The most sublimely awful set piece in the Amazon pilot Point of Honor is the scene in which the plantation family (the daughters with their hair virginally loose around their shoulders) hikes out to the slave quarters to announce they’re freeing their slaves. The slaves weep and embrace, “Amazing Grace” plays, and the white people beam beatifically from the fringes. It’s everything white America keeps insisting it doesn’t look for in a narrative about African-Americans, and everything it secretly still does. Look no further than the Selma controversies to see reactions to civil rights stories that don’t feature a central white progressive heroically helping things along. And Point of Honor is a reminder of why the white savior trope has gone way past unnecessary to become insulting.
In some respects, it’s more fruitful to examine the white savior trope in works with more nuance, to take note of how insidious that narrative can be. Brad Pitt’s character in 12 Years a Slave existed in Solomon Northup’s own account, and appears only briefly at the end of a story that immersed the audience in the inhumanly oppressive system of slavery in which helping your fellow man meant risking death. The fact that Pitt was still promoted as the star on international posters invites conversation about the prejudices of the international film market, the ways that character draws disproportionate attention to his screen time and actions, and the ways in which director Steve McQueen framed those scenes, staging their conversations like a medieval morality play and positioning Brad Pitt so that the sun earnestly anoints him – a commentary on the white savior trope itself.
But sometimes, the worst examples make the best examples, and that’s good news for Point of Honor, which has nothing else to recommend it. Despite its pedigree — it’s co-written by Lost‘s Carlton Cuse and The Patriot‘s Randall Wallace — it’s easily the worst of Amazon’s most recent slate of pilots. The direction (also by Wallace) is so haphazard as to feel accidental, though part of this is a budgetary problem; the awkwardness of battle scenes with 30 soldiers on each side can’t be entirely chalked up to camerawork. Those low-budget blessings are everywhere: dresses that look like Reign castoffs, a little “Clair de Lune” on the piano, frenzied chase scenes that seem looped through a suspiciously similar hundred-foot stretch of woods.
Alone, these would be minor issues; the usual hazards of mounting a long-form period piece on a TV-pilot budget. But even within the basic requirements of a pilot to present us with interesting characters in a situation compelling enough to revisit, it can’t pass muster. The Rhodes family at the Point of Honor plantation is anchored by three daughters, each defined by a single trait — Lorelei (Married a Yankee), Kate (Sternly Competent), and Estella (Visiting From 1996) — and their romantic and familial entanglements take up the lion’s share of the episode that isn’t filled with military posturing.
The premise that the Rhodes free their slaves suggests a series-deep twist on the well-worn antebellum tropes, and a shift in focus from the family in the big house to those owned by them. Instead, Point of Honor manages to sideline the very people the show’s own marketing twist trades on. At the first appearance of a slave, more than seven minutes into the episode, Kate brushes her aside with an airy, “Not now, Abby”; it’s more than ten minutes later that Abby utters a full sentence. (Her sister Phoebe’s being sold; Kate’s only reaction is to be offended that Phoebe speaks up in her own defense before Abby slaps her for taking the liberty.)
When the Rhodes lower their hair to free the slaves, the gathering of extras is only about a dozen strong, and even acknowledging a tight budget, a plantation required slaves in the hundreds — so gathering only a dozen is one of those casual misrepresentations that slowly begins to rewrite common perception of historical circumstance. After their emancipation, Phoebe’s dragged away to sale, a moment meant to evoke 12 Years a Slave hopelessness that instead feels like exactly what it is: a manufactured sliver of misery porn that hopes we’ll tune back in to see if those angelic Rhodes will do anything about it. (It’s made clear in the pilot that there’s not much any of those freed slaves can do.)
But Point of Honor’s carelessness is best illustrated by what they don’t show. Aside from that glimpse of Phoebe’s hardship and a brief slave-quarters discussion of running away that could be lifted from tourist demos at Colonial Williamsburg, we don’t hear much from the slaves at all. The dangers of freeing slaves amid war — and without any offer of aid except wages should they stay — should at least have provoked heated discussions in the slave quarters: of making plans for travel, of family living elsewhere, of wages saved up to emancipate a loved one, of anger at the timing of this freedom, of frustration that some might want to stay and continue working for the Rhodes when freedom’s finally theirs. Instead, we hear nothing from them again. The next time we see them is as a backdrop to Phoebe’s capture, and it seems most of the slaves have stayed put. Not that we’d know, but that’s the point — what they do doesn’t matter. They were grateful for their freedom (hats in hand), and now they’re quiet and helpful, and that’s all this show wants them to be. Cut to the big house where the belles are waiting in that warm Virginia sun.
At heart, Point of Honor is an unsettling combination of the white savior narrative with a narrative that’s simply white. Freed slaves dealing with their former owners amid the unease of war might seem like a new and much-needed look at the Civil War South, but it turns out to be nothing more than a cudgel of the Rhodes’ kindness. It’s a move both disingenuous and dangerous. The story of the slave-holding South is not that of the benevolent and kindly slave owner, and America should be far enough removed from that convenient fable to recognize its genteel poison when they see it.
Mainstream pop culture is still not past the point of needing a white savior — much of Selma‘s press (and the suspected engine behind its awards snubs) has been various levels of outrage that LBJ is presented as an ambivalent politician rather than a hero of the march. But Point of Honor opens with Kate’s voice-over saying, “My family lived in a magic time, believing that all we wanted or could ever want was ours for the asking. Then one spring day in 1861, our world exploded, and my life changed forever,” and wow, are we ever past that.