From the Film and Media column in the April 1999 Perspectives

Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery: A Review

Peter Kolchin, April 1999

Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery, a four-part documentary that originally aired on PBS in October 1998, traces the history of African Americans from the early colonial era through the Civil War. (Episodes include, "The Terrible Transformation, "Revolution," "Brotherly Love," and "Judgment Day." Produced and directed by Orlando Bagwell, Susan Bellows, W. Noland Walker, Jacquie Jones, and Llewellyn Smith for WGBH Boston; written by Steve Fayer. 1998; color; 360 minutes.)

Although free blacks receive considerable attention, the main focus is on enslaved blacks and on their struggle to cope with and overcome slavery. Throughout, the film offers powerful reminders both of slavery's oppressiveness and of black resilience.

A documentary film on slavery inevitably faces serious obstacles that, simply put, raise the question of whether film is the best medium for exploring the subject. Because there are no film clips (or even, until the peculiar institution's last years, photographs) of slaves, a documentary on slavery must be fundamentally different from one on the Cold War or the civil rights movement. Of course, all film derives its power from its visual effect; the medium is in general less suited for analytical discourse than those that depend on the written word. But in narrating the history of "ordinary" people in the premovies era, this problem is accentuated by the absence of any actual footage. In short, it is by no means clear what should be shown.

Africans in America solves this problem by showing a variety of different images that, pieced together, present a sturdy mosaic of endurance under suffering. There are still shots of paintings and landscapes; moving shots of rippling water and fields of wheat; occasional re-enactments of dramatic events; and interviews with 35 "talking heads," mostly historians (those who appear most frequently are Margaret Washington, David Blight, and Norrece T. Jones Jr.) but also public figures (Colin Powell) and writers (Chinua Achebe). When possible, the series focuses on the activities of prominent historical individuals—a very small number in the first two episodes, which deal with an era for which few records of black individuals survive, more in the last two. Meanwhile, Angela Bassett narrates the series in an appropriately solemn voice, while Bernice Johnson Reagon provides a plaintive musical score that features the barely audible theme, "Your country, how can it be yours? Before the pilgrims landed, we were here." All of this works, but cannot provide the same kind of thrill that is possible in a documentary on recent history; there is no substitute for hearing Martin Luther King deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech or seeing Jackie Robinson steal home.

Taken together, the four episodes of Africans in America have some notable strengths. They bring the history of slavery and blacks in America to the attention of a far larger audience than the printed word can reach, and do so without any glaring inaccuracies. (There are a number of minor inaccuracies that are not likely to bother anyone except historians; for example, the narrator asserts that the Missouri Compromise drew a line across the United States separating slavery from freedom, without mentioning that the 1820 law applied only to federal territory acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase.) The episodes make good use of the 35 talking heads, many of whom are leading experts on the history of slavery or African Americans. The focus on individuals serves to "humanize" the past and provides a convenient way of organizing an enormous body of historical material that threatens at times to spin out of control. Especially good, I think, is the use in episode one of Anthony Johnson, an African who became a black planter on Maryland's eastern shore, to drive home the slow growth of slavery in the 17th-century Chesapeake and the existence of race relations that were substantially less rigid than those that later developed; subsequent events, the viewer learns, were "not foreordained."

Perhaps the greatest strength of the series lies in its relentless pursuit of two interrelated themes. On the one hand, it graphically depicts the cruelty and horror of slavery, and the concomitant callousness displayed by white Americans (including some traditional American heroes). From the terrors of the slave trade (with the obligatory quotations from Olaudah Equiano), the savage punishments imposed on new slaves to compel obedience and deter flight, and Thomas Jefferson's crude analogy between the supposed preference of black men for white women and that of orangutans for black women, to the appalling mortality rates on lowcountry estates, the breakup of families in the domestic slave trade, and the emergence of a more virulent strain of racism (North and South) in the antebellum years, the four episodes continually return to the brutality and inhumanity with which whites treated blacks. The cumulative effect is chilling.

On the other hand, the series reveals African Americans as far more than passive victims of white oppression, men and women who struggled to make the best of the admittedly grim circumstances in which they found themselves and thereby helped shape their own world. Through attention to free black farmers in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake, Revolutionary-era poet Phillis Wheatley, such religious leaders as African Methodist Episcopal Church founder Richard Allen, and radical abolitionists from David Walker to Frederick Douglass, the documentary drives home the determination of African Americans to escape from their thralldom and build flourishing free communities. Attention to slave resistance, from Harriet Jacobs's remarkable escape after hiding seven years in her free grandmother's tiny attic to conspiracies and revolts led by Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner, have a similar impact on the viewer. In interweaving these twin themes of oppression and resistance, Africans in America incorporates one of the central messages of two generations of historical scholarship on slavery.

Despite these very real strengths, the series also suffers from five limitations that I believe render it less than a total success. First, it is episodic, jumping quite abruptly from one subject to another rather than building a sustained narrative. Many viewers will be puzzled over why particular individuals or events are introduced and then dropped, and over how they relate to preceding and subsequent individuals and events. Better transitions would help, but so too would an approach that organized the episodes more around basic questions rather than appearing to throw discrete pieces of information at the viewer. Too often, things simply happen—the colonists protest the imposition of new taxes, the Constitution prevents abolition of slave imports for 20 years, northern states abolish slavery—without any explanation. Ironically, the leisurely pace at which the series moves, with its frequent pauses while the camera surveys landscapes or water, seems to exacerbate rather than mitigate its episodic quality, because there is little time to develop explanations or arguments. Simply put, I would guess that the four 90-minute episodes contain about as much information as two fast-paced, well-organized lectures of 60 minutes each.

