If you’ve never heard of the old black-and-white movie “Way Down South,” I can tell you one reason why: it’s about the fall of a pre-Civil War slave-holding family in the Deep South— and it came out in 1939, the same year as “Gone with the Wind.” Yet, as we think about cinematic epics, this one-hour-and-fifteen-minute movie isn’t in the same category as that famous adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s 1940 novel. Part of me wants to call “Way Down South” a musical comedy, but that seems in really poor taste, given our modern understanding of slavery. Though it does contain musical numbers and it does end well (by 1930s standards), the film starts us off with yet another of those fictitious portrayals where the kindly master is much loved his happy slaves.
We begin at the great plantation Bayou Lovelle in southern Louisiana, where the slaves are just finishing up with harvesting the sugar cane. After a meeting with his sour and business-like lawyer Martin Dill, the felicitous master and his beaming son Timothy load up in the wagon, driven by the favored and much-trusted old house slave Uncle Caton. And when the young slave Gumbo slips onto the back of the carriage to tag along, he joins the smiling singalong as the group heads out in the fields to watch the slaves do their dance after the harvest! In what looks and sounds more like a jazz-infused Harlem Renaissance romp than anything else, the sound-stage full of supposed slaves feign their wild tune en masse as they jump and shout and even jive on the roof. All is well until the master’s horse gets excited, rearing back and killing him in an awful accident . . .
Because Timothy is too young to take over the plantation, the affairs are left to Dill, whose spendthrift manner exerts a much different influence than its master’s happy-go-lucky methods. In a gross historical discrepancy, the wide-eyed and ever-faithful Uncle Caton steps up and tries to correct the white lawyer’s mishandling of the place when Dill would have his new overseer whip a slave – something the master would never have done – so Uncle Caton is slated to be sold. The boy Timothy attempts to object, but Dill is not hearing it.
So Timothy only has one option: sneak Uncle Caton to New Orleans to catch a steam ship to the North, where he will live until Timothy can sort things out. Caton is dressed up as Timothy’s heavily veiled old aunt, who is deaf and dumb, and carried to the famed New Orleans inn, Papa Doudon’s, whose wily proprietor Mr. Bouton will help them— unknowingly at first.
Yet, the greedy villain Dill will not be outdone. Armed with his lawyer’s skills and a penchant for liquidating the lush plantation, Dill is on another mission too: he’s planning to marry a beautiful woman who makes it well known that she expects her man to have great wealth. When Dill comes to New Orleans, tempted into town by his lady friend and by Papa Doudon’s hundredth-anniversary celebration, Timothy and Caton have to flee back to Bayou Lovelle. All seems lost. Then it gets worse: Dill has decided to sell not only Caton but all of the slaves.
And who’d have thought that the answer to Timothy’s and Caton’s prayers would come in the form of a drunken judge with a gouty foot? Not long after the judge has signed off on Dill’s tightly concocted plan, congratulating him on his expertise, Timothy brings Bouton to appeal to the old glutton, whose inner goodness comes shining through just in time. With the help of Bouton’s smooth-talking charm, Dill is thwarted, Timothy’s birthright will not be sold out from under him . . . and the slaves will remain (happily) on Bayou Lovelle, where I’m sure they just can’t wait to chop more sugar cane in the southern Louisiana sun!
Co-written by Clarence Muse and famed poet Langston Hughes for RKO, “Way Down South” is interesting not for its performances or for its musical numbers, but because in the day of Jim Crow, its plot and conflicts touch on the moral issues of slavery. What happens when a new master will sell a trusted and faithful slave? To what lengths will a white slaveowner go to save a beloved slave? How did slaves feel about being sold off and split up? While this 1930s portrayal of slavery is far from raw or accurate, Muse and Hughes wanted these glimmers of enlightenment about the “peculiar institution” to show through. In Literary Adaptations in Black American Cinema, Barbara Tepa Lupack writes:
Way Down South was to have been a bold film [ . . . ] But the completed film fell far short of both writers’ expectations, that even the practice of slavery came off as fairly benign. (202)
However, to some minor extent, viewers in 1939 were asked to consider the realities of slavery. One of the early scenes in the film shows the anguish of all of the slaves when one of their own is whipped. Young Timothy has to grow up and overcome the social institutions that will take away his . . . should we call them “friends”? And as the slaves learn that they will all be sold, we see their fear, especially as they are separated – men, women and children – at the auction block.
“Way Down South” has a place within the tradition of race-related Deep Southern bildungsroman narratives. Timothy must come of age by dealing with the harsh realities of the slave system and what it means to his own life. The film came two decades before 1962’s “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and one decade before 1949’s “Intruder in the Dust,” and it makes its own points about white youngsters being able to recognize the humanity of the blacks around them. On the other hand, it is not a film adaptation of a Deep Southern novel, but a rift on shared ideas written by two socially conscious black writers. While the adaptations of Faulkner or Lee had their own kind of leeway, Hughes and Muse only got to make their points in smaller ways.
By modern standards, the handling of slavery in “Way Down South” is dated and insufficient. Yet, I watched it, keeping in mind the context of its era: 1939 was the end of the Depression, with Jim Crow still in full effect, but the Great Migration and the Depression’s biracial union organizing had changed things. We’re talking about twenty-four years after “Birth of a Nation” and twenty-three years before Scout Finch. As simulacrum, “Way Down South” straddles a fence, resting squarely between the mythic Southern past and the oncoming realities; it reinforced the “Lost Cause” myths of the idyllic plantation system while also humanizing black people in subtle ways.