Issue Essay

Born for the Fields?:  Alea's Construction of Slavery Justification and Revolution

[1]    Before I start this essay, I feel the need to remind the reader that I find slavery in all its forms to be an oppressive and terrible institution, and I firmly believe that for centuries (including this one) bigotry is one of the most terrible stains on our civilization.  The views I intend to express in the following essay are in no way meant to condone the practices of slavery or racism; they are meant only to evaluate and interpret the construction of slavery in film.

[2]    For films concerning slavery, the role of the filmmaker as educator is substantially heightened.  All too often slavery films categorically vilify whites as oppressive forces, polarizing race and stereotyping the white class as uniformly tyrannical.  The sympathetic but relatively powerless white in this system is frequently left out, condoning a stance that separates race as a division between villains and martyrs.  While I see an effort in Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s The Last Supper to move beyond these representations, how successful the film is as a transcendence above the typically extreme constructions of character in the slave film is a difficult assessment, particularly for a film from a Cuban director during the Cold War.

[3]    For John Mraz, the representation of history in Tomas Alea’s The Last Supper is commendable work.  Mraz claims that the film joins a cinematic collection where “films meet many of our expectations about what history ought to be” (120).  Mraz continues his praise of Alea’s historical constructions, asserting that the way the film addresses history is impartial and objective:  “The Last Supper follows the classic model of both written and filmed history in insisting on the reality of the world that it has in fact created, however much this universe has resulted from research.  The major convention of such history is that it has opened a window onto the past rather than constructed a particular version of it” (121).  While I have no problem with Mraz’s assessment of the uses of the film’s construction of history on the Cuban plantation, I find that the window Mraz speaks of offers a much more blurred version of reality than Mraz initially indicates.  The rationalization of slavery by the white people in the film comes off as ridiculous, and yet the rhetorical strategies to defend slavery at work in the film coincide with the arguments used by slavery apologists throughout the nineteenth century.  Here I intend to explore the view of slavery being pushed on the audience through The Last Supper, a message I find to be an ambiguous one.

[4]    A constant problem I find in slavery films is that the pro-slavery argument is made to look ridiculous, an illustration that lends itself to polarization, a problem certainly present in this film.  White characters, whether sympathetic to their slaves or not, agree that the African is an inferior being, a savage privileged to be taught the civilization offered by slavery.   The most blatantly ridiculous defender of the slave order is the Count.  Believing what he says, the Count pushes on the slaves the idea that nature has made them inferior and that any ills brought on them are the result of their own folly.  His world view is blatantly preposterous, making the institution ridiculous and oppressive.

[5]    This representation is a dangerous one in that it implies slave owners uniformly believed that blacks were inferior and slavery made them more useful to the world.  This view was certainly accepted by many whites of the time; however, many slave owners, particularly around the time of the American Civil War, believed slavery was immoral and unnatural but were unwilling to change the system because economic survival depended upon maintaining the institution.  Such an argument presents a much different version of inhumanity, one that stresses such evils are the result of economic necessity instead of an inherent inhumanity.

[6]    The priest offers a more realistic stance on slavery, defining Christianity as a slave-oriented religion depending on blind obedience from all.  In the priest's model the whites are slaves to God, and the blacks are slaves to both whites and God.  The reward for both slave and black is heaven, when the chains come off and sacrifices made in this lifetime are requited:

What is it like to go to Heaven?  To go to Heaven is to see God, to be with God, to live in his house…not in the kitchen, but in the dining room…You eat at God's table…with the Most Holy Virgin who is our mother…and with the angels and saints who are our brothers.  That's what going to Heaven means.  Up there…nobody gives orders, nobody dislikes anyone…nobody fights or gets angry.  All love one another.  Nobody says, “This is mine and this is yours.”  Everyone's got enough.  Isn't that wonderful? Doesn't it make you long to go heaven?  To go, you must be pure…and keep the commandments.  The slave must do his duty as a good slave.  He must respect and serve his master as God requires.  He must love him, because God commands this. (0:17:19)
[7]    At the heart of the sermon is a message of obedience that, while it certainly pushes an inferior position on the blacks, reiterates that Christianity pushes slavery on all of its followers.  The priest also suggests this ideology of the Christian slave on white members of the plantation, particularly the overseer, Don Manuel.  Barring his death, Don Manuel’s most involved fight in the film is with the priest over whether or not the slaves should work on Good Friday.  The priest's motives can only be to satisfy God by having the slaves rest, since there could be no other political motive for arguing with Don Manuel here.  For the priest the slaves taking off on Good Friday is the final component of the Count's religious obligation.  By trying to enforce this obligation the priest is not defending the slaves’ rights for the slaves’ sakes; instead, he is trying to make Don Manuel a slave of religious doctrine.  The priest's two reasons for demanding the slaves not work, the Count's order and religious implications, imply that through these powers Don Manuel has no choice in the matter and must do as ordered.  When Don Manuel refuses to accept this domination, his behavior finalizes a revolt begun by the Count's promises, the film’s punishment for going against the established religious order.

