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Roots - Captain Davies and “Girl on Ship”

by Matt Delmont

While everyone agreed that the recreation of the slave ship’s voyage made for frighteningly realistic television, none of the Roots production team gave much thought to what shooting this scene would mean for the black performers involved. The case of Rebecca Bess is the most glaring example in this regard. Credited as “girl on ship,” Bess appears near the end of the first episode as an enslaved woman delivered to Captain Davies’s room as a “bellywarmer.” In the scene the sixteen-year-old Bess, who had never acted professionally, stares with terror at Asner’s character, her arms covering her bare breasts. While Captain Davies says he “does not approve of fornication,” it is implied that he rapes the young girl, signaling that this Christian character has too been debased by the slave trade. The next day (at the start of the second episode of the series), the young girl (still topless) climbs the rigging of the ship and jumps into the ocean to drown. In a series structured around the will of Haley’s ancestors to survive, Bess’s “girl on ship” stands out as the only character to choose death over the horrors of slavery. Bess came to Roots via Eddie Smith, a local black stunt coordinator in Savannah. She received $187 for diving from the ship into the ocean, which she had to do twice because the camera failed on the first shot. Bess did not know how to swim, so the stunt coordinator gave her lessons in the pool at the Ramada Inn where the cast was staying. Director David Greene recalled that Bess was eager to earn the money to help her parents because her mother was in the hospital. Audiences described watching Roots as a physically and emotionally wrenching experience, but creating these realistic representations of slavery often came at the expense of black performers.

Roots - Captain Davies and “Girl on Ship”

by Matt Delmont

While everyone agreed that the recreation of the slave ship’s voyage made for frighteningly realistic television, none of the Roots production team gave much thought to what shooting this scene would mean for the black performers involved. The case of Rebecca Bess is the most glaring example in this regard. Credited as “girl on ship,” Bess appears near the end of the first episode as an enslaved woman delivered to Captain Davies’s room as a “bellywarmer.” In the scene the sixteen-year-old Bess, who had never acted professionally, stares with terror at Asner’s character, her arms covering her bare breasts. While Captain Davies says he “does not approve of fornication,” it is implied that he rapes the young girl, signaling that this Christian character has too been debased by the slave trade. The next day (at the start of the second episode of the series), the young girl (still topless) climbs the rigging of the ship and jumps into the ocean to drown. In a series structured around the will of Haley’s ancestors to survive, Bess’s “girl on ship” stands out as the only character to choose death over the horrors of slavery. Bess came to Roots via Eddie Smith, a local black stunt coordinator in Savannah. She received $187 for diving from the ship into the ocean, which she had to do twice because the camera failed on the first shot. Bess did not know how to swim, so the stunt coordinator gave her lessons in the pool at the Ramada Inn where the cast was staying. Director David Greene recalled that Bess was eager to earn the money to help her parents because her mother was in the hospital. Audiences described watching Roots as a physically and emotionally wrenching experience, but creating these realistic representations of slavery often came at the expense of black performers.

Roots - Captain Davies and “Girl on Ship”

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Scene from Roots featuring Captain Davies (played by Ed Asner) and an enslaved women (played by Rebecca Bess)

from Roots (1977)
Creator: ABC/David Wolper Productions
Distributor: ABC
Posted by Matt Delmont
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