Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Review: The Abolitionists

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names shall never hurt me.”  It seems trite and silly to start this review of American Experience’s new documentary, “The Abolitionists” with a schoolyard chant, but it is somewhat appropriate to the task at hand.  Abolitionists not only had sticks and stones and bricks hurled at them, but were also called many names: radicals, agitators, trouble-makers, and nigger-lovers to name but a few.  So publicly reviled they were, that the word “abolitionist” itself became an epithet.  By standing up for the men and women in bondage who could not stand up for themselves, and sticking to the principal “that all men are born equal,” regardless of the risk to their lives and their personal reputations, the abolitionists lit the fuse which would smolder for thirty years and then explode into a war that would eventually set approximately four million American slaves free.

The three part documentary about the American abolitionist movement, “The Abolitionists,” follows the intertwining lives of a veritable who’s who of the abolitionist movement and features, among others: Angelina Grimké, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Brown.

Using dramatic recreations of events, still photographs, and interviews with historians Carol Berkin, David W. Blight, Lois Brown, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, R. Blakeslee Gilpin, Joan D. Hedrick, Tony Horwitz, Julie Roy Jeffrey, W. Caleb McDaniel, Manisha Sinha, John Stauffer and James Brewer Stewart, American Experience’s “The Abolitionists” vividly recreates and recounts the interwoven lives of its subjects, beginning in the 1820’s until the end of the Civil War, and details how they worked with and against each other to secure the eradication of slavery as an institution in the United States.

The film begins with Angelina Grimké, the South Carolinia socialite from a slave holding family, who viewed the evil of slavery not as a moral wrong perpetrated against the negro race, but as an offence against God.  Unable to make her voice heard, she moved to the north.  After her letter to William Lloyd Garrison was published in The Liberator she joined the abolitionist movement and became a passionate and persuasive public speaker against slavery.

The founder of the American Anti-slavery Society, William Lloyd Garrison, who was the lone voice behind the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, is most prominently featured in the documentary.  Published in Boston, Massachusetts, from January 1, 1831 until December 29, 1865, The Liberator was for many of its early years the sole beacon of the abolitionist movement.  In its first issue Garrison proclaimed in a column entitled To The Public, “I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – AND I WILL BE HEARD.”

Frederick Douglass escaped slavery and was convinced by Garrison to join the anti-slavery movement.  Rising from the chains of bondage he became a powerful abolitionist orator. Following the publication of his autobiography, A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he became the most prominent black man in America.  To evade capture by his former owner, Douglass fled to England and experienced for the first time life as a free man. When his manumission was secured Douglass returned to the United States and in 1847 founded his own anti-slavery newspaper, The North Star, causing a rift in his relationship with his mentor.

The title of the most influential book of the nineteenth century goes to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”  Moved to write the book by the tragic death of her young son, and the plight of slave families being torn apart, Stowe’s novel became a huge best seller which together with the many stage adaptations it inspired changed the hearts of many American’s be allowing them to vicariously see the evils of slavery through the eyes of its victims.

When pacifism failed to free the slaves, John Brown turned to violence, first in Kansas, where “Popular Sovereignty” erupted into a war between the pro and anti-slavery advocates who rushed into the state to guarantee its rightful place in the Union as either a Free or a Slave State.  And second in Brown’s failed raid on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Having been captured and hung, John Brown became a martyr for the Abolitionist cause.

Much of “The Abolitionists” uses dramatic recreations as part of its narrative story-telling, so I must recognize the five actors who breathed life into their historical counter parts: Richard Brooks (from the long-running NBC drama Law & Order) portrays Frederick Douglass; Neal Huff as William Lloyd Garrison, probably has the most screen in the film; Jeanine Serralles plays Angelina Grimké; Kate Lyn Sheil as Harriet Beecher Stowe; and T. Ryder Smith as John Brown.

Grimké, Garrison, Douglass, Stowe and Brown in their passion and their principals, with disregard for personal gain, and their lives in peril, proved that “right makes might,” and to that end they dared to do their duty as they understood it, and we are the better for it.

DVD, 1 Disk, Region 1, PBS, Not Rated. $24.99.  To purchase click HERE.

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