This may surprise you, but slavery is still a pretty hot-button topic in America. Despite being in a “Post-Obama” America, most people still have a hard time taking an objective look at the slave trade that existed roughly between the mid-1700’s till the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865. And this is for good reason: we’re still suffering the effects of it. African Americans still lag behind their white peers economically. Culturally, we still deal with many of the hang ups that began in slavery (anti-intellectualism, self-hatred, etc). It often feels as if the chains of slavery have loosened, but not broken.
This is evident in mainstream film as well: most works dealing with the period have to be so weighed down in sentiment that they have a hard time saying something productive. Surprisingly, despite being created when the Civil Rights movement was still very prominent America, Alex Haley’s Roots (1977) is one of the few even-handed portrayals of slavery. For some background, Roots was a miniseries that ran on ABC for six episodes. It was based on a (loosely) historical novel by Haley which follows his direct ancestors from Africa to his present day.
The series was enormously successful, winning 9 Emmys, being nominated for 28 others, and to this day being in the top ten most successful series of all time. What’s so striking about the series to me is that despite mainstream success, it actually makes a subtle and nuanced commentary on slavery. Granted, there’s tasteful sentiment, but along with that we have characters that elucidate aspects of the slave trade.
Of particular note in Roots is the governing structure of slave owners. Any major industry or organization needs varying roles in order to sustain itself. You just can’t have accountants dealing with your legal problems or your human resource manager doing location scouting. This extends to institutions as well. For example, most major religions thrive due to both casual and devoted followers. The zealousness of devotees maintains structure while fair-weather followers allow for numbers. Slavery was supported by both division of labor and sentiment, with those who owned slaves rarely overlapping with those who actually worked with slaves. In Roots, this is best exemplified by the first slave owner and overseer that we meet, John Reynolds and Ames.
Reynolds (seen above) is first introduced buying Kunta Kinte (the protagonist for the first three episodes). The first thing we get from the guy is that he depends heavily on his house slave – Fiddler – since HE’S the one who actually scouts Kunta as a good slave. He’s also kind of smug. On the way back to his plantation, he has Fiddler put new shoes on his horses. When Fiddler rationally asks why the task needs doing in the middle of the road, he states “The beast is property…a wise man always takes care of his horses and his slaves “. What sage wisdom coming from guy lying down while eating an apple.
Even worse, he leaves Fiddler alone with Kunta on the same road. Fiddler rationally brings to his attention that two unattended slaves could lead to them being viewed as runaways (which would be costly for the slaves and Reynolds). Reynolds’ retort? ” Then i wouldn’t take too much time shoeing that horse if i were you “, followed by a dickish grin.
The demeanor of Reynolds is very similar to another douchebag superior: Bill Lumbergh in Office Space (1999).
In the Google eBook Reading the Everyday (2005), social historian Joe Moran postulates that Lumbergh’s non-confrontational phrasing (‘Uh, great, yeah, listen, I’m going to have to go ahead and ask you to…) “masks the reality of management coercion“. That guy HAS to do what Lumbergh tells him to do, no matter how he phrases it. Office Space‘s satirical tone means that Lumbergh attempts to obscure this are hilariously unenthusiastic, he doesn’t even wait for employees to respond to his cordialities before making his “requests”.
Likewise, Reynolds owns Fiddler, so there’s no need for him to have a dialogue with him. Reynolds is masking the realities of slavery by affecting a paternal tone towards Fiddler. In the horseshoeing scene, Fiddler is making a valid, mature point about the danger for Reynolds’ “property”, but, like an aloof father, he has a casually dismissive reaction. This is similar to how Lumbergh never acknowledges his employees’ desires when giving orders. Granted, whereas Peter from Office Space is merely a beleaguered employee, Fiddler is a slave. In a modern office setting, there are checks and balances to make sure that superiors aren’t callous towards their subordinates. Even simply cursing at an employee can make a labor lawyer’s ear perk up in America. For his own protection, Lumbergh has to at least make some effort to be polite. Slaves had no such protection, so Reynolds could literally have just told Fiddler to shut the fuck up both times he contested him. So why did he engage in shallow banter? I would wager to guess it’s because Reynolds DOESN’T think its shallow. He thinks that their paternal relationship is actually genuine. He really does believe that he “takes care of his horses and slaves“, as he claimed earlier.
