Edisto Island, South Carolina
1804

 

The atmosphere above decks and beyond the ship at pier is one of manicured gentility. Townsfolk stroll the bayside street... their destination, for the most part, church... their outfits freshly laundered... faces scrubbed, hair combed, suits pressed, starched petticoats rustling in a breeze that suddenly shifts, impugns the nostrils with an overpowering odor, ushers handkerchiefs to the rescue. Footsteps quicken, paths divert, as furtive glances cast suspicion toward the staunch, three-masted vessel moored and waiting, with its Captain, to unload.

 

Harbor Master

But it's the Sabbath, man. Broad daylight. Show some sense. Request denied.

 

The Captain scowls, his lips compressed in livid consternation.

 

Captain Crowe

Hypocrites all.

 

He clears his throat, ejecting frothy phlegm in the port official's wake, while eying passersby with ill-disguised contempt, a bristling malice that bespeaks a man indifferent to beau monde; polite society is a useless affectation. 'Time is money,' Crowe bespeaks; he is loathe to to squander either.

 

The soundtrack swells. (An odd convention, in the cinema, is 'euphonious accompaniment'—albeit this score is discordant and ominously dark.) The orchestration ebbs.

 

Alistair Lathrop

Excuse me, sir. I'd have a word?

 

The man who hails our pale-faced Captain  (Crowe's complexion is analogous to the belly of a capsized fish) repairs to the dock, one hand extended in an ungloved show of deference, with the other (like his motive?) sight-unseen. The two converse.

 

While, further off, a younger version of the man conducting business looks disgruntled. Due to what? It is the Lord's day, after all, a day of rest, a day of worship, inappropriate for finagling—though the charge his stern look levels goes unvoiced.

 

The music fades, its dissonance giving way to calls from ravenous seagulls, crows, and ravens, perched like mastheads on the pilings. Their commotion seems contrived, an evil harbinger of the fate in store for those within its earshot, a cacophony of scavengers...

 

... now upstaged by a parish choir, as we attend, with father and son united, the Sunday morning service. Hats removed, heads bowed in reverence, voices lift to sing God's praise, exalt a deity whose indifference toward the heathens moored without is reinforced by those within giving thanks for being saved.

 

The hymn resounds... its echo carried to the harbor. Boats, at anchor, calmly idle. Picturesque, the scene betrays no hint of angst—beyond the stench that hallelujahs, though they blare, cannot disguise.

 

 

CAUSE CÉLÈBRE: About the film, for those who haven't seen it, what's the basic plot?

 

VJ: Well, first and foremost it's about slavery—the "peculiar institution." Don't you love it; how refined that sounds compared to what it is—or rather was amongst the Southern belles, mint juleps, and antebellum fairytales? Our movie tries to tell the truth about this miser who owns some land and who refuses to pay the going rate for labor. So he opts for captive workers—bought, he hopes, without the middleman—and to that end sends his namesake overseas. But the son has grave misgivings about requisitioning human beings; sonny-boy's religious. More importantly, he's a thoroughly decent fellow. Of course, that's Graham's role; Barnaby Lathrop. I play Beatrice—maiden name Jillo. We meet later. I'm the second wife of an entrepreneurial chief who strikes a deal, a sort of Devil's bargain, once action shifts to Africa—where we filmed to keep down costs, they told us. Ha! But I digress. So Barnaby finds himself aboard ship with this character Captain Crowe, who's like an old hand at the slave trade. Takes our fledgling under wing and they set sail for the Gulf of Guinea—or wherever; it's un-specific—Graham, as Barnaby, all excited, pangs of conscience put on hold, as he embarks upon his 'bounding-main' adventure.

 

Canvas swells. We hear it flap, as a spanking wind, endowed with awe-inspiring power, huffs and puffs the billowed mainsail into crescent shape. Zooming out we see the ship with masts like toothpicks in comparison to the scale, minute against a backdrop of Atlantic-Ocean boundlessness. Clouds, likewise enormous, crown a sky that knows no borders, nor vapor trails save those of migratory birds. The gray sea churns, undulates like leviathans under one communal blanket; depths, unfathomed, rise and fall, the waves anointing crew and craft, the salted sea dispersing crystals like the residue from sweat.

 

Barnaby tacks. His untried sea legs buckle lamely as he angles toward the forecastle (having fled his puke-anointed berth), his face a sickly green. His frock coat dribbles at the hem from being soaked by mist and spray while seeking respite from his nausea, braving wind, now buckshot hail. Until inclemency drives him off the bridge, escorting him below to serve full term in what his guts now label Purgatory. Underneath lies Hell. He clambers down, past bulging cargo bins, and into the empty hold. Though swabbed and scoured, it still smells rank as if some cloying scum still clings to a chamber cavernous—timbers curved—like an excavated ribcage.

 

We hear low reverberation of a former anguish, hauntingly. Barnaby shuts it out. Occluded by his fists, the din subsides. He drops his guard. He strikes a match. Instead of easing the oppression, light intensifies the gloom—through which we faintly see the vessel's Spartan hold... capacious... mute.

