Oct 16, 2014

Beefcake and Bonding in Movies about Slavery

Movies about slavery in the antebellum South are very popular, and not entirely because people want to know more about that shameful period in American history.  Because of the opportunity to gawk at muscular African-American actors wearing next-to-nothing.  Unfortunately, these movies tend to overplay the heteronormativity, with the muscular men being torn from their wives and kids and struggling against all odds to return.

Here are the best and the worst of the gay-subtext slavery movies:
1. Tamango (1958) stars Alex Cresson as a newly captured slave who starts a revolt on the ship from Africa to Cuba, and incidentally falls in love with a woman.

2. The Legend of N* Charley (1972), now usually released as Black Charley, is about three escaped slaves facing prejudice in the "contemporary" U.S..  Charley (Fred Williamson) and his buddy Toby (D'Urville Martin) have a gay-subtext bond, and actually ride off into the sunset together.

3. One would expect the multigenerational Roots saga (1975) to be chock-full of beefcake and bonding, but except for the degradation and torture of a youthful Kunta Kinte (Levar Burton), everyone is chastely clad, and every relationship that matters is male-female.

3. Mandingo (1976), the most sleazy of the blacksploitation vehicles of the 1970s, with Perry King as a sleazy slave owner and Ken Norton as the slave he forces to become a boxer.  In between sparring with each other and taking off their clothes, they have "forbidden" romances with women.

4. Drum (1976) was a sequel with Warren Oates substituting for Perry King.

5. The Odyssey of Solomon Northup (1984): Northup (Avery Brooks) is a freeman who is kidnapped, sold into slavery, and struggles to return to his family.

More after the break.

6. Glory (1989) is set during the Civil War, where Colonel Robert Shaw (Matthew Broderick) becomes the leader of an all-black regiment.  He butts heads with Private Silas Tripp (Denzel Washington), an escape slave.  They eventually buddy-bond, and when they are killed in battle, they are buried side-by-side.

7. Amistad (1997) is a big-budget, rather pretentious account of some newly captured slaves who take control of the slave ship La Amistad (rather an ironic name) off the coast of Cuba in 1839.  The leader, Sengbe Pieh (Djimon Hounsou), is imprisoned while the case is played in court. He befriends lawyer Robert Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey).

8. Jamie Foxx is not particularly handsome, but he is very well endowed, as evident during his nude-torture scene in Django Unchained (2012).  Attempting to reunite with his wife, escaped slave Django (Foxx) buddy-bonds with German trader Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and runs afoul of a simpering gay-vague but heterosexual villain (Leonardo DiCaprio) before killing all the white people and their black allies.

9. Savannah (2013) is not actually about slavery, but it does star Chiwetel Ejiofor as ex-slave Christmas Moultrie, who falls in love...um, I mean befriends hard-drinking white dude Ward Allen (Jim Caviezel) in late 19th-century Savannah.

10. We return to the life of Solomon Northrup in 12 Years a Slave (2013), with Chitiwel Ejiofor playing Solomon, wandering through an antebellum world where all men are attracted to women and suspicious, at best, of each other.

See also: Roots; Uncle Tom's Cabin