Born a prince, Ibrahima Abdul Rahman was captured by African tribal rivals and sold into slavery at age 26. It was 1788, and the United States’ expanding plantation system had made the market exceedingly lucrative. Even as Abdul Rahman had been raised to lead men — he was commanding some 2,000 of them at the time he was ambushed — he found himself shackled and loaded onto a ship, the Africa, en route from Timbuktu to a “new world.”
Beginning with this harrowing experience, Prince Among Slaves establishes its focus — on the contrast between slavery, as barbaric idea and industry, and one individual’s integrity and strength of will. Directed by Bill Duke and billed as a documentary, the film includes sentimental scoring, melodramatic reenactments (Rahman is played by Ian Coblyn as a child and later, Marcus Mitchell), along with sober narration by Mos Def and a range of talking heads. These experts range from Rahman’s biographer Terry Alford and the late novelist Bebe Moore Campbell to historian David S. Dreyer and Islamic scholar Hamza Yusuf Hanson. Each speaks too briefly (at times the film feels like a Cliff’s Notes version of Rahman’s life), but together they tell a story whose general parameters are more familiar than the specifics, the story of a black man ripped from his home, declared property, and forced to labor for his life.
As Rahman recalls (in narration culled from diaries and letters), he labored hard for Colonel Thomas Foster (Bruce Holmes) over 40 years. As historian Adam Hochschild notes, “More than one third of people on earth were in slavery or servitude of one kind or another,” but that hardly made the experience “normal.” Rather, as underscored by etchings of men in restraints and torturous machinery, the “system” was utterly cruel and chaotic (and, as Zaid Shakir asserts, the U.S. version was “exponentially more brutal than what was known in African society”). It’s not a little ironic that Rahman, fluent in multiple languages, including Arabic, is purchased with another “Brute Negro” by Foster, an illiterate, first-time cotton farmer, for 930 pesos. As Michael Gomez explains, the process is both physically and psychologically odious: “What you are doing is removing the identity of an individual, the person is now chattel, someone who is owned.” Rahman’s new status is documented, he’s renamed “Prince,” and his long hair, “sign of his nobility,” is cut off.
On the plantation in Natchez, Mississippi, Rahman laments the loss of his wife and young son, and eventually comes to realize that he will never return home. Though he runs away early in his tenure with Foster, he returns, unable to find a way to survive on his own. With experience raising cotton back in Africa, Rahman helps the farm make money in its first year, and “rewarded” by being made an overseer for other slaves Foster is now able to buy, with his profits.
Among these, Rahman meets Isabella (Dawn Ursula), whom Foster allows him to marry (this in a ceremony the film uses to point out that she was a Christian and he remained a committed Muslim throughout his life). “In Isabella,” says Bebe Moore Campbell, “I see a woman, though, bereft of most things, retain the ability to chose who she loved and who she wanted to be with. I can’t minimize the force of her personal will and dynamism in their attraction to one another.” This may be so, but the film leaves Isabella’s dynamism — her desires and her struggles — off screen, using her instead as a means to indicate her husband’s virility (they have nine children) and admirable devotion to his family.
The film, unfortunately cut from 90 minutes to an hour for TV, focuses tightly on Rahman’s experiences, abbreviating his relationship with Isabella and omitting contexts, like the shifting cotton industry, the rising resistance to slavery, especially outside the South. Rahman is remarkably and briefly reunited with Dr. John Coates Cox (Wilson White), a man whose life Rahman’s father saved in Timbuktu, and impresses a local printer, Andrew Marschalk (Jon C. Bailey), with his multi-lingual literacy, both incidents leading to some publicity. This in turn leads to an intervention by the Secretary of State Henry Clay, who writes a letter I the name of President John Quincy Adams recommending that the “Moorish slave now in the possession of Mr. Thomas Foster” be restored to “his family and country, for the purpose of making favorable impressions on behalf of the United States.” That this recommendation is premised on a mistake (assuming Rahman is Moroccan because he writes in Arabic) only underlines the ignorance that typifies the slave-owners and the “democratic” system that supports their business and beliefs.
Prince Among Slaves never loses sight of this nightmare of illogic and economics, though it doesn’t exactly illuminate it either. While the point is made that slave-owners didn’t like to free their property (“It undermined the whole system, it undermined the whole economy, it undermined their moral justification of slavery”), the movie doesn’t detail how it worked or how it was challenged (in what the narration calls “the deepening split in the country”), even in 1828, Rahman left Foster’s Field for good.
Repeatedly, the movie does show that Rahman manipulated those who made assumptions concerning his background and aspirations, letting one supporter believe he was Christian and even willing to “export Christianity” to Africa by translating the Bible into Arabic. Shakir notes, “This was a man who has a lot of faith and is committed to his principles, but he knows how to get what he wants from this system.” With such revelations, the film achieves its most compelling ends, suggesting at least some of the many ways that slaves — princes and not — found to intervene in that system.