediately places him on the list of slaves to be sold.

Much of the entertainment value of the film centers on the singing of the slaves (the Hall Johnson Choir, a black musical group, provided many of the actors who played slaves in the film). The singing varied widely from what one would imagine to be traditional slave ballads to jazz-type music current in the 1930s, to popular ballads. Young Reid (Bobby Breen, a transient child star and singing sensation of the late 1930s) breaks into song on a number of occasions, often accompanied by the African Americans in the film. The film, of course, was conceived as a vehicle for displaying his singing talents.

It's difficult to make a case for the racial progressivism of this film. Although slaves are portrayed sympathetically, they are also shown as simple and subservient. Although young Reid helps Uncle Caton to escape when Dill decides to sell him, this hardly mitigates the rest of the film. There is no attack on slavery here—only on the mistreatment of slaves, on the practice of selling them away from the friends and families whom they have grown up with (whether the typical slave grew up with friends and family is a historical question I cannot answer). One might argue that showing slavery as an institution where slaves could be beaten, exploited, and sold down the river in itself is an attack, yet too often in the film slaves are shown behaving gratefully for their condition. Although the Hall Johnson Choir sings beautifully in portions of the film, they and other actors behave in shamelessly stereotypical ways. Uncle Caton behaves with dignity, yet he never acts independently, is always a servant, is always bowing to the white masters who love but also own him.

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