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