A still from Guy Deslauriers's Middle Passage, which debuts on HBO on Saturday, Feb. 9.
According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., most slave narratives don't talk about the psychological effects of the peculiar institution. "As far as I'm concerned, we all need to be shrunk," Gates asserted. About the Author
Aïda Croal is a staff writer for Africana.com.
While most media outlets have consulted the bible of "Great African American Historical Figures" to inspire their Black History Month programming, HBO Films is on a different track. Its two presentations — The Middle Passage, a harrowing look at the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the acclaimed Lumumba, which chronicles the life and subsequent assassination of Congolese nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba — are designed to explore the dynamic and fraught relationship between Africa and America. Debuting on HBO on Saturday, February 9 (10:05pm ET), The Middle Passage in many ways defies description. Named after the middle leg of a triangular trade route that linked Africa, Europe and the New World, and through which 11 million black souls were ripped from their homeland, The Middle Passage tackles its subject as a "poetic rumination." Narrated by Amistad star Djimon Hounsou, who plays the spirit of a dead African captive, the piece begins in the present day, with a young black boy looking out onto the Atlantic as Hounsou wonders how to explain this ocean's calamitous history to him. From there, the film uses live actors, exquisite cinematography, music and sound design to create an impressionistic picture of the daily horrors of life on a slave ship. "We're very excited by the prospect of broadening the scope of inquiry this Black History Month to address the complex relationship between America and Africa," says Colin Callender, the president of HBO Films. "At a time when we so seldom see images or stories from the African Diaspora, we're very proud to provide a unique platform for two important filmmaking voices from the Caribbean." Capturing a moment on the cusp of African American history, The Middle Passage is directed by Martinique-born Guy Deslauriers (L'Exil Du Roi Behanzin) from a script by famed Martinican novelist Patrick Chamoiseau (Texaco and In Praise of Creoleness). HBO Films, which acquired the film at last year's Sundance Film Festival, adapted the original French-language version under the guidance of executive producer Shelby Stone (Drop Squad, HBO's Boycott). Walter Mosley, author of the popular Easy Rawlins mysteries among other novels, scripted the English-language adaptation airing on HBO. Though difficult to watch, at 80 minutes The Middle Passage is an incredibly vital piece of work. The film's impressionistic approach evokes without exploiting its subject's misery — the cramped hold, the stench, the rats, the rapes, disease and ultimate deaths. There are continual suicides and desperate attempts at escape and mutiny. In one inspiring moment, the captives, forced to dance on deck to a slaver's fiddle, break out into a powerful, syncopated African rhythm. The slavers think they've finally gotten their charges to cooperate. Little do they know, it's a war dance. Deslaurier's film doesn't shrink from the question of African culpability and depicts the soon-to-be slaves being kidnapped from their villages and herded for miles. Hounsou's voice-over curses the Dahomean king responsible for the fates of many slaves, and wonders what god could they have angered to deserve this. HBO's screening for select journalists, with a discussion led by Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr., prompted a vigorous discussion of slavery's impact on African Americans. Veering off at the end into attacks on hip hop, the discussion mostly focused on psychology. According to Gates, most slave narratives don't talk about the psychological effects of the peculiar institution. The newly freed were intent on projecting a perpetual image of wellness. As a result, African American culture is now suffused with the instinct to deny emotional distress, to the detriment of many who need psychological help. When critic Stanley Crouch disagreed, citing Frederick Douglass's autobiography as an example of one that did discuss slavery's psychological effects, Gates countered that Douglass talked about the slaves' sadness, not emotional scarring. "As far as I'm concerned, we all need to be shrunk," Gates asserted. "Especially you, Stanley, you definitely need to be shrunk." After its critically acclaimed release last year, Raoul Peck's Lumumba pulled in more at the box office than any political foreign film in years. Still, this riveting work should be seen by anybody who loves film, or cares about black revolutionary history. Based on a true story, Lumumba depicts a highly charged portrait of the man who became the first prime minister of the newly independent Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1960. Less than eight months later, Lumumba was deposed and brutally executed. HBO's screening at New York's Council on Foreign Relations featured a panel discussion with the film's director and a UN High Commissioner who worked with Lumumba during the time he spent in office. Though the former UN worker praised Peck's film, he complicated its portrait of the man, remembering the independence leader as "volatile," "paranoid," "unyielding" and extremely difficult to work with. And, we were told, while the UN was among several parties that must accept partial blame for Lumumba's assassination, it was Lumumba himself who aroused America's fear by asking for Russian aid. Peck chose to view at the situation differently. "I see a man who is quite young, he's thrust into this position with no support, he doesn't know who he can trust," he said of his film's protagonist. "He's also an autodidact. He taught himself to read. People like that, like Malcolm X, they're very hard on others. They think since they did it, why can't you do it too. They are very impatient." Lumumba will debut on HBO on Saturday, February 16 (10:05pm EST). Other HBO playdates are February 21, 25 and 27. Watch it on HBO Plus on February 16, 19 and 24.
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