The elephant in the (Hollywood) living room

June 19, 2006 | By | Reply More

In the days of the Hollywood studio system, films were classified as “A” or “B” pictures: the former were the studio’s prestige projects, the latter generally shorter and produced cheaply and quickly. Ironically, sometimes “B” pictures are more interesting today because they were less subject to studio control (due to their lesser prestige and expense): a clever director or producer could fly under the studio radar, so to speak, and include material that would never have been allowed into an “A” picture. 

A good example is the work of the producer Val Lewton, who declined the opportunity to produce “A” pictures for RKO in order to preserve his creative freedom.
Think for a moment: of all the Hollywood movies you have you seen which were set in the Caribbean, Latin America or the United States, how many acknowledged the role slavery played in the historical development and current social conditions of that country? Probably not many, but the topic was included in the 1943 “B” picture,  Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943). In this, Lewton was ahead of his time, and perhaps ahead of our time also.

I Walked with a Zombie (1943) is a retelling of Jane Eyre set on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian. The story concerns Betsy Connell (Frances Dee), a young Canadian nurse who has taken a job on Saint Sebastian to care for the wife of a wealthy planter named Paul Holland (Tom Conway), who has lost her mind. The coachman who brings Betsy from her ship to the plantation does not hesitate to tell her of the historical relationship between the Hollands and the Black people (including himself) of Saint Sebastian:

“Holland’s a most old family, miss.  They brought the colored folks to the island.” He later refers to:

“. . .the enormous boat brought the Long Ago Fathers and the Long Ago Mothers of us all, chained to the bottom of the boat.”

He’s polite enough to not add “to work as slaves to create the wealth which the Holland family enjoys to this day” even though it is

obviously true. This isn’t a didactic picture, and the coachman is not delivering a speech: instead, he is a resident of Saint Sebastian, tipping off a newcomer about something every else on the island already knows.  The film’s central symbol is a ship’s figurehead statue of St. Sebastian run through with arrows, also referred to as “Ti-Misery” (“Little Misery”).  As Holland explains to Betsy:

“… it was once the figurehead of a slave ship.  That’s where our people came from.  From the misery and pain of slavery. “

Holland also explains the island custom of crying when a child is born, which seems peculiar to Betsy, as a heritage of slavery:

“For generations they found life a burden. That’s why they still weep when a child is born — and make merry at a burial.”

The Hollands are a leading family of the island, but they are also cursed,  and Mrs. Holland’s illness is the symbol of their decay. The source of that curse is the heritage of slavery: it made them rich, but also corrupted them and cut them off from other people By the end of the film the depths of Holland family’s corruption is revealed, and two of them are dead, one murdered by an arrow pulled from the Saint Sebastian statue.


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Category: Culture, Films

About the Author ()

I'm a biostatistician for BJC HealthCare and an adjunct professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO. In my spare time, I'm a musician, work on several kdhx-tv shows and write on various topics.

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