I have no idea what transaction(s) permitted the transformation of the 2000 French film Passage du milieu by Martinique-born Guy Deslauriers into the 2002 HBO English-language television version, The Middle Passage, but in the U.S. what is available on DVD isn’t the real film at all but the HBO-thing that’s being shown to schoolchildren as a history lesson about the transport of abducted Africans as part of the slave trade. What you see, presumably, is what Deslauriers and his cinematographer, Jacques Boumendil, shot; but what you hear is nearly nonstop cornball narration credited to Walter Mosley, no less. Credited with writing the original script, which may or may not be corny as well, are Claude Chonville and Patrick Chamoiseau. Call the U.S. bastard-version, for which even a new editor was hired, the undressed Devil in a blue voice.
Listening to the HBO version comes exceptionally close to being a worthless experience. Djimon Hounsou narrates, whereas Maka Kotto narrates the authentic version. In both cases, I presume, the narrator is the spirit of a dead African abductee accompanying the journey of the slave ship to the New World. Hopefully (though not necessarily), this “voice” of all abductees on all slave ships has more reasonable things to say in the authentic version.
Deslauriers creates a harrowing version of the ship’s dark, dank, filthy slave hold, into which the sweating men are crammed and routinely whipped as a ubiquitous rat scurries about—disgustingly, some feel; but I associated the rodent, with its illusion of freedom within confinement, with the spider in the prison cell of Byron’s “The Prisoner of Chillon.” It is hard to say which is more trenchant: with its strobe effect creating a visual grind, the boarding of slaves in closeup, the camera focused on their legs; in slow motion and long-shot, the chucking of dead slaves into the sea. However, it is in the hold that Deslauriers achieves brilliant shot after brilliant claustrophobic shot.
We do not hear—those who do not lose their lives in transport—the will-be slaves. Deslauriers treads a delicate line, marshaling dissociative techniques to show the dehumanization of these men without participating in the dehumanizing himself. This is why the narration is so important; along with flashbacks, it is this universal voice—the prisoners’ spirit, ironically—that encapsulates their humanity and thereby most decisively counteracts the dehumanization that the ship and its white European crew inflict on them. I hope that the narration in the authentic version is up to the task and doesn’t indulge in poetical excess and moronic sentimentality. When the voiceover ridicules “despicable” white music and predicts that descendants of these slaves will change the world with their own music, I groaned. One hopes that the original voiceover more perfectly complements the outstanding visuals of this must-see film in whatever form.
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.