The series' episodic quality and organizational weaknesses are most dramatically clear at the end of the fourth episode (which differs from the other three in focusing less on slavery or the lives of African Americans and more on the struggle over slavery). After dealing at considerable length with the Compromise of 1850, the controversy surrounding the return of fugitive slave Anthony Burns, the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the struggle over Kansas, the Dred Scott decision, indebted Georgia planter Pierce Butler's sale of 429 slaves, and John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, the narrative suddenly lurches forward at a frenzied pace, devoting a total of six minutes to the secession crisis, the outbreak of war, black soldiers, the Emancipation Proclamation, and enactment of three new constitutional amendments (whose substance remains undisclosed). It is hard to know quite how to explain the character of this episode's (and the series') final minutes, but it appears as if the moviemakers suddenly discovered that they had used up 84 minutes but still had lots of material to cover, and rather than bothering to engage in tedious re-editing, they decided to race to the end, cramming in as much of what remained to cover as possible.

A second way in which Africans in America is limited has to do with its lack of balance. The series stresses certain important themes—oppression and cruelty, community, resistance—while virtually ignoring others. There is little on slave families, folklore, demography, or work patterns; the viewer does not come across such basics as the distinction between gang and task labor. The documentary pays a lot of attention to abolitionists (both black and white), but has little to say about proslavery ideologues and their use of ingenious arguments—including those based on the Bible—to defend slavery, perhaps because those arguments seem so bizarre to late 20th-century Americans. The result of not taking the masters or their arguments seriously is to open up a kind of self-satisfied moral gap between "us"and "them"—how could they have held people in bondage when we know better?—rather than explain slavery as a cruel set of social relations made possible by particular historical conditions. The sense of contingency established in the first half of the first episode is quickly lost.

Closely related to this lack of balance is a third limitation: lack of context. Although viewers hear that slavery existed elsewhere in the New World, they receive little information on the ways in which American slavery resembled and differed from slavery elsewhere. They do not learn, for example, that the natural population growth of slaves in the United States was highly unusual, perhaps because such information might at first glance seem to raise questions about the harsh conditions endured by American slaves and would therefore necessitate a lengthy discussion of the reasons that American slaves were generally healthier than those in the Caribbean or Brazil. This is a striking example of how film—at least as presented here—is a medium that has difficulty accommodating analysis. Nor do viewers learn much about the many ways in which slavery varied within the United States, whether according to region, crop grown, size of slaveholding unit, whim of owner, or occupation of slave. One would never know from this documentary that recent historians have spent a great deal of time exploring the diversity and complexity of American slavery.

Indeed—and here is a fourth limitation—Africans in America in many ways expresses a 1970s understanding of slavery. This is evident not only in its romanticized celebration of black culture and black communal solidarity—a theme especially evident in the third episode ("Brotherly Love")—but also in its inattention to some significant new subjects that historians have explored more recently. In contrast to the scholarship of the 1970s, for example, which typically stressed the cultural roots of slave autonomy, many historians of the 1990s have seen an economic basis for this autonomy; these historians have explored the "internal economy" under which slaves grew their "own" produce on their "own" land, bought and sold goods, and even inherited property. Historians disagree over the prevalence of this internal economyof the resulting autonomy as well—but viewers of Africans in America remain totally in the dark about the subject.

That this is so suggests a fifth limitation: the makers of this documentary make no effort to reveal where and how historians have disagreed about slavery, or how our understanding of the subject has changed over time. They present their story as a factual narrative rather than as an exploration of an ongoing investigation. As a result, they miss an opportunity to show the public what the study of history is all about, how historians interpret—and debate one another's interpretations of—the past.

The study of slavery, as much as of any other subject in recent times, has generated enormous excitement; I would have liked to see a documentary such as this one do a better job of catching this sense of excitement. It might, for example, have shown historians working with documents, discussed how the exploration of previously little-used black autobiographies and interviews revolutionized the interpretation of slavery, and examined archaeological evidence as a source of information about slavery. Such an approach would have enabled the series to give viewers a better idea of what it is that historians actually do while also indicating the extent to which history is debated and re-created rather than simply being told. It also would have given the moviemakers something to put on the screen aside from pictures, landscapes, and talking heads.

Still, on balance, Africans in America must be judged positively because it exposes millions of Americans to a central theme in American history, forces them to confront a painful past of which too many are ignorant, and does so without perpetuating gross inaccuracies. It will not fully satisfy most historians—certainly not most historians of slavery—but specialists are rarely satisfied with efforts to "popularize" their fields of study and the public at large is unlikely to be troubled by (or even aware of) the kinds of concerns I have raised. Perhaps, ultimately, this documentary's limitations are less important than its strengths—if, as it informs viewers about an important but unfamiliar part of the American past, it piques their interest in the history of African Americans and slavery, it will have served a very useful function.

—Peter Kolchin teaches at the University of Delaware.