Reynolds confirms this perspective later when he has conversation with his family and Ames about slavery. He incredulously asks Ames if he does not believe in “the natural ability for the white men to dominate the black“. For him, slavery is the natural way of things. Racial hierarchy was a large component of white support for black enslavement. Thinkers of the time such as Frenchman Arthur Gobineau believed that blacks existed at the bottom of the racial totem pole, even if they did have some positive traits. As such, they thought slavery couldn’t be thought of as detrimental. Hell, many thought it was BENEFICIAL for blacks to be enslaved if it meant they can get some positive influence from whites.
What’s intriguing about the character of Reynolds is that the series takes a surprising interest in him as a character outside of being a slaveholder. When he returns home after buying Kunta, we get a family scene that wouldn’t be out of place in The Brady Bunch.
The scene sets up his very charming relationship with his family. He’s not afraid to be silly with his daughters and is affectionate towards his wife, constantly referring to her as “my love”. This image of a idyllic family structure is challenged during Reynolds slavery argument with Ames and his brother. While Reynolds is engaging in the debate about his confidence in white superiority, there are several conspicuous cuts to his brother and his wife looking at each other in a…friendly manner.
This obvious eye-fucking is not a throwaway moment: it’s later revealed that not only have the two been engaged in an affair, her youngest child is a product of it. What’s important to remember is that this occurs DURING Reynolds’ conversation with Ames (Reynolds is sitting down)
At any time, Reynolds could’ve just looked over and thought “that looks suspicious”. What’s even worse is that when Reynolds does see them flirt with each other, he states that his brother is a ladies man in an offhand manner. Even when reality stares Reynolds in the face, he’s too fucking stupid to realize it. Years later, after Kunta has already attempted to runaway and has been insubordinate for a decade, Reynolds STILL trusts him to leave the plantation to work for a neighbor. Why? Because Kunta promised he wouldn’t run away, and why would an infinitely-indentured servant with a history of escapes break a promise like that?
As with Calvin Candie and his french fetish in Django Unchained (2013), these aren’t necessary elements of the plot, but it illuminates Reynolds’ worldview. A wealthy, comfortable man like Reynolds doesn’t have to question much about his existence, so he doesn’t. It’s easy for him to have trust in the fidelity of his wife and his slaves, even when a quick spot-check would reveal why he shouldn’t. His feelings dictate his relationships and not logic. Reynolds could be thought of as the “clueless” buffer that made up a good chunk of slave owners, who were more ignorant than malicious. Most cultures believe that they have a degree of superiority to someone, Americans just had the unfortunate benefit of being able to institutionalize that perception. Personally, I had a hard time hating Reynolds when I first saw this series, since he just seemed like a bumbling dad who happened to live during time when you could buy slaves. He actually treats most of the slave characters decently (in comparison to his contemporaries). He’s still a smug jerk, but it once again feels like a product of his sheltered upbringing. Unfortunately, his ignorance (as representative of the country’s at the time) allows for slavery to thrive, as otherwise most would hesitate to be party to the enslavement of those they consider equals.
The thing is, not everyone could have been as ignorant as Reynolds. While slavery has always been a thriving business, the sheer quantity of African-American slavery required more work to maintain as an institution. You needed someone to turn men into slaves. This work needed those who understood the underwriting of slavery and could counterbalance morons like Reynolds. And in Roots, that man is Ames.