 

The high seas' tumult notwithstanding, eerie silence reigns within, as if to focus our attention on an unobtrusive pulse beat. Is it Barnaby's? No; he hears it, too; head cocked, he holds his breath and tries to ascertain its disembodied source. Another phantom? He is ill, perhaps delirious, which explains these premonitions of a crime to which he soon will play accomplice.

 

Alistair Lathrop

Ease your scruples, son. God meant for Man to utilize lowly creatures. If the Darkies weren't disposable, they'd be White.

 

These words intrude. Their self-assuredness stirs distrust in him whose sensibilities differ—if not radically, then at least in terms of sponsoring some reforms. Installing kerosene lamps, for example, was young Barnaby's innovation. Charged with bringing home a work detail of hale and hearty specimens, he initiated changes—over Captain Crowe's objection...

 

Captain Crowe

Spare the rod and spoil the nigger. Let the strong, alone, survive.

 

A cache of aptly hostile savages, wrought iron shackles notwithstanding, put the ship at constant risk of being overrun. 

 

Captain Crowe

Give them light, if you insist, but speak no more of slaves unfettered.

 

Could discomforts, then, be remedied without jeopardy to the crew?

 

Barnaby Lathrop

Compassion for the wretched is a mandate from Our Lord. Quoth He, "The least of us is worthy of God's Grace."

 

The pulse persists, its muffled throb arousing fear, as well as tense anticipation, while the lamplight leads our search to find its origin (aided and abetted by an all-pervasive soundtrack growing louder, softer, louder in conjunction with proximity to the forceful, feeble, forceful heartbeat) reinforced by thuds...

 

... by shouts...

 

... by drums apace with chanting, as the cries of former captives add their voices to the din. Then total silence... Rapt attention grips the nerves of Barnaby Lathrop as he comes upon a corpse—its own umbilical cord the noose by which it has been throttled.

 

Shocked, he reels! The lack of air, the listing ship, the pungent reek of putrefaction, overwhelm his swooning senses.

 

When he wakes, the sea is still, his cabin tidied, breakfast set beside the headboard of his bunk, no telltale traces of the disconcerting... nightmare?

 

Barnaby Lathrop

No. 'Twas real. And she who slew her tiny infant did so moved by mother's mercy in the face of Satan's infamy. God grant peace to them, and us, as well as guidance, "Now, and at the hour of our death. Amen."

 

 

CAUSE CÉLÈBRE: A graphic scene that I confess I don't remember; was it cut?

 

VJ: You bet your ass it was. Infanticide? Doesn't "play," as they say, "in Peoria. "

 

{Well, that's MY contention, anyway; others disagreed. Graham, UNtrue to form, refused to comment.}

 

That scene was tough, had LOTS of technicalities, several camera angles, not much space to work with; it was getting late. And then our prop man hustled in—the cat who swallowed the canary—in a rush to dress the set without a word. I signaled Graham, but he ignored me; he was busy with some blocking, walking through it in his head; you know, rehearsing till his cue? They called for "places." "Take twelve." "Action." Graham was on; I mean, E-LECTRIC! There's a phrase we use in theater: "when the ghost walks"; comes from Shakespeare. What it means is, a performance leaps from 'okay' to 'superb.' Graham was SUPERB; he had us riveted—those just hanging out, like me, and those behind the lenses shooting every detail, every nuance, knowing full well takes with so much oomph are far and few between. And then they tracked to where the doll was stashed—no breaks, all cameras rolling, with a zoom on Graham's expression as he found the strangled newborn; plainly horrorstruck. Almost too traumatic. Graham was supposed to faint. Instead he held it. One beat. Two beats. It was brutal. Absolutely grim. And then he passed out. They yelled "cut"; "it's a wrap." Graham rose and fled the set. While we just stood there, sort of stunned. I mean, impressed as hell, but baffled. Till a techie muttered "gross" and we all bunched around the spot where not a doll but the real McCoy lay—yes, a flesh-and-blood cadaver—that our property master "borrowed," with the help of an ER flunky, from a hospital where some mother on crack had aborted

 

CAUSE CÉLÈBRE: What! And you used that in the movie?

 

VJ: Yes and no. I mean, we did. Except, eventually it remained on the cutting room floor. It was argued Barnaby's change-of-heart worked best if made more gradual. In a way, I saw their point.

 

{But, in another way, they copped out, meaning knuckled under to the Ratings Board. "Self"-censorship; what a farce.}

 

We shot that sequence at some rinky-dink Newark sound stage—gratis if we worked throughout the night.

 

{It was dawn when I caught up to Grahamstock-still in the next-door alleyway. He was weeping. Made no sound, but tears were POURING down his facewhich almost choked me up, as well. I sat beside him. He ignored me. For a while I thought he'd fallen into some deep-dark funk or trance. And then he mumbled something. God knows what; the language wasn't English. But the phrase was long and clear enough to seem like it made sense; like 'speaking in tongues' was how it sounded. Nary a clue to what it meant. And Graham would offer NO translation, after he snapped out of it. This was in New Jersey, bear in mind; Cameroon still lay ahead, where 'rational' explanations were endangered species.}

 

 

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