Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Review of "The Abolitionists"

Last night I had the pleasure of finally sitting down to watch part one of "The Abolitionists," a new three-part documentary airing this month as part of PBS's The American Experience series. I suppose this documentary has been released at an opportune time, coming as it does on the heals of Lincoln and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. I thought I would offer a few thoughts on part one.

I'll begin with the content. The documentary begins its story in 1829 - and focuses its lens on five abolitionists: Angelina Grimké, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Brown. It seeks to show how these five individuals became leaders of the abolition movement in America. Part one introduces us to our main characters and attempts to explain how their own personal life stories led them to the abolition movement. It also discusses the rise of Immediatism and the American Anti-Slavery Society.

I thought the documentary did a nice job of showing how Angelina Grimké and others believed that the abolition movement was interconnected with struggles for womens' rights, and how the role women played in the American Anti-Slavery Society became a source of contention and discord. It also made strikingly clear the personal danger that abolitionists accepted as part of their fight, even in cities like Boston.

Part one ends around 1840 with the movement splintering over a number of issues. In addition to the role of women, many members of the American Anti-Slavery Society could not agree with the radical approach of Garrison and his followers. Garrison had denounced the U.S. Constitution and organized religion as complicit in the evils of the slave system, and urged abolitionists not to vote.

Overall, the content was engaging and well presented. Certainly, the abolition movement was bigger than five individuals, but I understand why writers Rob Rapley and Paul Taylor chose to limit the scope of their story. Another interesting choice made by Rapley (who also directs) was the use of dramatic reenactments. Generally speaking, I despise the use of historical recreations in documentaries - which I find more often used by The History Channel (or "History" or whatever it is called now), than by PBS's excellent American Experience series. In this particular case though, I did not mind the reenacments all that much. I often find that the quality of acting and dialog in these reenactments so poor that the scenes come off as ridiculously unbelievable. I did not find this the case in "The Abolitionists," The quality of the acting and the dialog was of sufficient quality to render the scenes fairly authentic. I was particularly impressed that they found an actor (T. Rider Smith) who had the eyes of John Brown.

In short, I thoroughly enjoyed the first part of the series. Part two will air on Tuesday. Or, if you are like me and do not have television at home, you can watch online on-demand starting on Wednesday.

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