[8]    In this sense, the moment where Don Manuel and the priest bicker over whether to stop the work bell or keep it ringing is a tremendous accomplishment for the film.  The inherent power struggle here between religion and economics reveals four symbolic positions: The religious need to respect and enforce God's law through the priest, the owner's insistence on a laissez-faire policy in regards to the running of the plantation through the Count's invisible presence, the economic need of the overseer to make sure production remains high through Don Manuel, and the slave caught in the middle of these three ideologies through the bell ringer.  Understanding Don Manuel’s characterization becomes vital to grasping the conflict here, a conflict the film exposes without vilifying anyone (in this scene, at any rate).  Don Manuel, in the position of overseer, is in a position believed to require cruelty.   The main tenet of his position in the film is not to beat slaves.  He is paid to produce cane, and for Don Manuel the best means to achieve this goal is by manipulating the slave force through fear and brutality.  For Don Manuel executing the brutality believed necessary to achieve the desired production requires the mind set that the slaves are Godless and lazy creatures, beings who exist only to serve and who can best be made to work through constant abuse (remember that similar methods were practiced on white children in British factories at the same time, though certainly not to the brutal extent these methods were used on slaves).  While the film certainly passes judgment on Don Manuel’s view of the slave, his reasons to work the slaves on Good Friday are solely financial.  Falling more behind in the work is unacceptable, as is the idea that the slaves could possibly understand religion.  To accept this premise makes Don Manuel’s treatment of the slaves economic necessity rather than an abhorrence.

[9]    For the priest giving the slaves rest on Good Friday is Christian law, a law that goes beyond the financial justification Don Manuel gives as reason to work the blacks.  While the priest becomes the champion of the slaves, in reality his reasons are more concerned with staying within the bounds of Christian doctrine than human decency.  By letting the slaves work without protest he endorses sin, working on a day when work is forbidden.  The cruelty of Don Manuel’s schedule may be a concern but only a political one.  The priest, having an idea of what transpired at the supper, is warning Don Manuel that he may be causing a revolt, not that his treatment of the slaves is morally unacceptable.  Fraginals confirms this self-centered portrayal of the sugarmill priest as historically accurate:

Especially after 1780, numerous permits for sugarmill chapels were granted many impecunious priests emigrated to Havana from Spain and the United States.  Francisco Barrera y Domingo, an eyewitness, tells how European priests settled in sugarmills and prospered in the Lord's service with masses, intercessions for the departed, marriages, baptisms, and Negro prayer instruction classes.  They soon came into conflict with their superiors.  The priests became sugarmill employees rather than members of the clergy, and this broke the hierarchical Church structure:  while these men made their little piles in the sugarmill, and absorbed the religious offices in neighboring mills, cathedral coffers got a less than satisfactory share of the cash in circulation.  (52)
Fraginals also reminds us that the church of the time approved of the enslavement of Africans:
The local Church dutifully built up a body of doctrine justifying slavery.  It was based on the belief that the chief reason for bringing the black savage from Africa was to redeem him by work and teach him the road to Christian salvation.  This lent the sugarmill the fragrance of a redemptive shrine and transformed the slave trade into a rosy-cheeked missionary society. (53)
The priest veils humanity through self-preservation, a fact which makes him part of the brutal white majority.  His label of slaves wavers between Christian children and “daughters of Satan” (19:45).  Such a construction makes the priest unacceptable to Alea’s audience, certainly not the champion of the slave cause.

[10]    The Count is made the catalyst of the revolt, the personification of the evils of slave society.  Several acts of brutality are committed either on the Count's orders or under the Count's eyes, brutality the Count either condones through silence or demands through rage.  His conversation with Don Manuel over production during Holy Week releases the reader from any sympathy with the Count, setting up his behavior and morality as despicable:

        Don Manuel:  The priest is not responsible for this year's production.
        Count:  Holy Week must be respected.  God must be obeyed.
        Don Manuel:  I'll have to whip them harder.
        Count:  Why tell me?  It's your business – you're the overseer.  But the church must be respected.

