The Pitfalls of Picturing Atlantic Slavery: Steven Spielberg’s Amistad vs Guy Deslauriers’s The Middle Passage

Lars Eckstein


Abstract

The task of remembering the transatlantic slave trade poses a particular challenge to historians and artists alike. Not only does it revolve around an emotionally and ideologically loaded issue, there is also rather little documentary and testimonial evidence to draw upon, particularly so regarding the Africans’ view of the trade. To make things worse, the most important and often quoted source – the second chapter of Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative (1789) dealing partly with life in the belly of a slave ship – has recently been uncovered to be probably ‘fictional’ rather than based on personal experience.

 

On the one hand, the arts are particularly called for in this situation to fill the documentary gaps and silences through acts of experiment and imagination, and they may indeed have a redemptive effect by offering, in Hayden White’s terms, successful ‘emplotments’ of a traumatic past. One the other hand, this redemptive potential simultaneously poses a serious ethical challenge: As Theodor W. Adorno has warned with reference to the Holocaust, it is precisely by making ‘sense’ of human suffering, and by making accessible to the ‘senses’ what is utterly senseless and incomprehensible, that injustice may be done to the victims. In this paper, I will try to illustrate this problematic by looking at two recent films that have attempted to represent the horrors of the middle passage – Steven Spielberg’s canonical Amistad (a terrible failure, in my view), and Guy Deslauriers’ film The Middle Passage [Passage du Milieu]. Based on a script by the Martiniquean novelist and poet Patrick Chamoiseau, the latter example uses an aesthetic approach which may point at a way out of the dilemma outlined above.

Keywords

slave trade; historiography; Amistad; The Middle Passage

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