Steal Away: Runaway Slaves on the Silver Screen

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 8:50 AM
Salon 7 (Palmer House Hilton)
Ellen Scott, University of California, Los Angeles
The American screen's image of slavery has been largely defined by Classical Hollywood’s southern plantation myth, one that suggested the ultimate contentment of slaves and their need for paternalistic white care. Missing largely from the screen and from most scholarly discussions of slavery onscreen is the runaway slave and the urban destinations to which she often moved. Extending from a larger project examining the history of the image of American slavery on screen, this paper traces the genealogy of the runaway slave on the Hollywood and independent screen from the silent era to the early Civil Rights movement, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939), to films like Frank Yerby's The Saracen Blade (1954). The paper highlights the various scenarios and narrative tropes that ensnare the runaway’s image in white-authored cinematic texts and those moments of emergence when the history of flight and resistance to slavery is revealed. What does the figure of the runaway reveal about American (and African American) conceptualizations of Black freedoms—freedoms taken not given? Using archival research, the paper examines the repression and revelation of the runaway’s image in Classical Hollywood and in the American imaginary. The history of screen images provides an under-explored archive of slavery’s historical and ideological imaginary—especially when the censored images are considered alongside those actually produced. This archive unseats and revises the fixed image of the African American slave, demonstrating the possibility of Black movement as a centering energy of the antebellum era. With the advent of the onscreen runaway, not only is American slavery put in its place as an institution against which Black subjects properly rebelled but American viewers are caused to initiate a difficult conversation about the shape and scope of Black freedom.