The Abolitionists: An ‘American Experience’ on PBS

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The sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation’s signing is one reason to look back at the uphill battle of the movement to end slavery in the United States, and Steven Spielberg’s hit film “Lincoln” is another.


But in fact, the movement’s significance to our history, both in the 19th century and well into modern times, makes it a worthy subject for the three-part “American Experience” documentary launching Tuesday on PBS.


“The Abolitionists,” written and directed by Rob Rapley, is a barely adequate documentary blending archival images with minimally convincing re-enactments. Fortunately, the content outweighs the weakness of the filmmaking itself.


Rapley’s film focuses on several key members of the abolitionist movement, including author Harriet Beecher Stowe, radical activist John Brown, former slave Frederick Douglass, South Carolina belle Angelina Grimké, who broke with her slave-owning family, and William Lloyd Garrison, who created the anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, as a platform for his deeply held views.


From the first days of the new republic, slavery was a complicated and complicating practice. A recent opinion piece in the New York Times vilified Thomas Jefferson for being a lifelong slave-owner. Fellow Virginian George Washington, however, freed his slaves.


By 1820, there were some 2 million slaves in the United States and slavery itself was known as “the peculiar institution.” As the abolition movement grew as a human rights battle, it became not just about slavery, but about race as well. However, no matter how many people were drawn into its ranks over the decades, eradication of slavery ran up against an even more powerful cultural opponent – economics – and not just in the South, but in the North as well. This wouldn’t be the last time a national debate centered on human rights versus economics.


The abolitionist movement was both organized, through the American Anti-Slavery Society, and unrelenting. Yet its leaders often disagreed on the best method to rid the nation of slavery. Garrison advocated peace and persuasion, or, as Brown termed it, “milk and water abolitionism.” Brown, the leader of the raid on Harper’s Ferry, was motivated by the murder of an abolitionist in Illinois to believe that the end of slavery could only be achieved through bloodshed.


Setbacks to the movement such as the Great Compromise and the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, as well as the Supreme Court’s decision on the Dred Scott Case that Congress could not outlaw slavery, radicalized even Garrison at one point to question his otherwise steadfast belief in peace and persuasion. Over time, he came to believe the entire nation needed to start over, that the first republic, as it was known, had to die to create that “more perfect union” Lincoln would cite in his most famous speech.


Of course, Lincoln plays a significant role in the film, but not in the way many viewers might expect. Henry Louis Gates Jr. has said there was a time that Lincoln’s portrait was often the only image of a white man you would find in the homes of African Americans.


But Lincoln did not start out as an abolitionist. In fact, he tried at first to placate the South on the issue of slavery to head off the Civil War and met with African American clergy in a failed attempt to convince them to lead their people out of the country to new colonies. He even proposed allowing slavery to continue for another 40 years if the South surrendered.


Rapley’s film does a decent job in slicing through the mythology of the abolitionist movement to show how much its leaders both worked together and disagreed while still keeping a collective eye on the prize. It also disabuses us of the notion that Lincoln was the great white hope of the abolitionist movement from the get-go. That isn’t to say he shouldn’t be viewed as a hero, only that, like much of the nation, his views on slavery had to “evolve,” as a more recent president referred to his own views on a different rights issue.


Rapley’s film is watchable and informative, but the re-enactments come up short. He’s employed experienced actors to play Garrison, Brown and the others, but because scenes rarely feel very believable, they don’t contribute as much to the film as the archival photographs and other historical images. Of the actors, only Richard Brooks (“Law & Order,” “Firefly”) as Douglass manages to overcome the phoniness of the settings for the re-enactments. Sorry, but this feels often like “History-Channel-lite.”


The film also includes a good deal of commentary from various modern-day historians, but their contributions often seem merely to repeat the information provided in Oliver Platt’s narration or in the hokey re-enactments. What’s largely missing from the commentary, especially given the fact that it’s a three-hour documentary, is how the abolitionist movement may have impacted our history as a nation and a society beyond the Civil War. Slavery may have been eradicated, but the debate about race continues to this day. And its roots can be found in the abolitionist movement.


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