Thursday, January 17, 2019

Victoria L. Harrison's "Fight Like a Tiger"

Victoria L. Harrison is an instructor in the department of historical studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She has published essays in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society and Ohio Valley History.

Here Harrison dreamcasts an adaptation of her new book, Fight Like a Tiger: Conway Barbour and the Challenges of the Black Middle Class in Nineteenth-Century America:
This is a fun exercise! First, the basics. Fight Like a Tiger follows the life of an ambitious former slave, Conway Barbour, and his adventures in search of upward mobility in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. The book argues that the idea of a black middle class traced its origins to the free black population of mid-century and developed alongside the idea of a white middle class. Barbour’s story, across four decades and several states, epitomizes that development.

He was something of a rascal, often willing to color outside the lines to reach his goals. As the story takes place across decades, (and cost is not an issue here) we might need younger and older versions of some of the main players. Donald Glover would be terrific as Barbour’s younger self; I have always envisioned Denzel Washington as an older Barbour. Charming and rather untrustworthy fills the bill.

Lupita Nyong'o would be perfect as Barbour’s first wife, Cornelia, a former slave herself. Alfre Woodard would be her older self. Frances, Barbour’s second wife, (Did I mention he was a bigamist?) was younger than Cornelia and born free. I am thinking Zoe Soldana (young) and Viola Davis (older). In an ahistorical but dramaturgically cool twist in the movie, Cornelia gets her revenge on Barbour in Chicot County, Arkansas, at the end of the film. Between the two women, Barbour fathered fifteen children, so there is ample room for cameos of the next generation of African American actors.

Like most successful free blacks in the nineteenth century, Barbour attached himself to white benefactors like Henry Basse, who financed Barbour’s businesses in Alton, Ill., (Tom Hanks) and Arkansas Governor Powell Clayton (Matthew McConaughey), who helped put Barbour in the state legislature.

Barbour’s nemesis in the legislature was a black conservative, Ed Fulton (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) His rival for political dominance in Chicot County, Arkansas, was James W. Mason (Shemar Moore). In fact, it was Mason – the son of Arkansas’s largest antebellum slaveholder – who was most responsible for frustrating Barbour’s ambitions.

I would put Ridley Scott at the helm. So, what do you think? Any takers?
Learn more about Fight Like a Tiger at the Southern Illinois University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue