Scene Analysis

Roles of the Slave:  Antagonisms between House Slaves and Field Slaves

(see film clip)

[1]    No matter what time or area in the institution of slavery, the position of the house slave is always a difficult one.  On one hand, the house slave is in a privileged position, free from the barbaric schedules and disciplines the field slaves are subjected to.  At the same time the house slave serves as living proof for slave owners that the practice of slavery need not lay on their consciences.  Household slaves were grateful to be in that position and rarely (if ever) complained, since doing so could jeopardize their situation.  In The Last Supper the difference of treatment of Emundo, the Countís house slave, and the rest of the blacks is noteworthy, particularly when Emundo is dismissed from the table at the supper (1:03:55).  The goal of this essay is to show that the film, while judging Emundoís loyalty as counterproductive to the cause of the other slaves, recognizes that the house slaveís position is impossible.

[2]    The position of the house slave on the plantation served to divert many blacks from questioning their treatment and attempting to fight it.  Being a household slave meant security and entitlement to the black, creating an environment where slaves yearned for a higher position in the slave system rather than pondering ways the fight the system itself.  In his autobiography, Montejo Esteban, a former slave from Cuba in the 1860's, recognizes that field slaves despised the house slaves, and that house slaves believed they were more on the level of master than slave:

I donít think the household slaves did [understand Christianity] either, although, being so refined and well treated, they all made out they were Christian.  The household slaves were given rewards by the masters, and I never saw one of them badly punished.  When they were ordered to go to the fields to cut cane or tend the pigs, they would pretend to be ill so they neednít work.  For this reason the field slaves could not stand the sight of them.  The household slaves sometimes came to the barracoons to visit relations and used to take back fruit and vegetables for the masterís house; I donít know whether the slaves made them presents from their plots of land or whether they just took them.  They caused a lot of trouble in the barracoons.  The men came and tried to take liberties with the women.  That was the source of the worst tensions.  (37)
Montejoís construction of the house slaves as enemy is a valuable one for understanding the importance of the Countís behavior toward Emundo in the supper scene.  For the field slaves the house slave was not a fellow black but a creature pretending to be white, a traitor to those in the field.  For the field slave in the Cuban sugarmill, life was brutal and dangerous, a world where ďThe mills were like huge grinders which chewed up blacks like cane.  Growing old was a privilege as rare as it was sad, especially in the super-barbaric stage of slaveryĒ (Fraginals 143).  At the same time being a field slave meant a life of terror and pain, in many ways being a household slave meant living a ďwhiteĒ life.  The household slaveís continual presence around the master meant many luxuries.  The slave had to bathe constantly and wear clothes that made him look presentable to the whites.  The household was a representation of how well the owner kept the plantation, making traits considered ďwhiteĒ at the time such as cleanliness, intelligence, and civility essential.  Such a privileged life, if we may call it that, inspired antagonism among the field slaves, who knew such a life existed for only certain blacks.   The field slavesí laughter at Emundo being chastised reinforces that antagonistic dynamic.

[3]    Likewise, a feeling of the household slaves that they were above working with the field slaves, that they were better or more deserving of privilege, became inevitable.  Antonioís request to be brought back in the villa earlier in the scene, indicates that there was a mutual antagonism between household and field slaves.  He asks the master, ďAre you going to send me back to all those dirty slaves?Ē (28:18).  Antonio believes that what sets him apart from the other slaves is that he has worked in the villa, an experience that makes him better than those he is now forced to live with.  Emundoís placement in the background reminds Antonio of the position taken from him, a position he yearns to retrieve.  Emundoís presence inspires hatred or jealousy from all, an uncomfortable situation the admonishment makes clear.

