Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
The following review was written by Dyana Daniels, a Chicago high school student, as part of Columbia College Chicago's Columbia Links journalism program for high school students. RogerEbert.com has partnered with the Chicago Urban League and Columbia Links to mentor these students and to give them a platform for their writing. Read more about the program here.
It has become common for politicians to admit that America’s justice system is flawed and needs to be changed. Few people understand the actual cost the prison system has on the people it incarcerates. The actors and the descendants of “Slavery by Another Name” skillfully show how terrifying losing one’s freedom is.
“Slavery by Another Name”debuted in 2012 and runs for 90 minutes. Samuel D. Pollard, the director of this historical documentary, may also be known for his work on “Eyes on the Prize” and “4 Little Girls.” Pollard has joined forces yet again with Sheila Curran Bernard, a writer that worked on “Eyes on the Prize,” to adapt the book written by Douglas A. Blackmon.
Though slavery as most Americans knew it ended with the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the ghost of this dark time still lives on. Historians and scholars argue that slavery is still alive thanks to the criminal system. According to the NAACP nationwide, African Americans represent 26 percent of juvenile arrests, 44 percent of youth detained, 46 percent of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58 percent of the youth admitted to state prisons (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice). “Slavery by Another Name” explains the history of African Americans after they were freed from slavery and the many obstacles they faced trying to maintain their new freedom.
The documentary “Slavery by Another Name” is enjoyable, but has its flaws. The film spans over eight decades starting from 1865. It does well when incorporating interviews with the descendants of the oppressed and convicted, but falls short when it comes to fully telling these people's stories.
Pollard's film also falls short when it comes to transitioning between the decades of hardships African Americans dealt with in the South at the hands of former slave owners and the tactics used by those in the North. As a result, the audience is left wondering what Northern states were doing to oppress then-free African Americans. The testimony from wealthy business men’s grandchildren during reenactment scenes seems limited and at times unbelievable. The testimony of the grandchildren of convicts and former slaves made their ancestors’ stories more believable. While the actors who played John Davis (Turron Kofi Alleyne) and Warren Reese (Tyler Hollinger) were convincing, a few actors seemed to lack the ability to display emotions. With the help of Laurence Fishburne as the narrator, the stories of the forgotten came to life.
This film speaks to the ignorance of some Americans when looking back at the history of this country. Early in the documentary, the great granddaughter of B.B. Comer mentions how she only heard of how successful her relative was, but she is devastated when she later learns the truth.
The testimonies of the granddaughters of former slave owners and "self-made" millionnaires due to the prison system during the 19th Century help and hinder the documentary. The need to reinforce the tragedies that occurred due to greedy business men who devalued their fellow human beings for profit is prominent in these women's speeches. On the other hand, the relative of B.B. Comer seems emotionless which makes her remorse unbelievable.
In the end, the cast of “Slavery by Another Name” helps to breathe life into non-famous persons in history to show why the problems talked about today have not entirely changed. The history beyond the movie further illuminates not just how far an oppressed people have come, but still how much further they have to go to obtain all that was promised to them.