The first mention of Ames establishes him as a foil to Reynolds: at one point Fiddler reasons that Reynolds’ care is what keeps slaves from running away, but Reynolds corrects him as Ames believes it’s “fear of the whip” that keeps them in line. Fiddler notes that Ames is a very different man then Reynolds.
Part of that difference we see is that he’s much more pragmatic than Reynolds: when Kunta is brought to the plantation, he recognizes that Reynolds shouldn’t entrust him with regular slave duties since he hasn’t been broken in. Whereas Reynolds has a much more fanciful relationship with the slaves due to his naivete, Ames is much more wary of them. What’s funny is that it isn’t due to racism, quite the opposite actually. Ames KNOWS blacks aren’t inherently inferior, which is why he cautions Reynolds during their debate to not underestimate them.
The film gives some backstory to explain Ames’ worldview: before becoming an overseer, he was an indentured servant for 7 years. Despite the common assumption that all slaves were of Afro-origin, there were several colonies that took slaves of Anglo-origin (Virginia, Massachusetts, Barbados, New York, just to name a few). Scotsmen like Ames were particularly easy targets as they were vastly poorer than other Englishmen and thus could be bought and sold without much recourse. Slave owners (and slaves themselves) often treated black slaves BETTER than white ones because they lacked the paternal relationship that whites built up with blacks (which led to the creation of the term ” white trash “). With all this in mind, it makes sense why he states to Reynolds that “slaves aren’t born, they’re made“, which makes his acts in the series all the more cruel.
In case you weren’t aware, Ames is responsible for the series most famous scene, where Kunta Kinte is beaten until he accepts his slave name. The episode builds to this moment earlier on, when Ames himself recognizes why Kunta won’t accept his new name. Reynolds and his brother believe that if Kunta is as smart as Ames says he is, he should be able to learn it, but Ames claims that BECAUSE he’s smart, he won’t accept his name. As a former slave, he recognizes that one of the first steps to becoming an inferior is giving up your identity. Oddly enough, Ames is one of the few characters (without even including other slaves) who recognizes the kind of man Kunta is.
Notice how different his manner of speaking is compared to guys like Reynolds and Lumbergh. Ames makes no attempt to hide “the reality of management coercion” and instead speaks to them with direct brutal assertion. Rather than employing defusing humor like Reynolds (“Then i wouldn’t take too much shoeing that horse if i were you“), he uses hostile innuendo: “If you don’t understand my meaning, i’ve got a dictionary at the butt end of this whip that’ll make my meaning clear .” He also, unlike Reynolds, knows when slaves are fucking with him, not accepting the excuses Fiddler gives for Kunta’s insubordination. Nor does he seem to fall for Kunta’s faux earnestness at the end of the scene (once again, in contrast to the later scene where he pulls the same act on Reynolds). Ames sees Kunta as an equal and therefore knows he has to be broken severely.
Most viewers would probably agree that Ames is one of the most despicable character in the series. That isn’t just due to his torture of Kunta, but also the fact that he’s perfectly aware of what he’s doing. ” Modern wisdom ” dictates that racism, and most of what results from it, is a result of ignorance. We see here that while ignorance does account for several actors, a sizable amount were just taking advantage of the opportunities of slavery. Working-class whites were able to get jobs that allowed them some power, which wasn’t possible without a slave workforce. The series even acknowledges that Africans themselves were the biggest suppliers of slaves.
For many, slavery was just an economical choice, not a racial one. As Ames himself points out, “I was a slave for 7 years and got my freedom, but in 7 years a nigger will still be black.” Blacks couldn’t reintegrate into society, making them the perfect engineered underclass. It just made SENSE to use them as slaves from a fiscal perspective. And as dark as that sounds, that’s how the horrors of black slavery began: with a fiscal decision. Ames represents the opportunistic spirit of slavery, which is what kept it alive for so long. Combined with the fanciful worldview of men like Reynolds’, American slavery became an institution that continues to weigh heavy on America.
For more posts on African American race relations: