Interpretive Challenges with Portraying Slavery in Film

Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

One of my greatest and most exciting challenges with being a Park Guide at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site (ULSG) lies in interpreting the experience of slavery to the audiences who come to our site. Ulysses S. Grant’s father-in-law Frederick Dent–the owner of the White Haven estate that is preserved and interpreted by the National Park Service at ULSG–owned upwards of thirty slaves prior to the Civil War. Grant himself also owned a slave named William Jones for roughly one year, although there is a lack of evidence to tell us how and why Grant purchased this slave.

The slaves’ experiences at White Haven play a crucial role in the way we interpret this estate’s history in the years before the Civil War. Someone in my position simply cannot afford to leave out any mention of slavery when providing a historical context for explaining Frederick Dent’s economic prosperity or the privileged childhood of Julia Dent, Frederick’s first daughter and the eventual wife of Ulysses S. Grant. As Ta-Nehisi Coates succinctly put it in his recent essay on reparations, “to celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism à la carte.”

The interpretive staff at ULSG is dedicated to giving an honest and accurate portrayal of slavery at White Haven, and new discussions have emerged among the staff about the possibility of adding a brief two-minute film in the winter kitchen of the estate to tell a story about slavery from the perspective of slaves themselves. There is a belief among some that by adding this film we can do a better job of giving the slaves an interpretive voice that conveys to our audiences the emotions, fears, needs, and challenges these people endured while laboring at White Haven. I don’t want to give too much away because everything is very tentative at this point (and there’s no guarantee the video will be added), but there are several interpretive challenges worth pointing out here.

While we know that Frederick Dent’s slaves freed themselves by running away from White Haven at some point during the Civil War, we have little primary source evidence to help guide our understanding of how the slaves came to this decision. We have no documentation to tell us how the slaves’ interacted with each other or the style of speech they used. Did they use some form of slave dialect to communicate with each other? If so, what form of dialect? Would it be appropriate for this film to have people speaking in dialect? What were the slaves’ concerns, motivations, and choices leading up to their eventual running away from the estate? How can we propose to give the slaves a voice when we have so little documentation to help us define the nature of that voice? Is it appropriate for us as historians to build a “composite” sketch of slavery that is built in part without primary source evidence? Are there people within the St. Louis community we should consult with as we work through the process of creating this film? Is film the most appropriate medium for portraying the slaves’ experiences? Can all of these questions along with the actual experience of slavery be meaningfully conveyed to public audiences in a two-minute film?

These are some of the questions I am currently thinking through as we continue our discussions over this ambitious yet fragile idea of portraying slavery on film. Public historians face these sorts of questions on a regular basis, and I’d love to hear the feedback of others in the comments section.


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