This moral indifference is offset by the Count's reaction when he sees this brutality at work.  When Don Manuel severs Sebastian's ear as punishment for attempting to escape, the Count is so shaken he must be taken away with assistance.  But the Count reverses this sympathetic characterization by insisting later that Sebastian's punishment is warranted:

You see where your pride has brought you, Sebastian?  You don't learn.  You're stubborn.  Overseer orders, niggers must shut mouth and obey.  This happens to nigger because they're stupid.  So the overseer is right to treat you like this.  Nigger run away, overseer catches him.  He must punish him hard, so nigger doesn't do it again. (0:32:15)
The Count's doctrine provokes anger from the audience.  While he cannot bear to see such violence, he asserts that this violence is necessary.  His position comes off as hypocritical, a stance that contributes to the powder keg to go off the next day.  While he would never beat the slave, he makes sure the slaves are beaten.  While he will let them drink at his table, he will not allow the bodies of slave rebels to be in church.  The inconsistencies in his character are troubling, inconsistencies the film links to the institution the Count thrives on.

[11]    Alea’s characterization of the count is a difficult one to assess because in many ways his construction of the slave owner is both accurate and dangerous.  His scientific explanation of the black's natural advantage in manual labor, mixed in religious undertones, coincides with traditional apologist rhetoric.  This rhetoric suggests a natural order of a God who creates Africans as mentally inferior and physically inclined for labor, so that the institution of slavery serves as both scientifically and religiously just:

The black man is better prepared by nature to be a slave…to be more resistant to pain.  Who ever saw a white man singing as he cuts sugar cane?  The black man, however, always sings.  That's good, for with song he forgets what he is doing…and his spirit rejoices.  The white man suffers more than the black man when he cuts cane.  Well now, God arranged things in such a way…that  the Negro has an innate aptitude for cutting cane.  You could say he was born for the fields.  (0:56:40)
The slaves’ reactions, wavering between anger and laughter, validate the viewer's anger with the Count's justification.  This is a dangerous way to represent history.  The portrayal of the Count is a liar whose world view cannot be argued with and must instead be violently overthrown.  I think Alea may be inciting the wrong kind of change through this characterization.

[12]    The Count now becomes blatantly unreliable to the slave, contributing to a chaotic order the slave must work through.  Being given contradictory messages by three white authorities, the slave is not caught in the middle.  His fate results from the failure of the white power structure to agree on what the slave should do.  If the slave rings the bell, he disobeys the God he is constantly told will punish him if he is not obedient.  If he stops ringing the bell he faces the physical punishments that keep him submissive.  These mixed messages come from different sources, but two of these are sources that try to be consistent.  Don Manuel’s actions are directed toward productivity, while the priest's actions coincide with God's law.  But the count, whether drunk or sober, is impossible to understand, making any opportunity of the slave's understanding of white society impossible.  The Count's behavior at the supper is confusing enough to the blacks.  He stresses obedience and punishment, yet he forgives Sebastian for spitting in his face.  He emphasizes subservience to the overseer, yet he calls the overseer a bastard later in the evening.  The Count's behavior with the whites outside of the supper is just as confusing.  He reprimands Don Manuel for not respecting Holy Week, yet when Don Manuel explains what has to be done to maintain production he refuses to listen, defending his refusal by indicating that what has to be done to keep up production is not the Count's concern.  The Count approaches the reenactment of the Last Supper with a great deal of enthusiasm, later backtracking that energy and devotion by labeling the supper as an obligation.  After the revolt he demands the slaves’ heads be put on pikes, personifying the savagery he accuses the slaves of demonstrating.  His final speech is self-mocking, a testament to his oppressive and misguided world view:

I humbled myself, and seated them at the Lord's table…but they were never satisfied and keep asking for more.  Then God, chastising me with all His strength…made me understand that my heart was ensnared in dark thickets.  I shall have no peace until my abode is raised anew…and the temple is cleaned of those who traded with my heart…and the whole mill arises from its ashes into plenty.  For this, and so that God may assist me in that work, I shall raise a new church on this site, to Don Manuel’s memory.  It will stand as witness to all the sorrows of these days, but also to all the joy of our Christian triumph…over bestiality and savagery.  Amen. (1:43:52)
Such a characterization makes the Count discreditable to the point of being ridiculous, leading the audience to accept that whatever the Count says cannot be taken seriously.  The other clearly pro-slavery character, Don Manuel, has been made villainous through his brutality.  While his force is meant to serve economic purposes, the viewer, nevertheless, watches him beat slaves, cut off Sebastian's ear, and discuss putting slaves in the stocks as a daily chore.  Barring an ambiguous priest we are left with two pro-slavery advocates, one whose arguments are made ridiculous and one who has become desensitized by his own cruelty, making him completely unsympathetic to the reader.

[13]    This construction of the slavery apologists is a dangerous one, an ideology that endorses violence to overthrow a violent order.  The film depicts the revolt as the result of the Count's inconsistencies intermingled with the unwavering viciousness of Don Manuel.  The mention of Santo Domingo indicates that the Count's slaves should also aspire to overthrow their oppressors through violence, without any help whatsoever from the society controlling them.  The film ends with Sebastian running through the wilderness, fulfilling his earlier prophecy of defeating the Count through violence and magic.  Sebastian's escape in the final scene overpowers the audience's image of the eleven heads on pikes, justifying the revolt and glorifying changing the system through violent means.

