Hard to Cast: Marcus Mitchell stars in "Prince Among Slaves," which aired recently on PBS.
Prince Among Slaves, which aired in February on PBS as part of public television’s Black History Month programming, is the story of Abdul Rahman Ibrahima, an African prince who was captured by slave traders in 1788. He completed the Middle Passage in shackles, and ended up sold to a farmer of modest means in Natchez, Mississippi. Decades later, Rahman was discovered, gained his freedom, and toured the United States as a sought-after lecturer, before returning to live in the American settlement of former slaves in what is today Liberia. Rahman’s unique story was first told by the historian Terry Alford in his book Prince Among Slaves before being adapted into this film. With modest resources, directors Andrea Kalin and Bill Duke managed to recreate scenes set in Africa, aboard a slave ship, on a plantation and elsewhere. Kalin recently spoke with The Independent’s Mike Hofman about the complexity of telling a sweeping tale that is accurate, dramatic, affordable, and above all, believable.
How did you come to tell this particular story?
The story was first brought to me. The people at Unity Productions Foundation had seen my previous film Partners of the Heart, which is about the heart surgeons Vivien Thomas and Alfred Blaylock — one black, the other white, who collaborated on breakthroughs in cardiovascular surgery at a time when segregation would have made that seem impossible. They had been moved by the emotive quality of the historical recreations and the storyline of the film itself. And Bill and I had worked together previously on The Pact, about three African American students who made a deal in high school to avoid drugs and gangs and trouble and go to medical school. So anyway, they contacted me and I read Terry Alford’s book and I was completely moved by it. It’s stunning. And I could immediately see that there was a feature film quality to the story.
What possibilities did you see specifically?
There was a cinematic quality to the story. You have this prince who ends up enslaved. Then, 20 years later, in this speck of a city in Mississippi, he is recognized. What are the chances of that? And then another 20 years passes, and he is now a free man and Francis Scott Key and Henry Clay are circling around this person. He completed the Middle Passage in chains and he goes back to Africa on a first-class ticket courtesy of the U.S. government. It represents a complicated human story. It dispels myths about slavery, it touches on the experience of Muslims in Colonial America, and ultimately it is about one man’s endurance and his ability to transcend horrible events with his dignity intact. Everybody experiences misfortune, but here is a person who had an avalanche of it. So the question for me was, How do we make a documentary that lives up to the dramatic and powerful story threads.
What concerns did you have at the outset?
I think the test for a historical story is the weight of responsibility. Our challenges were to be as accurate as we could be, while still being evocative and entertaining. And to reach all ages.
How did you make sure you were being accurate?
Contemporary archival documents existed in Mississippi and in the Library of Congress. But it was as if a page of history had fallen out of the history books. When we sought out experts, scholars on African American history, to help us understand the story better, we found out that almost no one knew about this episode to begin with.
How much did the film cost to make?
We had a budget close to one million dollars, and most of it went to the scale and the scope of the recreations. We also had a pretty elaborate score pulled together and we even did some CGI.
So I would say that we did a lot with a little. It looks like a film with a much bigger budget than we had.
Where did the money come from?
We got a large grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and another grant from the National Black Programming Consortium.
I imagine historical recreations are complicated. Were yours?
Yes, in several different ways. I’m a documentary filmmaker, used to being on the street filming human interaction so for me the challenge of a recreation is multifold. Frankly, you want it to not look cheesy. And we had the added challenge that we were doing recreations of a number of different periods and places: an 18th Century civilization in Africa, the Middle Passage, a slave market in Mississippi in 1788, and then a Masonic Lodgein the mid-19th century. On any given two days of the schedule, we could be working on two different production shoots, and that were scenes wholly different.
And there were so many varying layers to each recreation. There was the cast, the costume wardrobe, and then the really important weight on all of us to keeping historically accurate. Scenes in Africa were meticulously researched. The prince’s wardrobe had to be accurate, epecially vis a vis the wardrobe for the extras who were his subjects. There were many fine nuances that we had to adapt to and understand.
How did you decide which scenes to recreate, and which to tell without an actual recreation?
Well, that was the challenge for us: to determine what the story line was and what scenes were essential to it. What scenes did we need to glue the story line together from a historical perspective? And what scenes did we need from a dramatic perspective? What would draw in audiences? And what scenes offered aesthetic opportunities? What scenes would be visually interesting and alluring? And what could we pull off? So the process of going through a book that’s dense with scenes and trying to figure out what we needed and wanted was intense and ongoing. Terry, the book’s author, was a tremendous help to us. We had a number of off-camera conversations with him as well as on camera, a three-hour interview with him, and that helped us to know the contours of the story as well as to get a sense of whether the scenes we wanted to film had the highest accuracy and integrity.
What sorts of scenes did you invent, and how did you satisfy yourselves that you were rendering them accurately?
Not every scene is documented historically of course. One of the best examples is the prince’s first night after he arrived in Mississippi. We knew how he thought — he wrote a journal. And we knew the setting. He was owned by a planter named Thomas Foster, and we knew Foster’s home was like. Foster also kept a journal, in which he wrote that he went to the market that particular day and bought a pair of gloves and two Africans, one of whom was Rahman. We thought it was important to recreate that Rahman had come to a reckoning. What was going through the prince’s mind that night, that first night in the slave shack? So we decided to show, from his point of view, a scene of Foster playing with his son, which would illustrate that the prince had left behind his family in Africa.