[4]    In his loyalty to the master, Emundo positions himself against the field slaves who are enjoying the masterís drunkenness.  The Countís inebriated state creates a role reversal.  The slaves have an opportunity to have fun at the Countís expense, an opportunity they realize they will probably never have again.  By attempting to end the dinner before the Count embarrasses himself further, Emundo places himself firmly on the side of the Count, and, just as firmly, positions himself against the field slaves.  Instead of performing the role of attending to the master,  Emundo defends the master against the slaves, something he need not necessarily do.  The Countís retort is unexpected and scathing, a remark that delineates the field slaves as the Countís privileged group and Emundo as a criminal transgressor:  ďAnd who are you to give me orders?  Are you forgetting the role you have to play?  Your master!  Understand?  Your master!  Clear offĒ  (1:03:55).

[5]    The Countís reaction becomes a triumph for the field slaves, a reversal of position in the slave hierarchy.  The Countís outburst is a doctrine practiced largely on the field slaves, the ideology that the black has been given a subservient role in his life and he must never attempt to transcend it.  The insult sparks laughter among field slaves, and this humiliation may be worse for Emundo than the tongue-lashing from the Count.  The Countís participation in the field slavesí mockery of Emundo positions the field hands in a role of intimacy with the Count, a role exclusively for Emundo until he tries to defend the Count from making a mockery of himself.

[6]    The Countís admonishment is especially acidic for Emundo, who has already been told he is a better human being than the field slaves in front of whom he is insulted.  Emundoís position is the result of the Countís generosity, a position Emundo knows relies on the premise that he remains loyal to the Count in all circumstances.  Up until this point Emundoís loyalty merits rewards, among them the assurance that he is a friend of the Count and deserves his position above the field hands.  Now Emundo is commanded to believe the exact opposite, that he is the outsider and the field slaves at the table have usurped his position.  Emundoís power and status are taken away in an instant, creating a much worse state of mind than the field slaves (except Antonio) who have never experienced Emundoís position of privilege.

[7]    But the groupings are not as simple as house slave and field slave.  Antonio and Ambrosio, both field slaves who internalized feelings of worthlessness forced on them by the institution the Count defends, side with Emundo by interrupting the field slavesí fun.  The Count is unconscious, something Antonio and Ambrosio are clearly aware of when they defend the Count as a good master.  This awareness of the Countís unconsciousness puts the two slaves in the most difficult position of all, a house slave working in the field, defending a master when doing so will not result in any reward from the Count.  This dialogue recognizes the difficult role of the field hands who have maintained or wish to maintain the house slave position.  As the current household slave, Emundoís position is the most difficult of all, a position the film makes sympathetic.

[8]    The film recognizes that Emundoís position during the supper is an impossible one.  He can never be accepted or respected by the field slaves around him, a fact that becomes obvious when Antonio is ignored throughout the dinner after siding with the count at the beginning of the supper.  Like Antonioís position with the other field slaves, Emundoís position of privilege with the master is also destroyed.  He can no longer assume the Count will treat him as he always has, and so Emundoís hope is that the Count will return to normal once he is sober.  But the Countís promises, promises that have saved Emundo from the field, are no longer reliable.  Emundoís place of privilege now depends on a second reversal of the Countís loyalties.  The consequences if the Count does not reestablish his bond with Emundo could be as disastrous as Antonio, the humiliating and brutal role of field slave substituted for the role of the household slave that has left Emundo spoiled.  When asked to have the field slaves convey a message, Emundo responds, ďIíll go.  The sugarmill blacks are too stupid" (13:58).  The threat of being grouped with or below this group is a constant threat, one Emundo can only endure as the field slaves endure their daily brutality.

[9]    Emundoís difficulty serves a pattern Alea demonstrates throughout the film, showing constant division among the slaves as a weakness that plagues them throughout their existence.  The field slaves at the supper are slaves because they were sold by their African enemies.  During the supper they bicker about what to do if forced to work Good Friday.  Barring Sebastian, the slaves who were at the supper are caught after they separate.  Emundoís attitude serves as another division, but a division the film understands and forgives.  Emundo is only a traitor to some.  To others, he is where they want to be.

Works Cited

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

Montejo, Esteban.  The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave.  Ed. Miguel Barnet.  Trans. Jocast Innes.  New York:  Pantheon, 1968.

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

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