[14]    However, history indicates that the slave revolts were not only unsuccessful for the rebelling plantation, but these revolts were also dangerous to the slaves on other plantations.  The revolt of Santo Domingo destroyed the area's control of the sugar market, causing a rise both in Caribbean sugar markets and the slave trade.  On a more practical level, revolts were almost always put down, leading to even more oppressive management of the plantations.  The revolt of the slaves was always a fear of the owners who were terrified of the slave's opportunity for revenge if they became free.  Knight's research demonstrates the even the hint of a revolt meant brutal oppression:

The supposed slave revolt of 1844 had absolutely no foundation in fact.  Basing its actions upon the testtimony of a female slave that the blacks on a Mtanzas plantation were conspiring with many outsiders to foment a rebellion, the government of Leopoldo O'Donnell precipitately moved in and arrested nearlyh two thousand whites, free colored persons, and slaves.  No one knew the exact number of executions, which inluded the well-known free colored men Andres Dodge and Gabriel de la Concepcion Valdes, otherwise known as "El Placido."  Many innocent free persons suffered imprisoment and exile to Melilla and Ceuta while the slaves who escaped death were brutally flogged. (81)
Not only did revolts lead to more brutal lives for the slaves of the rebelling plantation but for all the plantations and mills of the area.  Slave revolts justified the slave owning paranoia that the slave only thought about revenge, and that revenge could only be controlled through strict regimens and constant abuse.

[15]    The brutality of the whites in the film fused with the mixed messages of the authority figures blames the whites for the behavior of the blacks, a blame redeemed through Don Gaspard.  Don Gaspard never beats the slaves, partially out of human decency and partially because he has come to the Cuban plantation recognizing the dangers inherent in the slavery system.  He never adopts the Count's view of the slave as naturally inferior and lazy, nor does he accept Don Manuel’s view that the best means of production comes through beating the slaves into productivity.  In fact, Don Gaspard's hiding Sebastian from the rancheros is the only genuine act of kindness from a white to a black in the film.  More importantly, there is no reward for his behavior.  Once Sebastian retreats to the other room Don Gaspard's life is not in danger, nor is there any tangible reward for hiding a rebellious slave.  This is genuine humanitarianism, a recognition by a white man that the slavery institution is wrong and a commitment to do what he can to fight that system.  His generosity makes the behaviors and ideologies of the Count and Don Gaspard even more infuriating.

[16]    However, the film implies that Don Gaspard's enlightened nature is the result of rebellious violence.  His experience in Santo Domingo reminds him that the slaves cannot always be controlled and when held through violence will take revenge on their oppressors when given opportunity:  “Because I know them [slaves].  There were more blacks there than whites or mulattos.  Now only blacks are left.  I don't want to see my head used by blacks as a football” (0:25:05).  The slaves of Santo Domingo, through a violent revolt, have created a more liberal mentality in an overseer, a chain reaction that holds dangerous political implications.  While I certainly agree that Don Gaspard's view could be accomplished through the lessons of violent revolt, Don Gaspard can only be considered an exception.  History makes clear that, by and large, revolts meant torture and death for the slaves caught, and even harder life for obedient slaves.

[17]    In conclusion, while Alea goes beyond the typical polarizations of slave film, I find his representation of revolt as deserving and positive is a dangerous construction.  Sebastian's world view is glorified, while the ideologies practiced by the whites in power incite anger in the audience pushing us to hope for a revolt without thinking about the negative consequences looming for the oppressed.  In an oppressive system resistant to change, violent overthrow is a constant fear.  Once realized, those in power become all the more determined to maintain power through the brutality those revolts are meant to eliminate.  The results are seldom glorious; instead, they are usually tragic.  We must remember that the end of slave societies usually resulted from economic or political pressure put on political leaders by free men in the system, not those meant to be under it.

Works Cited

Fraginals, Manuel Moreno.  The Sugarmill:  The Socioeconomic Complex of Sugar in Cuba, 1760-1860.  New York:  Monthly Review, 1976.

Knight, Franklin W.  Slave Society in Cuba during the Nineteenth Century.  Madison:  U of Wisconsin P, 1970

Mraz, John.  Recasting Cuban Slavery:  The Other Francisco and The Last Supper.”  Based on a True Story:  Latin American History at the Movies.  Ed. Donald R. Stevens.  Wilmington:  S.R. Books, 1997. 106-22.

Copyright (c) 2000  by Sean Patrick Magee, Graduate student at Lehigh University.

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