How many different locations did you use?
That was tricky, because scenes were set in such a wide variety of places — Boston, Mississippi, and even Africa. We ultimately shot the film in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, near the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River. There was a replica of an Indian village there and a former plantation that was preserved, and a court house that we could use, so it was a tremendously rich environment that would allow us to work without having to make a lot of huge location moves. Plus, it was only about two hours from our offices in Washington, D.C., which was good. We could marshall resources and get friends to help us more easily because it was nearby.
How long was the shoot?
We shot the film in 28 days, but over an 18-month period.
How big was the cast, all in?
Over a hundred f you include the extras — it was a mini-feature film set. Of course, all the hyphenated P.A.’s were also acting as grips and as extras. We were all doing multiple roles.
How did the prince’s character come together? Did you cast that role first?
Casting the prince was actually really hard. We had six casting sessions during which we saw a variety of men. Some of the reasons for rejecting people were almost funny — we actually had a hard time finding actors who weren’t very obviously tattooed, and I didn’t want one because I knew that would require a serious makeup job, and I wanted to avoid that if possible,
We came to New York to find Marcus Mitchell, who we cast as the prince. He was the first person who came in on that morning, and we thought instantly that it was everybody else’s responsibility to beat him, and noody could. He is striking in terms of his resemblance to the prince. He is tall at 6’3″ and the prince was tall.
When we put him up against the other actors, he had to look down on them. He had an innate regal dignified sense.. When we recreated the scene where he was first discovered in the marketplace, Marcus nailed it. It’s a hard scene because he has to show that on the one hand, he is a slave n the American South, but on the other had, his upbringing in Africa is such that he is royalty. He handled it well, capturing the emotion in his eyes with a very subtle facial gesture. His body language was great too.
How did he prepare for the role?
I asked him to keep a journal between the period when we cast him and when he showed up for the first shooting of the recreations I wanted him to consider scenarios and quieter moments. He had to cram everything in a short period of time.
There are some talking heads in the film, too.
We used a few quote-unquote talking heads. I think there are eight commentators altogether — Terry, a well-known black woman author, an imam, because the prince was Muslim — who are each on two times. I didn’t want to use them too much, because there was something so historically dramatic about the story itself that I only wanted to use them when they could really provide a revelation about the experience of slavery. At a few key moments, they were important to help us crystallize impressions or to provide some facts and data.
You also cast Mos Def as the film’s narrator. How did that come about?
He was our first choice, and the story resonated with him on a visceral level so we knew it was a great fit right away. I had worked with him on The Pact, and I actually brought the idea to Mos’s Mom. She said, “This is something I know that Dante would be really, really interested in.” The only snag was that we had to extend the timeline for production to accommodate his schedule, but he had a sustained interest and passion all along. And beyond his emotional connection to the project, we felt the sound of his voice was friendly— that general audiences of all ages could relate to it. It’s not the voice of God booming. It’s a little less imposing. It’s not necessarily friendlier, but its easier to connect to. We wanted the narrator to serve as a bridge between scenes, though we didn’t necessarily want for it to step out in front of the story. His has a gravitas and a graveliness to it. He has an aurally different tenor, a different cadence than Marcus Mitchell’s. The two voices balance each other out.
It’s impressive that there are so many historical looking ships in the film? Were they hard to find and film on?
We were creative. We found a replica of an 18th Century schooner on the Chesapeake Bay and we actually bartered with the owners — we filmed aerial footage of the ship for them for their marketing materials, and in return they agreed to knock down their day rate. Then we used that one ship in two wholly different ways, as two ships from two different eras — first, the ship that brings the prince to America from Africa as part of the Middle Passage, and then we dressed it differently so that it could also serve as the ship, 40 years later, that he sails back to Africa on.
What was the hardest part about the shoot itself?
We were right in the middle of a major heat wave. The week after we filmed, it was pleasant and in the 60s, but while we were filming, it was bordering on 100 degrees every day. So the animals overheated, the talent overheated… We were sometimes working in tick-infested fields, and we were beaten up and eaten up by the insects. But the shoot itself went remarkably smoothly considering the small size of the company and the large, ambitious schedule we had committed to. We got very good at doing things quickly and efficiently.
You mentioned before that you utilized CGI. In what way?
CGI is generally well above the means of a documentary like this one, but I had a friend doing graphic work in New Zealand — she had moved there and was basically teaching herself about CGI. And she played with a few effects for me, and it really elevated the technical quality of the film in a way we could not afford. For example, in one scene, the prince enters a printing shop, and we found an exhibit in a museum of a colonial printing shop that would work. But there was no exterior. So we used CGI to make it look as if the prince was coming in from the outside. We also used CGI to put a mosque in between some trees in one of the scenes in Africa. And in the scene where the prince meets the woman who would become his wife, he picks up some dirt. But the dirt was so dry that it looked like sand falling out of his hands and, in test screenings, people asked whether he was on a beach during that scene. They were confused about where he was. So we were able to use CGI to make the dirt darker so that it actually looked like soil. It was a subtle thing, but it really added to the believability of the scene.
The film boasts a pretty powerful ending. How did that come about?
That’s why filming took as long as it did. We came up with the idea of inviting the prince’s descendants to Natchez to the very plantation where he was enslaved. And 35 of them came, and it was the perfect coda to the film.
Watch the film’s trailer.
Read “Budgeting for Archival Footage”, an article from 2005.
Visit the film’s official website.