Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Capsule Television Reviews: The Abolitionists

I am sure that many of you know by now that I am a PBS junkie and a documentary junkie. I watch a lot of PBS and I watch a lot of documentaries particularly on PBS.

Last evening I watched part one of the three part documentary The Abolitionists which made its debut on PBS last night. The Abolitionists tells the tale of the American abolitionist movement that, while it has precedents from the late eighteenth century, really became a force in American cultural, intellectual, and political life between the 1820s and the Civil War. The Abolitionists tells its tale of those who wanted an immediate end to slavery in America by focusing on five of its most prominent "members", Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Brown and Angelina Grimké. All five were, to use a metaphor, the large planets around which the anti-slavery movement, immediate and gradualist, revolved, and as such a focus on each of them allows the documentary to tell the broader tale of the immediate and the gradualist anti-slavery movements. The Abolitionists recounts it epic saga through the tried and sometimes true methods the history documentary--talking academic heads, photographs, newspapers, and, in The Abolitionists case, re-enactments.

Truth be told I am not much of a re-enactment sort of guy. But there is, as there was in PBS's wonderful six part God in America series from 2010, a lot to like in the re-enactments in The Abolitionists. There's so much to like, in fact, that, as I was watching, I couldn't help but think about how wonderful it would be if the makers of The Abolitionists had made a Downton Abbey style television epic called The Grimkes of Charleston. I can see it in my mind's eye now, The Grimkes of Charleston, an epic tale of love, honour, morality, immorality, human meanness, human compassion, and social and cultural change complete with action, adventure, beautiful stately homes, strong willed mothers, strong willed daughters, electra complexes, driven sons, wicked slave holders, horrid slave quarters, gorgeous costumes upstairs, romance, disappointment, back stabbing, seeking after power, edge of your seat escapes, and tragedy, a tragedy of such dimensions it has impacted the United States ever since. Move over Downton Abbey.

There was much to like about part one of The Abolitionists beyond its re-enactments and my dreams of it becoming an American dramatic and soapy television show. It was entertaining. It was informative. It was nice to see the filmmakers pay attention to the religious motivations of many of our five abolitionists all of whom, in some, way, shape, or form, were impacted by Quaker ideology and Quaker practise--the Quakers, after all, were the first group to outlaw slave holding among its members. The Abolitionists is well worth watching as are most of the documentaries on PBS whether they are part of the American Experience, as was the case here, Frontline, Independent Lens, Global Voices, POV, or America Reframed series. I can't wait to see more of Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown in the upcoming episodes. Highly recommended.

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