“Burn!” Was produced in the late 1960’s and directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. There are several themes in this film that distinguish it from others related to slavery. Pontecorvo weaves together a struggle for freedom, the last throes of the colonialist era with a highly critical appraisal of Capitalism. The story of this film was both captivating and emotional. Pontecorvo did an excellent job in making the viewer feel the pains of slavery, and the privileges of colonial white men. “Burn!” also provided a damning critique of the contemporary economic system. Unfortunately, Pontecorvo’s gross misunderstanding of Capitalism and his inherent racism is on display throughout the film.
In an attempt to display the racism of the British capitalist agent “William Walker” and other colonialists, Pontecorvo unwittingly and repetitively displayed his own racism. After Walker arrives at the fictional island of “Quiemada” he finds out that the leader of the slave rebellion he had been sent to provide aid has been executed. Lacking a rebellion to incite, Walker intends to return home. While being questioned as to why he must leave, Walker refers to the lack of self –respect that the slaves have. He insists that the slaves are “defeated” and lacking of any self-respect, thus inciting an uprising would be hopeless. In an attempt to demonstrate this to a fellow English man, Walker throws a few bits of money into the street as a group of slaves are passing by. Forget the fact that slaves have no use for currency, the chaos that erupts in the brawl for this small bit of money unmistakably portrays the blacks as a lesser race that were willing to fight each other for next to nothing. After one particularly agile slave manages to get hold of a coin, Walker instantly demands the money be returned to him and the slave complies without question. Walker uses this moment to explain to his colleague that these slaves were not able to challenge a white man on their own, whether intellectually or emotionally. Initially it seems that this scene was to highlight the racism of William Walker, but the conclusion reached is never refuted in the film. The blacks on Quiemada in “Burn!” were never portrayed as fully able humans equal to their European colonizers. Pontecorvo was attempting to show how the white colonialists were taking advantage of the slaves, but instead he revealed his own personal view of what he must see as “lesser races”.
“… it is now completely clear to me that he, as is proved by his cranial formation and his hair, descends from the Negroes from Egypt, assuming that his mother or grandmother had not interbred with a nigger. Now this union of Judaism and Germanism with a basic Negro substance must produce a peculiar product. The obtrusiveness of the fellow is also nigger like.” – Karl Marx (July 1862)
Pontecorvo’s racism is on display again towards the end of the film. The provisional government of Quiemada felt it politically beneficial to provide bread to a starving mob of former slaves on a nearby beach. When the truckload of bread is wheeled in and uncovered, the benevolent white men asked the slaves to remain orderly and wait in line for their portion. Perhaps Pontecorvo himself did not think it would be realistic for such “savages” to be able to wait in line orderly, and thus a “bread riot” immediately ensues. Is it possible that Pontecorvo did not think it would be realistic for these slaves to behave themselves any better than children?
Yet another demonstration of Pontecorvo’s inherent racism is apparent after the rebel General Jose Dolores gains control in what could be called the “Constitutional Convention” of Quiemada. After months of Dolores being unable to suggest anything, it appears as if he cannot even think for himself. Pontecorvo makes it clear that he does not feel the “lesser races” are able to achieve “White Civilization” on their own. To suggest difficulty in the process would be expected, but Pontecorvo has Dolores fail entirely and simply walk away.
CAPITALISM AND SOCIALISM
Gillo Pontecorvo is progressive Socialist, and his critique of the contemporary economic system was very astute. Many argue that the film “Burn!” is critical of Capitalism, and Pontecorvo would most likely agree. This is a mistake, and it is a mistake made very often by critics of the modern economic system. To demonstrate this we must (loosely) define Capitalism. Capitalism understood classically is simply the aggregate of a free market in which individual private property rights are respected by the rule of law. Now we must define Capitalism as Pontecorvo expressed it. The most glaring inconsistency occurs when William Walker returns to the island of Quiemada ten years after the original revolution. The creole government had taken control and was attempting to put down another rebellion, led by a former slave Jose Dolores. Their complaints were based on a contract that the creole government signed with a British sugar exporting corporation. Because of this contract, the wealth of the island was being extracted in spite of the fact that the “freed” slaves were still doing all the productive work. Pontecorvo rightly highlighted the injustice and exploitation represented by this contract, but he wrongly attributes it to Capitalism. In a truly free market in which private property rights are respected and protected by the government, there is no legal means for a nationalization of any industry. In a truly capitalistic economy, the government could not use force to require any laborers to sell their products to any particular company or government.
Pontecorvo is right to indict a system that so unjustly exploits so many people, but he misplaces the blame. In order to more truthfully, and more effectually portray these injustices a much larger focus on government intervention into the economy is necessary. In a conversation between creole officials, they ask whether or not there would be a “Jose Dolores” if it was not for the sugar company. The more relevant question is “If Jose Dolores and the remainder of the islanders had been given the freedom that capitalism demands, would there have been a rebellion at all?”.
– the Humane Condition